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Democracy And Development: Why Pakistan Democratic Movement Matters?

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Economists Shahram Azhar and Danish Khan respond to the critiques of PDM articulated by pro-establishment and Leftist circles and argue that civilian supremacy and the sovereignty of elected representatives is not an ‘elitist’ issue. Any form of progressive politics needs to engage with the emerging alliance of civilian political forces.

Regardless of one’s political persuasions, there is little doubt that within the span of a few weeks the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), and Nawaz Sharif in particular, has radically transformed the country’s political discourse. While some sympathetic observers are understandably stunned by, and as a result fixated on, PDM’s challenge to the boundaries of ‘permissible’ discourse — what can and cannot be said, who can and cannot be named — as political economists we look at the matter from a slightly different lens, specifically, the vantage point of ‘development’. In this short piece, we argue that the central contribution of the PDM is to give political voice to, and make visible, a fundamental chasm in the structure of Pakistan’s political economy that systematically retards and impedes the country’s economic development: the disjuncture between de jure power (i.e. forms of power that the Constitution declares legitimate) and de facto power (i.e. forms of power that actually prevail).

We explain why this mismatch exists, why it is ultimately responsible for ‘underdevelopment’ in Pakistan, how it explains the country’s dismal performance compared to other economies in the region, and why supporting the PDM is a crucial first step in reversing this trajectory. We seek to present the case for why every citizen concerned with the promise of economic development — poverty-reduction, universal access to healthcare and education, well-paying jobs, infrastructural development, etc.— must support the charter of the PDM and push the movement to fulfil the promises of this charter to the fullest.

We respond to the two most frequently cited reasons brought forth by critics of the PDM and supporters of the status quo for rejecting this charter, as well as those presented by some well-meaning, but skeptical progressive and liberal voices.

First, what do we mean by ‘development’ and how is it connected to the distribution of power in a country? We understand development as a process, specifically the process that leads to an “expansion in human freedoms and capabilities”[1]. In other words, the state of human development is not just about the sum total of wealth in a country (which is of course, a necessary but insufficient condition) but rather the composite of political and economic freedoms enjoyed by its citizenry. By political freedoms, development economists understand things such as freedom of speech, the right to freely associate, and the right to play a role in determining the laws and policies that govern citizens. Economic freedoms, above all else, represent freedom from undesirable things such as hunger, deprivation, unemployment, and poverty.

The two facets of development—political and economic—are not disconnected from one another. They depend on the political and economic institutions of a country. Political institutions deal with the distribution of ‘power’ in a society while economic institutions pertain to the distribution of ‘resources’. It is not too difficult to imagine that those who have greater power in a society can ultimately create laws and policies that divert resources towards their private interests. A society consists of disparate interests, and since different groups benefit from different kinds of political and economic distributions, there is a political conflict over the structure of these institutions. The ability of different groups to enact their desired policies, in turn, depends on the distribution of power in a society. As Marx quite succinctly put it: “between two equal rights, force is the arbitrator”.

To understand this, political economists differentiate between two competing forms of power: de jure versus de facto power. De jure power stems from the law of the land, for example the Constitution of Pakistan; in contrast, de facto power stems from whoever has greater power in practice.

While there is disagreement over the degree to which democracy itself leads to economic development one thing is certain: a discrepancy between de jure and de facto power nearly always hampers it. The key point to understand is that economic outcomes depend on the extent to which the two forms of power coincide with one another. Wherever there is a mismatch between de jure power and de facto power, those with the latter kind of power will prevail and excessively-extract economic resources towards their private interests. Further, it perpetuates recurrent political ‘uncertainty’ which tends to yield sub-optimal economic outcomes.

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Academic scholarship on Pakistan has been highlighting this inherent contradiction for many decades. Yet, the argument remained peripheral in the context of mainstream political discourse in the country. The PDM’s contribution lies in its ability to echo this contradiction clearly and coherently. To see this, carefully consider the 26 points that make up the charter of the PDM. As we can observe, the demands of the PDM can be divided into precisely the two kinds of freedoms (political and economic) we had discussed above.

For example, the PDM demands political freedoms, such as electoral transparency, a free judiciary, freedom of media; it condemns the gagging of free speech and the plight of missing persons in the country. It also demands economic freedoms, such as making food and medicines affordable for every citizen, a reduction in the inflation-rate, the provision of decent well-paying jobs and solving the energy crisis in the country.

Most crucially, the movement also suggests a way out of the current political and economic mess: power must be realigned with its legitimate centers, that is, the elected representatives of the people should be sovereign. In other words, the PDM’s demands can be reinterpreted as an attempt to reign-in the current forms of de facto power through the creation of a counter-veiling force: an iron solidarity between civilian forces in general.

Unsurprisingly, however, the PDM has received swathes of criticism from the usual suspects in the mainstream media and status quo political forces. What is more, is that these criticisms are also echoed by well-meaning liberal and left-leaning progressive circles. Broadly speaking, the criticism of the PDM can be divided into two broad categories: 1) arguments from history, that is, the argument that the parties leading the movement have a ‘tainted past’; 2) appeals to elitism, that is, the argument that the PDM is a coalition of elites rather than being a genuine mass-based movement.

