The Illegitimate Messiah Syndrome

Many Pakistanis are still not prepared to develop the patience required to see democracy through its early, evolutionary stages – especially difficult stages as a result of the violence done to it by military dictatorship after military dictatorship. They still look for and believe in personalities, not for a sustainable and equitable system. Many will tell you that the only cause for all of Pakistan’s woes is “humain aaj tak koi ddhang ka  leader nahin mila (we never found a decent leader)”. The observation is correct. But the way we have gone about finding a decent leader has been completely wrong.

A number of Pakistani and even Indian readers may not agree with parts of Steve Coll’s relatively short write-up below. But that is not hugely relevant to the main reason it is being reproduced here. The point that it is meant to highlight is that countries do not necessarily need larger than life heroes to lead them out of trouble. Equally importantly, democracy does not necessarily and need not produce such a perfect specimen. Dull, dreary but adequate will do. The system, if strong, will take care of the rest. Statecraft is not really a one-man job. Democracy is the least bad way of ensuring that, more often than not, the whole might just be greater than the sum of its parts.

Manmohan Singh

By Steve Coll    The New Yorker, November 24, 2009

The Indian Prime Minister, who appeared at a joint press conference with President Obama today and who will be fêted at Obama’s first state dinner tonight, is not likely to leave much of an impression on the American public. A few may take passing note of his preference for powder-blue turbans. Otherwise, this Sikh economist and Congress Party technocrat with a sonorous but self-effacing voice normally conducts himself in a way designed not to attract too much attention. Politically, he has been the product of a democratic system in India—and particularly, its ungainly Congress coalitions—that tends to reward consensus builders. Then, too, a democracy as pluralistic and relatively crisis-free as India’s is not the sort of system that will produce outsized leaders, for good or ill—a quality that reflects India’s political and constitutional health.

Singh’s low profile is misleading in important respects, however. His counterparts in the rising Hindu-nationalist movement have made more noise and been more proactive in reshaping post-Cold War Indian politics, but Singh has outlasted them all and will be remembered as a seminal figure of India’s transition from socialism and Soviet-leaning nonalignment to managed capitalism and rising power status. He has in many ways been an indispensable figure in India’s recent transitions. As finance minister during the late, sclerotic socialist period, he quietly helped steer the treasury through various close fiscal calls. He defied political convention and called for India to fight off its anti-colonial hangover, recognize the accumulating failure of its state-run economy, and embrace the opportunities of post-Cold War global trade. During the nineteen-nineties, when the Hindu nationalists rose to power, in large part because of their appeal to the country’s emerging urban business classes, Singh helped hold a fragmenting Congress leadership together, in service of Rajiv Gandhi’s Italian-born widow, Sonia, who embraced the Sikh economist as her political partner. When the Hindu nationalists finally ran out of steam, Singh steered Congress back into power, first in unwieldy alliance with leftist parties, and now, finally, in possession of a solid majority.

It was Singh, more than any individual in India, who was prepared to invest his political career in the pursuit of a transformational peace with Pakistan. It was Singh, after the Mumbai attacks, which came on the cusp of national elections, who had the courage to campaign for reëlection on a platform of steely restraint—and who was rewarded by Indian voters. His record may not stand with the great political figures of our age—Mandela, Gorbachev. In his own country’s history, he certainly does not rank with the Gandhis and Nehrus. Yet he is one of those neglected, careful, seemingly incorruptible, admirable figures that [united] India’s independence movement and democracy have managed to produce regularly.


The Pakistani Experience

Indians, Pakistanis and others come up with all sorts of differences between the two countries in order to explain their increasingly divergent trajectories along the road to stability and, lately, prosperity. To many Indians Pakistan is the country of religious zealots created by the treacherously communal Mohammed Ali Jinnah. To many others Jinnah was simply communal, and the question of treachery did not arise since, according to them, he played no part in India’s independence movement. Both these views have now been ably and successfully countered and discredited by a number of leading scholars.

Emphasis has been added to key parts of the last two lines of Mr Coll’s article to show two important aspects of India and Pakistan. The one about Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi is the common aspect. However, in Pakistan soon after Jinnah died of natural causes at age 72, constitutionalism and rule of law were murdered in their infancy. What followed was a series of self-appointed messiahs with no legitimate right to rule.

The still-born democracy of Pakistan from the time of Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination is ultimately the only critical difference between the two countries. Almost none of the other differences are as acute, of course always allowing for differences in size and demography. This is a brief investigation into the critical reason for the disproportionate disparity, not lack of equality. Otherwise both countries have had their share of poverty, even of violence. In India they call it communalism and it has tended to manifest itself in short and intense occasional outbursts of senseless violence. In Pakistan, on the other hand, we call it sectarianism and it has been an ongoing, low-intensity war.

It is this critical difference, of the presence of a more than rudimentary system of rule of law in India that allows some hope that the chief organisers and the occasional high-placed aiders and abetters of such violence might be brought to justice one day. At least there isn’t the case of a dictator like Musharraf arbitrarily letting Ahmed Tariq (founder of Sipah Sahaba) out of prison just so that Musharaf’s own man could be Prime Minister. The Indian judicial system may be inefficient, even incompetent, at places, but it is not without a large degree of freedom and credible levels of fairness. Most importantly, India’s democracy, with all its flaws, offers hope looking to the future.

