I have previously observed here that India has what I call a “cargo cult democracy.” In India’s neighborhood that is not a distinction. The entire Indian subcontinent suffers from that malady. The short version is that around here democracy as practiced is a simulation, a facsimile that should not be confused with the real thing that has something to do with informed choice based on differing perceptions of priorities that matter in the larger scheme of things.
Informed choice is not a matter that can be delegated to people who are not only not informed but for the most part cannot be informed even if you wanted to because the basic channels for information transmission are denied to them. Most of the electorate is illiterate to begin with and to add insult to injury, meaningful debate concerning the issues is entirely non-existent in the mass media. In the absence of substantial policy choices, it all boils down to names and faces. In every nook and cranny of the country, one comes face to face with huge billboards with the faces of people with names—never mind what they represent or what their accomplishments are.
This is bound to sound terrifically elitist. That is a pity, really. If the mere recognition of the distinction between illiterates and literates is perceived as elitist, things have come to a very sorry pass indeed. The fact is that in India the majority of the people would not be able to reason out whom to vote for and for which reasons. The majority are only capable of recognizing a face if it is associated with a name. It is a Pavlovian response to the stimulus of the Gandhi name in a significant percentage of the population. Which is why grown men and women with real world experience line up behind any Tom (Antonia), Dick (Raul), or Harry (figure this one out yourself) who have as much familiarity with governance as I have of the intimate personal habits of the Ming emperors of China.
The name matters over all else. And not just in India. All around India. A military dictator gets bumped off in one of those run of the mill coups, and his widow becomes the new ruler. She then gets bumped off, and her son gets to be the new boss. Bangladesh—check. Sri Lanka—check. India—check. Pakistan—check.
I do suppose you know where I am heading, don’t you? Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfi, gets hanged by a military dictator. Dictator gets bumped off (airplane crash) and Benazir gets to be the boss for a bit. She steals and mismanages and is replaced by sundry other corrupt politicians. In due course, dictator X takes over. Some more mismanagement and it is time for an election. Name brand enters the race. Bumped off before too long. Faster and heavier action than you see in a one-day cricket match. Scramble to get a new face with the same name. OK, here’s this guy. Name: Bilawal, son of Benazir Bhutto. OK, he’s the new leader of the party that wants to rule the state of Pakistan.
Now, let’s be clear. Pakistan is a third world desperately poor failed state whose hand to mouth existence depends on handouts from the US, China and charity from a gang of Islamic despots with pots of oil wealth. But come on. A 19-year old guy? Surely you are kidding. He has barely mastered the technique of jerking off to girlie magazines and knows as much about matters of state as he does about quantum mechanics.
But then, it is par for the course around here neck of the woods. Au pairs, airline pilots, retarded bureaucrats, rural illiterate housewives, movie actors, gangsters, crooks, scamsters—they all get to play the boss. So what is so astonishing about a 19-year old Oxford undergrad becoming the leader of a party that aims to rule Pakistan? Nothing remarkable at all. The cargo will surely arrive from the US, China, and those fine Arabic states—as long as the right incantations are made about democracy.