Political stability and democracy | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 08, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:36 AM, September 10, 2017

125th birth anniversary of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy

Political stability and democracy

Today is the 125th birth anniversary of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. In remembering the man, we reprint an article written by him when he was the prime minister of Pakistan as a leader from Awami League in the coalition government. In this piece, we get a glimpse of the vision of this leader from Bengal on democracy, rule of law, good governance, and especially the relationship between the elected government and the electorate—issues which we think  are relevant for South Asia today. The following is the first part of the article published in the April 1957 issue of Foreign Affairs. An abridged version of this appeared in our print version.


Because the need for political stability is central to all the major questions faced by my country, I should like to concentrate on an analysis of this problem, suggesting the spirit and attitude with which it must be met rather than articulating a specific policy. In addressing an interpretation of this kind to a foreign audience, a Prime Minister comes under a double temptation—to boast and yet to be apologetic for the state of affairs in his nation. I hope to resist these temptations; it is better for us to be understood by our friends, and by ourselves, as we are, without exaggeration of virtues or indulgence of faults.

We in Pakistan sometimes show a tendency—and I know we have by no means a monopoly of it—to commend ourselves merely for the abstract goodness of our asserted purposes, without regard to whether our purposes have been fulfilled. So simple an action as the decision of a year ago to insert in the official title of our Republic an adjective descriptive of the prevailing faith has been made an occasion for exultation among us as if it were of itself a proof of courage and moral excellence. One often hears and reads assertions of our superiority in ideology, as if that counted in place of performance. On the other hand, one sometimes hears it said in extenuation of deficiencies in our real political life that, after all, Pakistan as a state is not yet even ten years old. On hearing this excuse, I usually point out that the circumstances of world politics permit no people to claim such exemptions from responsibility as might be appropriate to a child. A nation can earn the respect due to maturity by itself acting maturely. I reject any excuse based upon our youngness as a polity. Discovery and confession are first steps in the correction of faults. By mature and honest self-appraisal in place of self-praise we can best progress in earning the esteem we covet.

To set our problems in perspective, it is well to begin with some of the characteristics of the past from which Pakistan emerged as a state.

For many centuries before partition and independence in 1947 the type of government experienced by the peoples of the subcontinent of Asia was imposed by right of conquest; it lacked the ingredient of consent. British rule—let me acknowledge parenthetically our indebtedness to the British for lessons they taught us in administrative integrity, constitutional procedure and proprieties—was only a final phase of a long record of this character. Whether the seat of power was in London or in a local capital was of secondary importance. Either way, the traditions, usages and premises of self-government were lacking.

In such a situation administration and popular aspiration turn on each other as counter forces. Those governing almost inevitably regard their power as something to be exercised despite the will of the governed. The governed regard government as something set against their own interests and purposes. In this situation government has authority only in a narrow sense of being able to compel compliance but not in the deeper moral meaning of having the faculty to elicit consent, to lead and to bind in conscience. In such a situation, law exists in the sense in which we speak of laying down the law—a morally neutral meaning applicable to what administrators ordain and magistrates effect in the manifold daily undertakings of the state; but it does not exist in the sense in which we speak of the rule of law—a phrase invoking a concept of administrators amenable to a set of purposes and restrained by limits established by the consent and will of those subject to their authority.

"The whole truth and essence of sound government require a continual dialogue between actuality and aspiration, between administrative authority and political leadership—a dialogue that can take place only when each side understands the other and feels kinship rather than distrust.

When law in the technical sense of what is enforced is divorced from law in its moral sense implicit in the rule of law, the operators of the mechanism of government tend inevitably to think of themselves as in possession and to regard scornfully and fearfully as trespassers those who attempt to call up and to marshal popular political aspirations. By the same token, those approaching politics simply in terms of kindling popular aspiration tend to miss a disciplined consciousness of the limits of government. They think of it more as an exercise in rhetoric, theory and ideals than as a stern business of keeping promises.

The inherent weakness of colonial government lies in the alienation between administration and popular aspiration. Administration carried on without a sense of accountability to popular aspirations is deprived of imagination: at best it tends to be sterile; at worst it becomes oppressive. The evocation of general political aspirations without regard for actual operating requirements and limits of government results too often in producing giddiness and demagoguery. Political communication is deprived of realism, and the result is likely to be the politics of agitation and utopia. The whole truth and essence of sound government require a continual dialogue between actuality and aspiration, between administrative authority and political leadership—a dialogue that can take place only when each side understands the other and feels kinship rather than distrust.

