Pakistan

The era of mobocracy

Dec 7, 2017
By Hussain H Zaidi
 
In the mid of 2014, the Imran Khan-Tahirul Qadri duo cultivated the crop. Towards the end of 2017, Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLRY) leadership has reaped it. During these three-and-half years, Pakistan’s democracy, no more than a house of cards as it has always been, has degenerated into a mobocracy.
 
The question of whether such theatrics, which put the nation through the hoop, will bring the government down, send the assemblies packing, or upset the applecart of democracy, has become at best of secondary significance. Instead, whether the state of Pakistan can hold itself against the emerging political (dis) order has assumed primary importance.
 
Democracy may or may not be the best form of government. But by all accounts, it is the most difficult political system to sustain. The reason for this, as pointed out by the philosopher Plato centuries ago, is that freedom which lies at the root of democracy is potentially constructive as well as destructive. The freedom of expression and of assembly, for instance, can be used to keep the government on the right track. Alternatively, it can be abused to destabilise the system itself. Herein lies one of democracy’s potentially fatal contradictions.
 
For democracy to take root, it has to overcome not only the resistance of anti-democratic forces but, as in today’s Pakistan, this internal contradiction as well.
 
The relationship between freedom and authority is a perennial political question. Members of a political society must have some freedom and the government must have some authority – but how much? Different forms of government answer this question in different ways. An absolutist government concedes minimum freedom to the people, while arrogating to itself maximum authority.
 
By contrast, a democratic dispensation gives maximum freedom to the people while itself exercising minimum authority consistent with an orderly government. Therefore, freedom, with all its positive and negative potential, assumes paramount importance in a democracy.
 
If the government suppresses and represses the governed and relies on force to sort out political problems, it ceases to be democratic. But if the governed turn their freedom into a licence to do anything they like, such as taking the law into their own hands, the polity passes into chaos and anarchy and democracy is degraded into mobocracy.
 
In the end, the difference between democracy and mobocracy is that the former is subject to rule of law and constitutionalism, whereas the latter sets aside such ‘constraints.’
 
To put it differently, democracy consists in the exercise of freedom constructively, while in mobocracy freedom is exercised in such an irresponsible and free-for-all manner that it becomes destructive of the very foundations of democracy. To quote the incomparable Plato again, mobocracy is democracy perverted.
 
Mobocracy would reduce elections and parliament and all other democratic institutions to nothing. If a government commanding an absolute majority in parliament can be sacked by a mob, it doesn’t matter the least whether a party fares good or bad on the electoral front, or even whether the elections were held in a transparent manner or rigged. Whenever it is found to be expedient, a mob can be put together to pull the government down.
 
Why is mobocracy taking root in Pakistan? The answer to that lies in the social structure. A society has two methods available to it in dealing with dissent and disagreement: one takes the form of dialogue, debate, logic and argumentation; the other relies on force and coercion. The first method draws sustenance from the rule of law and respect for civil liberties; the second thrives on show of strength and a culture of repression.
 
A society putting its trust mainly in force is a fertile ground for mob behaviour – of which mobocracy is the prime political expression. Such a society exhibits a strong tendency for sanctifying killings and other forms of violence in the name of a collective cause inspired by creed, sect, ethnicity or race and pursued with fanatic fervour. All that is needed to mobilise a group for action is a precipitating event – the enactment of the Elections Act, 2017, for example.
 
Mob behaviour is an expression of both cultural conflict and organisational failure. It lays bare cleavages and schism present in a society. That’s why the action earns both approval and disapproval, admiration and condemnation. One side regards the perpetrators as heroes serving a ‘noble’ cause; for the other they are despicable villains. The behaviour also signifies the failure of both formal and informal methods of social control.
 
Mob justice clashes with the principle of rule of law, which is the lifeblood of the body politic. It’s not for a mob but for formal public institutions to prosecute, convict and punish an offender. The mob is neither a reliable judge of what is fair; nor is it interested in doing justice per se. It’s only actuated by the desire to revenge upon a convenient target for its allegedly mischievous actions.
 
Not only does mob justice signify a weakening of the formal methods of social control, it also erodes the faith of the people in the state’s ability or willingness to protect their life, property and religious symbols – the very raison d’être of the state. This makes public authority even weaker. Mob justice assumes even more threatening proportions when it is prompted, and justified, by an appeal to faith.
 
The social structure in Pakistan is becoming increasingly conducive to violent behaviour. Blood sport seems to have become the favourite pastime for a large section of society, which rejoices in killing for the sheer fun of it. Society is increasingly becoming fascistic and fanatical, bigoted and brutal, belligerent and extremist, while the voices of dissent and reason, of sanity and moderation are being ruthlessly suppressed.
 
Political and cultural factors have combined to bring our society to this gruesome state. In the past, on quite a few occasions, the constitution was abrogated or suspended and a lawfully elected government was dismissed. Those extra-constitutional actions embodied the message that force is the recipe for political problems and that anyone mustering enough strength was entitled to govern and exact obedience from others. When the claim to political power rests on the ability to coerce, the faith of the rest of society in peaceful conflict resolution is shaken.
 
Over the years, Imran Khan has tried to inject strong doses of morality into politics: the cancer of corruption is eating into the vitals of the body politic. If a thorough surgery is not performed by hanging the corrupt lot in one go, the entire political edifice will collapse. Since the elected institutions are averse to doing that, let’s get this done by the mob. Such has been the PTI’s alluring narrative. The TLRY has gone one step ahead and injected even more potent doses of religion into politics. It’s a game fraught with mortal dangers. But the game has started and where it will end up is anybody’s guess.
 
While religion can provide a moral basis to politics, unfortunately in our case it has been abused for political purposes and given a militaristic interpretation. In the eyes of many religious outfits, killing innocent non-Muslims or Muslims of another sect is jihad if it helps promote the cause of their creed. A society where poverty, unemployment and ignorance are endemic and an analytical, rational approach to problems is lacking and where lethal weapons are easily available, it is not much difficult to use people as a tool for committing violence in the name of religion.
 
The News, December 7, 2017

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