WHEN one thinks of democracy in South Asia, great leaders such as M. A. Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan, Jawaharlal Nehru, B. R. Ambedkar, and Vallabhai Patel come to mind. In Pakistan, few would probably have heard of Sukumar Sen of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), much less appreciate the role he played as the Indian republic’s first chief election commissioner in laying the administrative foundations upon which democracy in India has been built.
India’s political leadership led by Nehru and Patel grasped a paradoxical truth about democracy in a bureaucratic state like theirs. To enable the politicians have their legitimacy, it was vital that the actual administration of elections proceeded with as little political interference as possible. In other words, in order to ensure their survival and overall dominance the politicians needed to suspend politics when it came to the administration of elections.
Given that India’s leaders wanted to establish a strong — some would argue transcendental — central state, the quality and integrity of the national elections was the key to the success of the democratic experiment. The integrity of provincial and local elections were of secondary and tertiary importance, respectively, given their vastly inferior power and prestige.
Nehru and Patel, against considerable popular and political pressure, retained the ICS, renaming it the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), as well as the Indian Police Service (IPS) and made a few other cosmetic changes to the higher bureaucracy and military officer corps.
Though not always successful, Nehru took it upon himself to shield the higher bureaucracy against any arbitrary interference and allowed it to operate autonomously.
This approach paid handsome dividends. Sukumar Sen and his colleagues in the IAS developed and adapted the election machinery inherited from the British Empire in India in preparation for elections on the basis of universal adult franchise.
With their positions secure and their political master sufficiently enlightened to understand when to stop engaging in politics, a hierarchy of IAS officers employed at the central, provincial, and district levels in coordination with the police and village watchmen administered the largest exercises in the history of electoral democracy. The autonomy and integrity of the IAS was a crucial element in motivating opposition parties to participate in the elections and thus contributed to the credibility of the democratic exercise.
What is intriguing about democracy in India is that although successive elections have brought into power less and less worthy candidates, the electorate’s turnout has consistently increased. In the 1950s the turnout ranged from 40-50 per cent while in recent years it has stood at over 60 per cent. This is in spite of the perception shared by some nine-tenths of Indians that politicians are utterly untrustworthy.
No wonder, in the present Lok Sabha, nearly a fifth of the Congress and BJP MPs are charged with crimes. Almost half the Congress MPs owe money to public institutions. The average Congress MP has assets of over thirty million (Indian) rupees which shows that Indian democracy is a vehicle for the very rich to get elected by the very poor. The strength of India’s educated middle class of a few million households comes from its role as the recruitment pool for the Indian state services, not from the democratic process.
Less than one per cent in a thousand candidates in the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) examinations is actually inducted into the state service which is perhaps one reason why the Indian higher bureaucracy is held in much greater esteem than elected politicians.
Indians may not trust their politicians but they do trust, more or less, the administrative process through which the elections are conducted at least at the national level. For all their faults these politicians have maintained the British-era policy of insulation of the military from politics and civil administration. That said, the state apparatus in India has taken a battering since Nehru’s death and is in the process of being politicised with the North Indian heartland worst affected.
While democracy in India has been made possible and sustained by the relative autonomy of its administrative elite and the insulation of its armed forces, the Pakistani political leadership soon after independence turned its back on this “colonial legacy” that India’s politicians wisely cultivated in substance even if they condemned it in rhetoric.
Instead of ensuring the autonomy of the public service commissions and election administrations, the Pakistani politicians set about converting the executive function into an instrument used to perpetuate their own rule.
The 1951 elections in Punjab, the first one to be held on the basis of universal adult franchise in Pakistan, were a case in point. About fifty Punjab MLAs (members of legislative assembly) owed their election to administrative intervention on their behalf. The state apparatus was used by the ruling Muslim League as a political instrument.
This proved self-defeating in two mutually reinforcing ways. One, it undermined the credibility of the democratic exercise and rendered politics highly confrontational.
Two, it brought the administration and the military into politics and led, by April 1953 with Khwaja Nazimuddin’s dismissal, to the eclipse of the politicians and the ascendance of a clique of civil servants and military officers.
In 1972, the politicians got a second chance but instead of ensuring the autonomy and integrity of the services they set about converting the state into a personal estate with a vengeance. To paraphrase Bhutto, they wanted to break the back of the higher bureaucracy in general and the Civil Service of Pakistan in particular.
After five years of purges, lateral entries and unceremonious exits, an invertebrate and politicised bureaucracy — reeling from the purges of 1976 and intuitively aware that Bhutto had planned another purge for May 1977 — went out of its way to please its master.
By going beyond Bhutto’s own wishes, the apparatus produced such a heavy popular mandate that its lack of credibility in the face of a unified opposition brought the entire system to the point of collapse and precipitated another military intervention.
This is not to say that Pakistan’s military rulers have demonstrated a better understanding of the role of the higher bureaucracy in an administrative state. They have done much harm through their attempts to engineer a “managed” democracy suited to the “genius” of the people of Pakistan. Ayub used the administrative apparatus to deliver the ‘basic democrat’ vote and secure seats for his political clients.
It was partly for this reason that the politicians at the receiving end of the administration developed severe hatred for the higher bureaucracy — which they considered, and correctly so, as one of Ayub’s political instruments. Zia proved marginally more competent in that he didn’t use the local bodies as the Electoral College and seemed to understand at some level that Pakistan was an administrative state. His manhandling of national and provincial politics, however, cast a long and dark shadow over Pakistan’s subsequent development.
The present regime and its devolution plan have obliterated even the pretence of administrative autonomy and the nazims, like their basic democrat equivalents, can be expected to deliver their areas.
The question of democracy in Pakistan is not a political but an administrative one. Deals and power-sharing and other shenanigans are irrelevant given that none of the participants understands that democracy in a bureaucratic state is a function of an autonomous, effective, and sufficiently motivated administration. Moreover, in a centralized state like Pakistan the integrity of the national elections is of paramount importance to the success of the democratic enterprise. Pakistan does not suffer, to use the latest fashionable mumbo jumbo, from a “democratic deficit” or insufficient “trust networks.”
It suffers from an administrative deficit in terms of the autonomy of the executive function from political interference. Unless this administrative deficit is made up, the “democratic deficit” does not really matter. Putting this administrative deficit right would entail, among other things, removing the local administration from the control of the nazims, ensuring the autonomy of the Election Commission, and reinvigorating the higher bureaucracy. n
The writer is the author of “An Inquiry into the Culture of Power of the Subcontinent.” email@example.com