A people coming into independence from a colonial past faces a task of correcting this alienation between the two. The operative and the evocative aspects of the state must be brought into working relationship. New habits of mind have to be substituted for old. Administration must unlearn its scorn of politics. Politics must overcome its hostility to administration. Only in this way can a government and the people governed communicate confidence to each other and learn that they can count on each other. On such a basis those in authority can draw on popular confidence and public will as sources of power for getting things done. Without it, they feel insecure; their primary concern is anxiety about holding on. In this situation public confidence and will become negative factors, restricting rather than adding to the capability of authority for achieving the general good.

Estrangement between the governing and the governed; anxiety on the part of those in authority over their warrant and their tenure; sterility of government resulting from a lack of confidence among those in authority as to their ability to tap the creative forces of public trust; vanity, opportunism and emotional extravagance characterising mass leaders who have never tasted responsibility; cold feet and hot heads—such are the conditions of instability in government. These have persisted among us in Pakistan in the degree that we have failed to resolve our wills to throw off habits of a departed past, have permitted moral independence to lag behind legal independence, and have kept political leadership and governmental responsibility as things opposed to each other rather than bringing them into synthesis.

In giving a diagnosis I have indicated a remedy. Fortunately, this remedy lies completely within our resources without necessity of any aid from abroad. We Pakistanis have no choice as to how to go about creating an effective basis for our state. No royal or aristocratic pattern of duty and authority based on long and universal acceptance is at hand to serve our needs. The goal can be achieved only through elections. Warning voices sometimes tell me that Pakistan is not ready for the democratic process. I can only reply that then Pakistan is not ready at all; for there is no alternative way of bringing about rapport between authority and people, no other avenue to national fulfilment.

"As for the difficult problem of balance of interest and power between our two provinces, dictatorship could succeed not in producing concord but only in subjugating one to dominance by the other.

I have sometimes heard arguments for an opposite course to national consolidation, a course involving abandonment of the idea of franchise, discarding of principles of accountability and resorting to authority based not upon a warrant to rule but upon the power to rule—in brief, dictatorship. Advocates of this course are in a small and diminishing minority. Nevertheless, the argument for it should be answered if for no other reason than to demonstrate the good sense of the course we have chosen instead.

Whenever I ask an advocate of this expedient to give a bill of particular ills of our political society requiring remedy, I get some such list as this: corruption, shortage of talent in government, insufficiency of bonds of identity between authority and people, deficiency of public education and information, the dominance of emotion rather than reason in political life, and the centrifugal influence of provincialism.

I do not deny the existence of these ills. My answer is simply that the purported remedy represents not a cure but avoidance of a cure. We have only to look to the lands that have dictatorship to gain some insight into how it would work. Dictatorship would not combat corruption; it would erect corruption into a principle. Dictatorship would not widen the access to talent in the public service; it would close sources of talent by pre-empting office for a chosen inner group and alienating the rest. Instead of durable identity between government and people derived from the operation of consent, dictatorship could employ only the brittle bonds of coercion. Its instrument would not be information but deception and concealment, and it would seek not the education but the confusion and the continued tutelage of the people by playing on their emotions rather than permitting the operation of reason. As for the difficult problem of balance of interest and power between our two provinces, dictatorship could succeed not in producing concord but only in subjugating one to dominance by the other. By taking an authoritarian path, we could only confound ourselves and fail our friends.

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy

In any event, whatever our weaknesses of the past, they certainly have not been attributable to overdoses of democracy, for we have yet to try a full dosage. Upon being called to the Prime Ministership I made clear my own outlook in these words, which I now reaffirm: "The first essential is to secure political stability, and that can never be attained unless we allow free play to democratic processes. ... I realise that democracy has its weaknesses, for democracy is human; it has its inevitable failings, but on the whole it is the only sure road to progress and evolution . ... Politics and politicians too have been maligned unthinkingly by those who fail to realise that politics is essential for the cohesion of the state and that the politicians are its servitors. Politics is the grand avenue of service to humanity. ..." I pledged that there would be no loss of time in making preparations for a general election, and I added: "I think I can lay claim to at least this much of trust, that the election will be fair and free, so long as I have anything to do with it."

