Interacting with people has always been one of the main components of the art of ruling. In India, the panchayat system in villages ensures that people from the ruling class regularly interact with the ruled. In modern democracies like the UK, local parliamentarians invest their energies in schemes that appease their voters. They also prefer to meet their constituents by regularly visiting their constituencies and sparing some time for those who vote them into power.
In the past, Greek city states, including Athens, used to have a mechanism that could help them learn about people’s sentiments. Even Sparta, which was dictatorial in nature, had crafted some principles that would enable them to have first-hand knowledge of people’s feelings.
In Pakistan, there has been a lack of interaction between the ruling elite and the people. Many parliamentarians prefer to stay in federal and provincial capitals, enjoying luxuries of life in elite housing societies and upscale neighbourhoods. It is true that they show up at the funerals of some local notables in their constituencies, but mostly they remain away from their native towns and only bother to meet their voters at the time of elections.
These politicians do not have proper offices in their constituencies to meet their voters and learn about their problems. After becoming public representatives, they completely ignore their voters who come in droves to cast their votes and help them win.
Our prime ministers, who should be in the upper and lower houses of parliament to answer the questions of public representatives, find excuses to avoid these sessions. It is true that some former prime ministers did attend the sessions, but it is also a bitter truth that most of them frequently offer excuses to remain absent from such gatherings.
For instance, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was criticized by a number of critics for giving less time to parliament during 2013 and 2017. He reportedly attended 63 days during his tenure after which he was disqualified. Nawaz’s nephew Hamza Sharif attended only 31 sessions. His younger brother Shehbaz Sharif was criticized for skipping various sessions of the Punjab Assembly despite being the leader of the house.
During the same term, the political rival of the Sharifs, Imran Khan, also had the lowest attendance in parliament. During the 2013-2018 term, he attended only 20 National Assembly sessions out of the total of 465.
Not only do prime ministers and chief ministers love to ignore parliamentary sessions, but federal and provincial ministers also follow in the footsteps of their political mentors when it comes to attending legislative sessions. Many ministers and advisers spend their time in different countries, attending various conferences or accompanying the prime minister as a member of the delegation.
Those who monitor parliamentary affairs often witness the anger of various committee members over the absence of ministers and advisers. It seems that members of our ruling elite are not only indifferent to the problems of their constituents, but are also accustomed to skipping the meetings held to discuss such problems. This indifference prompts them to come up with anti-people policies. Their development schemes and social projects indicate that they cater to the needs of the select few. They seem to have less awareness about the issues being faced by the people.
For instance, since 1988, the country may have witnessed hundreds of development and infrastructure projects, and most of these projects were designed in a way that led to the demolition of numerous slums and low-income areas.
From the Lyari Expressway and Gujjar Nullah affectees and farmers around Ravi in Lahore to victims of the Mirani dam in Balochistan, millions of people have either been displaced or their livelihoods destroyed because of these projects. Due to anti-encroachment drives, thousands of people lose their sources of employment every year. It is amusing that authorities never pay attention to elite schools or expensive hotels or thousands of private-property owners who encroach upon costly public land. The ruling elite still plans to launch such schemes that will largely affect the poor residents of various localities. We are yet to see if those who have encroached railways land will be evicted or not when the railway upgrade projects are carried out in the next few years.
But why do sections of our ruling elite demonstrate such nonchalance towards ordinary people? The answer lies in lack of interaction between the rulers and the ruled. There was a time when sections of the elite would send their siblings to low-cost schools, public universities and government colleges where rich people would get an opportunity to interact with students from different financial backgrounds. But with the rise of gated communities and ultra-modern housing societies, such interaction has come to an end.
Elite and posh neighbourhoods have their own schools and higher education institutions which are affiliated with foreign education institutions. Small markets and vendors outside these areas used to be one of the ways connecting the rich of the country to vegetable sellers or shopkeepers. With the rise of shopping malls, such interaction is also over.
Most factory owners in the past would visit their manufacturing plants, interacting with their employees. Now with the rise of modern technology, the owners can monitor workers through CCTV or any mobile application. The fall of trade unions, which used to protest against harsh working conditions or non-acceptance of their demands, has also reduced the need for capitalists to show up at factories and talk to workers.
Most politicians from the bottom layer of social stratification made it to parliament through student and trade union politics. Jehangir Badar, Iqbal Haider, Taj Haider, Mairaj Muhammad Khan and others were involved in either trade unions or student politics. Our ruling elite has weakened trade unions and banned student organizations deliberately.
Consequently, it has become almost impossible for a low-income person to participate in politics, and entering the Pakistani parliament has now become just a dream for ordinary people. It is no wonder then that an overwhelming majority of our lawmakers in provincial assemblies and parliament are millionaires and billionaires. And these people serve the same class.
If our politicians want to consolidate democratic traditions, they need to reconnect with the people and interact with them.
The writer is a freelance journalist who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org