Historicizing Local Government in Pakistan

The Case of Basic Democracies

Barely a month after coming to power in September 2018 Imran Khan promised the people of Pakistan a drastic overhaul in the country’s system of local government. Khan argued that the “transfer of power at the grassroots level and people’s empowerment in the real sense of the word was the main plank of PTI’s agenda of reforms, and the past practice of centralization of power had deprived the people of any meaningful say in government affairs”. (Link: https://www.dawn.com/news/1430621).

Khan’s mandate to transfer power to the people is not revolutionary in the course of Pakistan’s post-colonial history. Time and again, political leaders - most often of the military bent - have used the concept of local government to launch an attack against Pakistan’s traditional centers of electoral power. This article looks back at the first extensive attempting at overhauling the political system through local government under Ayub Khan, and the lessons which can be drawn from that experiment in the 1960s.

In 1958 Ayub Khan came to power through a bloodless coup. Dubbing it the “revolutionary regime”, Khan embarked on a project of reconfiguring Pakistan’s political and socio-economic systems. One of Ayub’s earliest interventions in Pakistan’s political fabric was his institution of a system of Basic Democracies in 1959. A five tiered political system - union, thana, district, division, and provincial - was instituted, remapping both East and West Pakistan into 7372 rural union councils and 1000 urban mohalla committees. The lowest tier (union for the village, and mohalla committees for urban areas) elected a Basic Democrat, who would then serve as part of an electoral college voting in indirect elections for the President, and also provincial and National Assembly members. In reality many of Basic Democrats were appointees, passed off as technical or advisory members.

The system of Basic Democracies was packaged as means of giving the political structure of Pakistan a more realistic shape and bringing democratic practices to the grassroots level. A speech given by Aziz Ahmad, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, elucidated the stance of Ayub’s regime on Basic Democracies. Aziz pointed towards the revolving door of Prime Ministers that Pakistan had experienced in the 1950s, and declared that the parliamentary system had failed. The country’s population was “illiterate and impoverished”, making them easy targets for demagogues. Ahmad’s speech also featured a strong critique against the traditional centers of political power - the national and provincial assemblies - noting they were far removed from the village level, where the majority of Pakistan’s population lived.

Pakistani government officials also proudly presented Basic Democracies as an exportable model for political organization and development - specifically to other countries with low levels of literacy, which in their opinion were not ready for the intricacies associated with a parliamentary democracy. What countries such as Pakistan needed was democracy light - an easily understandable model of vertical integration for the nation-state, which linked the government to its people. Foreign experts and social scientists also lapped up the way Basic Democracies was marketed noting its appeal for ‘developing’ countries.

In reality Basic Democracies provided the organizational apparatus to back up the legitimation of a military regime. By banning political activity, Basic Democracies were meant as an assault on traditional centers of political power - the Provincial and National Assemblies. The Basic Democrat, a representative of the people at the lowest level, was usually someone who already wielded significant political or socio-economic power in his union council or mohalla. In this regard Basic Democracies ended up replicating power inequalities between Pakistani citizens. More importantly high-level policy decisions and financial appropriations were still made at the top - the realm of the Basic Democrats was usually matters related to “local development”, providing little space for critique or debate about how the local fit into the federal.

Basic Democracies did pay lip-service to the idea of inclusive citizenship, especially along developmental lines. It was aspirational, promising to forge links between citizens and the state and making the former equal partners in the country’s development. However it ended up replicating some of contradictions it critiqued in the parliamentary form of government, and could not escape new tensions - such as rent-seeking and political appointments. As talk of overhauling systems of local government crops up every few years it would be important to think about already existing forms of inequality which such systems entrench, and also methods of providing local government a stake in political reforms which do not solely focus on hyper-local issues of ‘development’.


Amna Qayyum

Doctoral Candidate of History at Princeton University.