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Don’t keep up with those Joneses

In the aftermath of 26/11 India’s case against Pakistan has rested on its identity as a superior liberal democracy, as a rising economy, a responsible nuclear power, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Jan 14, 2009 23:02 IST

A disconnected elite living in heavily guarded villas or speeding down highways in gleaming Pajeros with tinted glass in the front and gunmen at the back. An elite that has contempt for elected politicians and instead worships the army. Beautiful women writing escapist sex-and-fashion columns by day and by night arguing for bombing the enemy. And almost next door to the fortified villas and Pajeros: another world. A world where the desperately poor blow themselves up either as suicide bombers or as footsoldiers of ideology, insane with aspiration, without any stake in the ruling system, hopeful only of the five-star lifestyle available in jannat. This is not just a description of Pakistan. It’s a description of what India could become if we don’t keep our democratic institutions safe.

In the aftermath of 26/11 India’s case against Pakistan has rested on its identity as a superior liberal democracy, as a rising economy, a responsible nuclear power. India is the successful democratic experiment, Pakistan is the failed State, goes our conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom, for the moment, is not false. Pakistan, as its noted lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan once described it, is a “bonsai democracy”, a stunted artificial plant set out as window dressing for its Western sponsors. The civilian government headed by Asif Ali Zardari is revealing its catastrophic lack of control over the country every day. Notwithstanding the peacemaking missions of American diplomats and India’s diplomatic offensive to get the world to recognise Pakistan as a rogue State and to get Pakistan to act on the 26/11 dossier of evidence, there are now reports that the LeT has now emerged under a new name — the Tehreek-e-Tahafuz Qibla Awal — and has just held a protest rally in Lahore.

Yet the Pakistani ruling class continues to insist that the war on terror is being waged. Indeed the predicament of the Pakistani elite is an example of what could happen if the rich and educated withdraw into their own private fortresses, if politicians are not held accountable by a watchdog media and if civilian government becomes so weak that there are no options but martial rule. The sacking of the Pakistani National Security Adviser, Mahmud Ali Durrani, simply because he acknowledged that Kasab was a Pakistani, shows the extent to which the fight against terrorism for Pakistan, in the case of 26/11, is really just a game of political shadow boxing and one-upmanship with India, a game which the politicians play umpired by the Pakistani army. The weakness and helplessness of Pakistani politicians stem from the fact that none of them is a genuine mass leader.

Most Pakistani politicians are feudals or highly privileged. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani comes from an influential family of Multan. Information Minister Shehrbano ‘Sherry’ Rahman comes from a highly educated elite family. The Cambridge-educated Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who still speaks English like Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady, also comes from another wealthy feudal family and is a graduate of the elite Aitchison College. In the absence of land reforms, a dynamic party system or genuine democratisation, the Pakistani political class is not as rooted in the soil as Indian politicians are.

The upsurge of middle-class activism that occurred when lawyers protested on the streets against the sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry by Pervez Musharraf seems to have petered out. After decades of martial rule, in the absence of a Mayawati or a Lalu or even a Mamata Banerjee, Pakistan remains a glaring example of how civilian power and social dynamism have been destroyed by the army. There is little scope for the poor and backward to fight their way up Pakistan’s political system. Democracy is practised by those born into privilege rather than those who claw their way up from the dirt. As long as the Pakistani political elite remains restricted to the rich feudal class, they will always be emasculated and always be at the mercy of the army and the ISI. Pakistan needs a Lalu Prasad to sit in his baniyan on a verandah and roar out to the army: “Yeh sab nahi chalega.”

Which is why it is important to recognise that India’s politicians may be by and large a nasty undesirable lot but they keep alive an important dream and they are crucial safety valves in a society fast becoming marked by savage differences between rich and poor. Our political system, (however terribly flawed it may be) makes disconnection or deracination impossible beyond a point. A Kapil Sibal will have to share his space with a Ramvilas Paswan, an Arun Jaitley, whether he likes it or not, will have to perhaps one day sit at the table with Mayawati, the intellectual Manmohan Singh relies on the political support of the wrestler Mulayam Singh Yadav. In the US, the current Senate majority leader was born in a shack and his mother did the laundry for local brothels. Similarly, the social depth of our democracy is our greatest resource. The social co-existence which our politics forces upon is what keeps our country somewhat sane and stops us from producing armies of suicide bombers. If terrorism and suicide bombing are seen as the last desperate resource of the destitute and disfranchised, the Mayawatis, Paswans and Mulayams, however annoying their ways, remain examples of how our political system still delivers patchy services to the very poor.

It is this organic democracy that we must zealously guard. As differences between rich and poor widen, India’s rich too are tending to remain imprisoned in their villas and Pajeros, pouring scorn on politicians and espousing anti-democratic values like warlike postures, hatred of the media and wholesale adoration of military power and efficiency.

But after 26/11 it is more crucial than ever that we remember the ideals of that other 26th — the 26th of January, and hold those values close. A country that upholds mass-based politics, that respects the law, that understands the need for a free Press, which above all upholds the right of the poorest of the poor to gain access to the citadels of power. It is social openness, social co-existence, delivering power to the people that will keep our country from becoming an armed cantonment surrounded by terrorists and bombers. Citizens of India, throw open the windows of the Pajeros and villas and let the winds of democracy blow.

The writer is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN.