Militarism and Democracy in Pakistan

There is more than one reason why I believe Jon Snow will end up sitting on the Iron Throne. It is not just because of a now apparent truth about his bloodline or because he is bold and handsome. I don’t exactly agree with the “fortune favors the bold” cliche anyway. I believe so because he just doesn’t want power.

In all the ensemble characters in the Game of Thrones vying for either survival or power or both, he is the only one who doesn’t want to play the game. We know that he knows nothing, but he knows one thing for sure and that is he is good at leading. In his own words, he doesn’t enjoy what he does best.

I have come to believe that the complex cobweb of George R. R. Martin’s multiple, and often conflicting, story arcs are meant to highlight a simple historical fact, and that is: people best suited for leadership roles are those who do not want them, and the most ill suited are the ones who crave power.

This is the same theme that is the foundation of J. K. Rowling’s comparatively simpler world of fantasy. The triumph of Harry Potter, an altruistic and emphatic teenager who wants to stay out of the limelight, over Lord Voldemort, a narcissistic psychopath. In Professor Dumbledore’s words, Harry was best suited for the job despite the mediocrity of his magical powers because “perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it”.

In his record-breaking series, George R. R. Martin also teaches another crucial lesson that the best form of leadership comes from popular support. The two times Lord Snow is catapulted in a position of power, he has been elected. And on both occasions, he didn’t want power. Unlike his paternal aunt, Daenerys Targaryen, or the evil Lannister queen, Cersei, he doesn’t believe he deserves to rule knowing fully well that he is better at it than both.

GRRM’s world has rather a nastily brutal way of establishing that fact in the end. In the real world, we would ideally like matters to be more peaceable with not too abstract moral dimensions to power. And when it comes to elections in our world, it is not easy to identify people who solely desire power as an end in itself. There lies a paradox in democracy that continually troubles the minds of political scientists across the world.

In my country, Pakistan, people are not particularly fans of democracy. In a 2013 survey by the British Council, over 70% Pakistanis exhibited a preference for a theocracy or dictatorship. The survey goes in depth to explore Pakistani demographics, political orientations and hopefulness about the general future of the country – and concludes as pessimistic. Many believe that democracy keeps failing in Pakistan. Much has been written about why democracy fails to flourish in this country, and more is continuously added to that literature.

Several reasons have been identified by scholars and mainstream media analysts for why democracy has failed here. Among the more popular reasons are inherent “nation building” problems beginning with the independence of Pakistan (partition of British India), lack of education, military interventions, failure by political parties to institutionalize democracy within their ranks, the feudal nature of our society as well as “conspiracies” by foreign powers including, most importantly, India’s.


Most of the times, the Pakistani Army is credited for the failure of the democratic enterprise.  Pro-dictatorship commentators often argue that dysfunctional governments have led to military coups, and such arguments are always responded in kind by the assertion that military coups have led to dysfunctional governments. It is really like the chicken and egg conundrum; which came first?

In my opinion, something that has never existed in the first place cannot fail. Even in the brief spells of democratic flirtation between 1971 and 1977, 1988 to 1999 and 2008 to this day, demagogues and McCarthyism have defined our political culture under the auspices of the deep state. Everyone who disagrees is labeled as a CIA, Jewish or RAW agent. Jingoistic nationalism and intolerance disguised as patriotism run rabid in our society.

Our collective national discourse manifests an extreme preference for militarism. The choice word of our nation’s slogan for any social or political campaign is “war”, may it be a “war against corruption”, “war against polio”, or against something as simple as littering streets. There is a dark dimension to Mao Zedong‘s claim that, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. The power that grows from militarism is absolute, violent and corrupting; not a means for collective good but an end in itself.

Democracy to me, with all its flaws, means possibilities. It is not just about elections or good governance. It is about coexistence and rational settlement of arguments. It is about peaceful and respectable tolerance of dissenting opinions and diversity. Democracy cannot exist devoid of pluralism. It has never existed in Pakistani society and, therefore, has never failed.

In order to ensure that ruthless demagogues and scheming politicians of the likes of Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish are filtered from the process of acquiring power, a societal preference for rational arguments and tolerant debate needs to be cultivated in the first place. Pakistanis’ perennial intolerance, jingoistic nationalism, and deranged preference for militarism can lead to consequences worse than authoritarian rule. The road down this path leads to the kinds of brutality not too different from Westeros, or real world post Arab Spring Libya and Syria.

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