Perhaps the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the legacies of that war have also been a burden not experienced by our eastern neighbour. But, again, it’s a burden made a thousand times worse by the dictatorship at that time.

In Pakistan, almost 60 years of arbitrary rule of one form or another, punctuated with short, abortive periods of controlled democracy, have never allowed an appreciation of either the reality of politics and of politicians in general, or of the importance and utility of a strong system over ‘great and good’ men of absolute power. A large number of people believe in discriminating between good and bad leaders and not necessarily between legitimate and illegitimate power. It seems that hardly any one is able to appreciate or prepared to accept that as long as there is rule of law and a reasonably robust system of checks and balances, even (suspected) crooks amongst politicians and leaders will do. There is not enough of a realisation that allowing the arbitrary power of a strongman to destroy the system in the irrational hope that he might turn out to be the long-awaited saviour is gambling of the most reckless kind. That it’s suicidal to the extent that it is tantamount to putting aside getting on with all the practical issues, responsibilities and requirements of life and betting on and waiting for a miracle to take care of things instead.


Democracy, however, is a more complete system than just the law and is neither created overnight nor is it sustained without constant effort and vigilance. Even during the Lawyers’ Movement, while there was some realisation of both the importance and fundamentals of rule of law, a lot of the hype around it amounted to expecting miracles from the judicial system. There was little realisation that an independent judiciary is only one part of the rule of law structure that underpins the democratic system. It may be rather basic to know that the judiciary cannot do the executive’s job, nor that of an empowered Parliament. But what an education democracy is and how it teaches people what cannot be taught at schools or universities (or at adult education classes), is best understood by noticing its absence in societies which have not experienced much democracy.

Yet Pakistan has seen a bit more democracy than many other countries plagued by long periods of, or ongoing, dictatorship. It has the requisite, and ideal, two mainstream political parties. As for as the ability to wisely use the vote is concerned, even illiterate villagers know exactly what is good or bad for them, at the local level at least. Equally important is the fact that literacy is no pre-requisite to learning from the ongoing experience of democracy. Our newly free and mushrooming electronic media is going through its own difficulties and steep learning curve. Given the current levels of talent and professionalism, it will take a while to climb the curve.

At least there is a degree of freedom to the extent that media has a clout in national affairs now that it had never had before. The media is free to be of as poor a quality as it wishes to be. It can be shamelessly unprofessional. But ultimately they are in the business of selling what sells. Any salesperson worth her salt knows that you cannot sell anything if you do not have credibility. If they sell conspiracy theories it is because of the lack of transparency in the affairs of state and government. For a people used to being irrelevant and kept out of the picture, conspiracy is what makes sense of all that just does not add up, by ‘filling’ both the huge information and credibility gaps.

This piecemeal experience of bits and parts of democracy has ensured two things. One Pakistanis have never really been able to whole-heartedly accept dictatorship. Every dictator has had to claim that they were but a temporary interlude, only there to ensure and bring about ‘true’ democracy. Democratic voices have never been completely silenced even during the most repressive periods of dictatorship. This consistent struggle has ensured a reasonably involved and ongoing introspection about the identity and shape the state of Pakistan has taken over time. 9/11 stimulated a marked accelaration of this process of introspection. In the face of intensifying terrorism, the introspection reached fever pitch. It perhaps has come to a point where it is difficult to sustain the stress and anxiety levels and conspiracy theories are yet again embraced for mere comfort. Once again, they help make sense of what is seems so senselessly mad. Yet, on February 18, 2008, the people of Pakistan braved the bombs and suicide attacks in order to exercise their democratic right. The increased vulnerability meant casting the vote was a symbolic means of reassuring ourselves that we still had control over our destiny, a right denied to us for almost 10 years.

How much difference does the mere fact of being asked for your vote every five years make to a common citizen’s sense of belonging and her self-worth, is something that Pakistan’s (urban) poor only realised in the country’s first ever general election based on universal franchise. Even after 39 years, the PPP continues to receive the poor and working classes’ gratitude for giving them the feeling that they too count. That feeling returns every time there is an election, at least for a few days. But who said democracy could fix things, let alone itself, overnight.

The brief piece on Dr Manmohan Singh, incidentally of Sargodha (now Pakistan), was just to remind readers that merely adequately competent leaders, not necessarily giants of history, with incompetent pygmies in between, might do fine as long as the system of democracy is allowed to keep evolving in its usual two steps forward one step back manner (sometimes one and a half steps back). That the system is sustained, strengthened and protected by as many as(only and merely) humanly possible with honesty, diligence and, if necessary, sacrifice. All it needs is for everybody to simply stick to their constitutional role and make an honest effort to carry out their responsibilities legally and to the best of their ability. The latter part is no more than most of us ordinary citizens do everyday. Why can’t those who have taken a solemn oath to do so do the same? Ultimately, a free competition of self-interest, cunning and plotting will do little harm as long as the law is not allowed to be flouted and force or threat of force is not tolerated. Especially not by those in uniform and whose power derives from the barrel of their standard issue weapon.

– Posted by BC

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