When One is in Hell
An article published on my book in ‘The Indian Express’.
Full text is given below:
Why Pakistan’s transformation to democracy has been a bumpy ride
Name: Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition
Author: Raza Rumi
Pages: 356 pages
Price: Rs 499
“I should like to know,” asked the Old Woman, maid to Cunegonde, one of the central characters in Voltaire’s great satire, Candide, published in 1759, “which is worse: be ravished a hundred times by pirates, and have a buttock cut off, and run the gauntlet of the Bulgarians, and be flogged and hanged in an auto-da-fe, and be dissected, and have to row in a galley— in short, to undergo all the miseries we have each of us suffered — or simply to sit here and do nothing.” “That is,” Candide, the hero, replied, “a hard question.”
A dogged optimism is woven through journalist Raza Rumi’s sparkling collection of essays — a condition Voltaire defined as “a mania for saying things are well when one is in hell”. Written between 2008 and 2013, years which saw the restoration of democracy in Pakistan after General Pervez Musharraf’s dystopian regime, to the first-ever constitutional transfer of power to a civilian government in 2013, the essays map the highs and lows of the journey.
In the earlier essays, a triumph of hope is evident. In an experiment with the use of cellphones in rural Punjab, Rumi discerns a provincial government “whose leadership is responsive to the citizens’ concerns”. He finds the current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif “a changed man”. For Pakistan’s television stations — “powerful agent of change at a time when we had almost given up hope” — he predicts “a glorious future”.
Following the 26/11 attacks, thus, Rumi counsels restraint: an Indian military response, he argues, would undermine Pakistan’s fragile democratic renaissance, in the long term, damaging any hope of a durable peace.
In New Delhi, this argument carried considerable weight: democracy, it was argued, was the best hope of bringing about the kinds of structural transformations that would facilitate India-Pakistan peace. Early in 2013, Rumi wrote that “the unprecedented consensus on peace is acknowledged by the neighbour but not fully appreciated for its historic nature”.
That turnaround, Rumi ruefully acknowledges in a post-script, was less historic than he believed. Since 2014, he writes, Pakistan has seen “a virtual coup — a post-modern version — where the military is back in the driving seat. Media freedoms, he points out, have been curtailed; terrorists targeting Afghanistan and India still operate freely. Poignantly, Rumi himself was forced to leave the country in 2014, after surviving an assassination attempt.
Less optimistic observers might have asked why President Asif Ali Zardari, who came to office promising to transform the relationship, proved unable to push his recalcitrant generals forward on the Kashmir compromise General Musharraf had envisioned, but could not deliver on. Sharif fared no better.
There are, sadly, deep reasons for democracy not striking roots in Pakistan. First, and perhaps most important, the military’s praetorian role has choked the organic growth and transformative possibilities of politics. There is no Pakistani Mayawati or Nitish Kumar, speaking for new aspirations; indeed, as the work of the scholar Ayesha Siddiqa underscores, violent Islamists have acquired legitimacy as anti-establishment utopians.
Secondly, there is no politically significant national bourgeois, nor indeed large capital, pressing for change. Traditional traders, and the chauvinist culture they emerge from, enjoy disproportionate political influence in India; in Pakistan, the influence of modernising new élites is negligible.
Finally, there is the question of culture. Liberalism is not, as Indians confronting Hindutva and other forms of chauvinist identity politics are painfully discovering, a self-evident virtue. In India, liberalism might yet survive because majoritarian communalism can provide no solutions to the problems of a rapidly-modernising, heterogeneous society for which tradition can no longer provide solutions. In Pakistan, though, communal majoritarianism has won a decisive triumph.
Like many liberals in Pakistan, Rumi seeks to salvage from a national project some elements for hope: it is, as one of Candide’s characters observes, “the only way of making life bearable”. The lesson from this collection of essays, though, is that hope offers neither a way forward, nor even insight.