Our democracy needs democratisation

On the evening of January

27, 1967, the Apollo 1 crew was performing a test rehearsal on the pad at Launch Complex 34 when a spark from a power surge inside the pressurized command module ignited the atmosphere. All three crew members, Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger B Chaffee, perished in the fire. The accident investigation that followed showed that the atmosphere inside the command module comprised pressurized pure oxygen. Today, we recognize the danger in that situation.

In the Congressional hearings that followed, Frank Borman, one of the investigators of the Apollo 1 fire and a former astronaut himself, was asked for his opinion on the cause of the accident. Borman famously answered that it was the “failure of imagination”. While there is some disagreement about whether Borman coined the phrase, his use is certainly credited with putting it in the public lexicon.

Almost four decades later

in 2004, the 9/11 Commission brought this expression back to the forefront when it was used in numerous parts of its report and accompanying executive summary where it said: “The most important failure was one of imagination.” It took a terror group to put the idea of airliners as weapons into our collective consciousness.

Today, inflation is ravaging every Pakistani’s purchasing power and bleeding public support for the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government. And yet, there is no immediate end in sight for the down-slide the economy finds itself on. In the last few decades, all governments, regardless of whether they were led by (s)elected political parties or strongmen who imposed themselves by the force of their guns, did little to differentiate themselves.

On just about every metric of progress, very little has changed. None could bring any reforms of note while all major centers of power of influence further entrenched their positions and widened their moats. By every measure that makes a difference to the lives of the ocean of humanity on the outside of those moats — healthcare, education, transportation, social welfare — save for a few showcase projects, there has been little to no progress. Whatever little improvements there have been in people’s lives have happened despite, not because of, governments.

Regardless of which party they may presently associate with, our ‘rulers’ and ‘leaders’ are united by their membership in the club of elites. ‘Elite’ is a term that gets thrown around far too freely. In my book, merely driving a nicer-than-average car or buying your beverage from a foreign coffee chain or always having the latest gadgets or trotting the globe in glamour, or being a member of a fancy country club does not qualify you as elite. When you know that laws are for other people and you can break them with impunity, knowing you can get away with things others cannot, traveling with a truck full of armed guards trailing you, whether you hold any office yourself or don’t, that is the line that divides the elite from everyone else. The surest ways of joining this club are to either be born into it or to marry into it — any other way is an outlier event.

In the past few weeks, some disgruntled members of this club, perhaps slighted by the internal succession politics in their parties, have been traveling the country, having public conversations and engagements under the banner of re-imagining Pakistan. Yet, they have a segment of the public gushing over them, as if they have finally found a band of saviors as if they are from among us as if they think of us, as one of them but none of these is true.

Unless one is independently wealthy (with power/influence to match), this elite views outsiders of the working and professional class with suspicion, as possible opportunists, and social climbers, not to be trusted. Consider the many special advisers that are providing their services to the government without drawing a salary and ask yourself: how many qualified professionals from working backgrounds could possibly afford to do that?

And, yet, voters continue to look towards these same people, attached to one party in one election cycle and another the next, for salvation. Every few years, the deck gets shuffled but we end up with the same faces sitting on one side of the parliament or the other. Like NASA before the Apollo 1 accident, like the world before 9/11, is our inability to look beyond the traditional elite for our public representation, to consider voting for someone that does not roll in a 4×4 and does not move in a bubble of armed guards but for educated candidates from progressive parties living lives like us not a failure of our imagination?

Over the decades, the elite has been busy widening their moats. In industry, excessive government regulations serve as barriers against new entrants and protect cartels and monopolies from competition. In politics, unless you either enjoy the name recognition of a local or national political dynasty or have tens of crores to spend or donate to the ‘party fund’, your prospects are dim. In many countries more civilized than ours, local officials for district school boards, mayors, sheriffs, secretaries of state, and many more, are elected.

In our context that would be local government elections for mayor, tehsil nazim, union council member, etc, which opposition parties always demand and parties in power tend to drag their feet on. Local government offices give members of the middle and professional class the opportunity to serve their communities, make an immediate impact, demonstrate the soundness of their ideas on a neighborhood- or town-level scale, build a track record of public service, earn name recognition and often without the kind of unholy spending needed to run for MNA or MPA.

Sir Francis Galton was a Victorian-era Englishman from a rich upper-class family who was a trained mathematician and statistician. He divided human beings into 14 ranked classes, ranging from the ‘Eminent’ at the top, through the ‘Mediocre’ in the middle, and down to the ‘Imbeciles’. In his book ‘The End of Average’, Todd Rose wrote: “Galton was so confident that the Eminent represented a separate category of human being that he claimed a person’s rank was consistent across all qualities and dimensions — mental, physical, and moral.” Put simply, if you belong to the class of Eminents, if you belong to the ruling class — in which Galton in 1909 counted “judges, bishops, statesmen, and leaders of progress” — you are good at everything. This worldview continues to echo through our CSS officer recruitment system that appoints generalists for specialized services.

Is that not how we treat the elite, the ‘Eminents’ of our time, today? The same people that have been at the top tell us they have the answer to all our woes, regardless of whether it pertains to the economy, trade, industry, agriculture, policy, healthcare, education or anything else — celebrity trumps expertise. This attitude is probably what prompted a well-known economist to point out that the pearls of wisdom that have everyone raving coming out of the ‘Re-imagine Pakistan’ exercise are textbook, conventional economic wisdom for even mediocre professionals (pun intended).

It is difficult to make any statement that is absolutely true or absolutely false about a country that has the fifth largest population in the world — there are always exceptions and corner cases — but I will say this: In most sectors in this country, meritocracy is a sham but no more than in politics.

We all want to see our nation progress and prosper. We want to see an end to corruption, poverty, and inequality. For too long, we have relied on the same faces: The same career politicians, the sets, the industrialists, the dynasties in parliament, and marionettes of the same monied and armed interests outside parliament. We are made the same promises (rapid development), given the same rhetoric (“naazuk morh”/delicate juncture), and yet nothing seems to change. We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

The old guard is unable to see the winds of change. A political party may be led by the greatest leader of our time, but there is no argument you can make that can justify why that leader’s next-generation family member deserves to leapfrog everyone in the party who has often given decades of service, and into a top leadership position. And while the ones doing the leapfrogging may be from a younger generation, they more than their parents grew up in that elite bubble that puts them out of touch with the middle, working and professional class voters.

Do not expect people who have been in power for decades to voluntarily relinquish it or unrig the game. The history of human nature suggests we cannot hope for career politicians to spontaneously change course and re-imagine our country for us. We need new representative voices who have lived lives closer to most people’s reality. If we want to re-imagine Pakistan, to usher in a new era of progress and prosperity, we must give new, young, educated progressive parties (because conservatives have already shown us their hand) a chance to represent the people.

We sure could do with some re-imagination right now, but save for some cosmetic changes here and a few nice words there, I cannot trust the magnitude of change we need to come from the innate talents of our eminent elite. Our democracy needs democratization.

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