I wish it were possible to hold general elections forthwith. It is not. The technical work necessary in preparation will take some months. With good fortune and unabating effort we can have the basis laid for general elections possibly a year from now.

The thorniest problem in preparing for the processes by which we shall finally achieve a national legislature truly representative in character has been to relate the Moslem and non-Moslem portions of our population in the franchise. Profound questions of the nature of our state ride on the issue.

On the one side are ranged the advocates of segregation of our voters into religious communities. Proponents of this plan argue that Pakistan's destiny is to be an ideological state. They would keep alive within Pakistan the divisive communal emotions by which the subcontinent was riven before the achievement of independence.

"Each time I called on the throngs to move forward to the very edge of the dais so that I might see their faces and they might see mine, because, as I said, the people and the Government must henceforth stand face to face.

On the other side are those who see Pakistan in terms of a nation state. I am unequivocally committed to this side. I see a Pakistan great enough and strong enough to encompass all its citizens, whatever their faith, on a basis of true civic equality and by that fact made greater and stronger. I hear it argued that it is inconsistent for the Moslems to have insisted on a separate electorate in undivided India and to have pressed for the establishment of a nation of their own and yet to admit the religious minorities, especially the Hindus, of Pakistan into full civic fellowship. I do not so regard it. We Moslems in undivided India were a minority. In Pakistan we are the majority. When we became the majority in a new country we fell heir to the moral obligation of any majority to protect the rights of minorities. Only a majority has the privilege, and I should call it also the obligation, of being magnanimous. For that privilege and that obligation we struggled in seeking independence. Independence fastened them squarely upon us.

The zeal for separate electoral rolls has arisen mainly in West Pakistan, where the communal minority is slight in number and the question is largely academic. In East Pakistan, where the communal minority is significant in numbers and the question has a central bearing, a joint electorate has prevailing support. In October 1956, our National Assembly passed legislation approving separate electoral rolls for West Pakistan, where the question is really of no moment, and a single roll in East Pakistan, where it is of moment. This is logically a far from perfect formula. The issue will not be settled until it has been settled right. Yet the proportion of evil in the existing formula is small. We can do with what we have for the time being and let the problem of making up our minds to a nationally uniform approach lie over to a less pressing day.

Those who find the prospect of democracy in Pakistan too chancy and fearsome point especially to the factors of political apathy, the meagreness of economic life and the prevalence of illiteracy among large portions of our population. They are apprehensive that the people will vote emotions and unfulfillable wants rather than bringing their politics down—or should I say up?—to the level of rational choice among practical alternatives.

I do not share these apprehensions. I am thoroughly familiar with the political consciousness of the people of East Pakistan. I should be the last to deny their aptitude for seasoning the meat of politics with the spice of enthusiasm. Yet I have seen them many times gather by tens of thousands to give rapt attention to a realistic discussion of policy. A more politically conscious people does not exist anywhere.

The potential for a similar political consciousness exists in the western province. In September of 1956, soon after becoming Prime Minister, I spent ten heartening days in travel through the northern part of West Pakistan. I spoke time after time to audiences of tribesmen in from the sparse hills, to farmers of the rich valleys, to urban throngs of artisans and tradesmen. I heard their questions. These questions preponderantly did not reflect dreams of utopia and did not spring from communal animosity. They were mostly about the real substance of politics—prices for crops, allocation of resources, the need for better housing and the like. Repeatedly I called on the police to remove the barriers set up presumably to protect me from my listeners. Each time I called on the throngs to move forward to the very edge of the dais so that I might see their faces and they might see mine, because, as I said, the people and the Government must henceforth stand face to face. Then I undertook to explain the identity between people and government and the obligation now imposed on them, as well as upon magistrates and administrators, to learn that the government is not master but servant. I explained to them also—and with emphasis—the need for government to have authority so as to be able to bring expertness to bear in its decisions and to weigh the general interest without being subjected to the pressures, passions and prejudices rife in the marketplace. In the faces before me I saw comprehension and concurrence. I was refortified in my assurance that popular confidence and rational consent are not beyond expectation but are indeed the great unexploited resource still available to strengthen the nation.

Read Part II of the article at Foreign Affairs magazine.


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