The first line of attack is that the PDM is an alliance of the old guard in Pakistani politics who want to save their skin from the accountability drive in Naya Pakistan. This also seems to be the favorite line of argumentation of PM Imran Khan who insists that he will not give an “NRO”. This line of criticism, a lazy rhetorical device, gels nicely with the decades of anti-politics propaganda spewed by pro-establishment forces. It is not too difficult to understand why it would be appealing to a ‘recently-politicized’ (but historically pro-establishment) upper middle class. Ironically, those who invoke this criticism do not argue unequivocally that the establishment should remain out of politics. Their convoluted logic is that since the parties in the PDM have been beneficiaries of the establishments’ favors in the past, they do not have the ‘right’ to criticize its political role. This argument ignores the basic fact that political parties can evolve with the time, for example, The Democratic Party in the US was historically pro-slavery and anti-civil rights party but today it is an advocate of racial equality in the US.

A different line of criticism emanates from some quarters of progressives and leftists. They argue that PDM is a coalition of, and represents struggles within, sections of Pakistani ‘elites’. A genuinely democratic alternative, we are told, would incorporate sections of the working masses and since the PDM’s leadership does not appear to fulfil this criterion it does not deserve serious discussion let alone political support from liberals and progressive. This line of reasoning has two major problems. First, it artificially posits an assumed ideal that does not exist (an ideal ‘mass-based movement) and tries to superimpose this non-existent movement on an actually existing one. It fails to understand that the struggle for democracy in Pakistan is, at its core, a multi-class struggle. If one adopts the view that ‘elite’ coalitions cannot be democratic movements then one has little hope of supporting the War of 1857, which was, after all led by “elites” such as Rani of Jhansi, Sultan Tipu, and the forces of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Of course, no serious observer with a commitment to democracy and freedom can say that the struggle for independence against a dictatorial colonizing force can be condemned purely on the grounds that it was led by ‘elites’. As political economists, we see PDM as a continuation of these decolonizing battles.

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Second, the moralistic appeal to ‘elitism’ fallaciously prioritizes the highlighting of differences with the PDM rather than building solidarity within civilian blocs over the struggle for democracy: the manipulation of political processes, the curbing of freedom of speech, the intimidation of political workers, and the monopolization of our economy by the vested interests euphemistically known as the ‘establishment’. Moreover, it is also unrealistic to assume that mass-based alternatives sought by progressives can indeed be built without the fundamental political and civic freedoms enshrined in the PDM’s charter.

At a more general level, it is critical to highlight that in postcolonial state formations such as Pakistan, blanket conceptual categories such as ‘elites’ conceal the key contradictions that impede democratic rule in Pakistan. Democrats, across the political spectrum of left and rightwing politics, must initiate a wider discussion in society. The left can enhance its space by propelling the momentum of the PDM to include notions of economic democracy. Civilian supremacy and the sovereignty of elected representatives is not an ‘elitist’ issue. It is a basic tenant of democracy and working-class political parties stand to gain the most from it. It is precisely for this reason that progressive icons of Pakistan, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Habib Jalib, dedicated their lives to cause of democracy and freedom of expression in Pakistan. Uneven development across provincial lines has been a major issue of contention among the federating units of Pakistan. A progressive aspect of the PDM is precisely the acknowledgement of these voices from the peripheries; this is why Baluchistan and newly merged districts of KPK have become integral components of the PDM.

But let us take a step back. Are we implying that the PDM deserves our  unreserved support? No, not at all. We are advocating for a commitment to the PDM’s charter and its objectives rather than specific individuals and parties. We firmly believe that progressive change in Pakistan is intricately tied to the sovereignty and freedoms of its working masses. But the class struggle in Pakistan needs to be reimagined as a two-tiered struggle. On the one hand, it is a struggle to establish constitutional democracy vs. status quo forces. The slogan of this battle should be ‘People of Pakistan unite’ for the cause of constitutional democracy and civilian supremacy. On the other hand, there are class differences within the civilian polity. We believe that these can be best resolved within a democratic framework. But the battle for the hegemony of democracy itself cannot exclude alliances within civilians across class lines. To argue for the supremacy of the latter — inter-civilian class struggle — at a moment when the democratic movement itself is at stake may sound radical but, in the final analysis, amounts to helping the cause of the status-quo. Instead of assuming a tailenders’ approach, progressives should fully support the demands of the PDM and push it to expand the notion of democracy from the sphere of politics to the sphere of economic redistributions. That is, substantive change requires reconfiguration of both political and economic sphere by building an inclusive economy centered on the principles of democratic participation, gender equality and fairness. The struggle for democracy is, at its core, a struggle of the people, for the people, and by the people and it must be pursued, by any means necessary.


Authors Info:

Shahram Azhar and Danish Khan are assistant professors of economics. Their research interests lie in political economy and development economics.


[1] ‘Development as Freedom’ by Amartya Sen.

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