Pakistan’s distinction…a ‘dry’ democracy


For all its faults and omissions Pakistan is a democracy…a country where elections are held, governments change through the ballot box – which was not always true but the practice is now taking hold – and there is freedom of expression. But it is the only democracy where prohibition officially and legally prevails, where imbibing alcohol is a crime. This sets Pakistan apart from all other democracies.

Imbibing is the mother of all sins, umm-ul-khabais, say moralists and doctors of the faith. And they surely are right. But if we carry this argument further, prohibition should make Pakistan a superior democracy to all others. We should be ahead of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, etc, in this regard. Our politics should be free of corruption, deceit and hypocrisy. Our leaders should be emblems of virtue and purity. Anger should never get the better of them. Their language should be temperate and eloquence should flow from their tongues.

PhD scholars from other parts of the globe should be flocking here to study our ‘dry’ democracy and after looking at the performance of different leaders they should go back to their lands convinced that a total ban on drinking, the closing of all unholy places where drink is served, is the right solution for all the ills of Western society.

But there is a problem. Teetotallers can be a bit too virtuous for their own good. They are always on a mission and they are always out to reform the world. This makes them a pain in the neck. Take Donald Trump. He is a teetotaller – doesn’t touch alcohol, takes soft drinks with his food and his favourite food is fast food. And I suspect he has no music in him.

Soft drinks and fast food are not aids to soul-searching or introspection. They make you nervous and agitated. No wonder, Trump can’t control his knack for intemperate ranting. He is not steady, not in control of himself. He’s proving himself his own worst enemy and the no-alcohol rule is part of his package. An occasional nip would help him gain some balance.

Atal Behari Vajpayee liked a drink or two in the evening. He never married but, to his credit, he had a lifelong lady friend who kept herself away from the public gaze. He too subscribed to the same BJP philosophy that Narendra Modi proclaims as his creed but what a difference between the two. Anyone would have thought that it would be impossible to move the BJP further to the right and make it more extremist in its views. But Narendra Modi has managed this feat…and he doesn’t drink and he’s a celibate, no mistress, no nothing. It’s his 56-inch chest and his doctrinaire vision of a Hindu society.

We are familiar with our brand of extremists who want to turn this into an intolerant society at the point of the gun. India has its own brand of extremists exemplified by the present ruling dispensation. Both brands kneel at the altar of different symbols, subscribe to different faiths, but at heart their approach is the same…preaching hatred and believing in coercion and violence to impose their views on others.

The Islamic State or Daesh is strict about drinking. The penalty for drinking in the areas of its holy writ is the bullet behind the head. Narendra Modi, as noted, does not drink. The Taliban don’t countenance drinking. Hitler abhorred drinking and wine was never served at his table, not even for foreign visitors. And, as also noted, Donald Trump does not drink. Different adherents of hate and bigotry united by a common link…a loathing of drinking. It is as if the worship of Dionysus, the god of drink and exuberance, would dilute the force of their hatreds.

The exceptions, however, must also be pointed out. Stalin was no water-baby and was a tippler. Indeed, even during the Second World War he and his magnates – his leading lieutenants – would retire to his dacha outside Moscow where they would drink and feast into the morning hours. He himself would ration his drink but he liked watching his magnates getting drunk. When he proposed a toast, and in the Russian fashion the toasts were endless, there was no question of anyone not raising his glass to his lips. At Stalin’s court such things were not done.

So we can compare Hitler and Stalin. Both were tyrants…the one was abstemious while the other was partial to drink. But Hitler destroyed his country whereas Stalin was the more successful statesman, making the Soviet Union a world power, extending its domain and imposing communist rule on Eastern Europe. In this comparison therefore the pro-drink argument wins.

In Pakistan, however, the pro-drink argument loses. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the most brilliant Pakistani politician after Muhammad Ali Jinnah and he was a regular drinker…couldn’t do without his drink when the shadows of evening fell. From all accounts he also had a remarkable capacity for drink, it being said of him that however late he sat up at night he would appear fresh in the morning, a gift of the gods not bestowed on everyone. On lesser mortals the excesses of the night before usually show the next morning.

But for all his gifts Bhutto came to a sticky end. The Sharifs are God’s own definition of what teetotallers should be. Accuse them of being limited, which they are in so many things. But, at the same time, they are the great survivors of Pakistani politics, outlasting all competitors. Gen Musharraf was cast in the Yahya tradition. But he’s out in the cold while the Sharifs continue to taste the fruits of power. In Pakistan therefore the Dionysus crowd, from Yahya to Bhutto and Musharraf, has little to show for themselves.

It’s an equal contest. Sobriety’s champions have given sobriety a bad name while the drinking champions have given drinking a bad name. Even so, the survivors make you yawn. They are dull. What does the nation do with their sobriety?

In any event, the argument here is about Pakistani democracy. In what respects has prohibition made Pakistan a more successful democracy? Some of the leading crooks in the country today, and it is possible to name quite a few, are heavily into piety. Their lips ooze morality. Is Pakistan a better-run place because of these windbags and humbugs? Is our parliament a greater repository of wisdom because of the social laws we have enacted?

The Hudood Ordinance which enjoys constitutional protection via Gen Zia’s Eighth Amendment enjoins strict penalties for drinking, the possession of drink and adultery or sexual deviance. This law should have turned Pakistan into a sin-free society. What it has actually done is promote police harassment of the poorer section of society, the rich seldom being hit by this law. We all know that while prohibition is the law, it exists only in name. Out of view the amount of drinking and alcoholism that goes on in Pakistan would put the Isles of Greece – “Where burning Sappho loved and sung” – to shame. This gap between appearance and reality does nothing so much as promote hypocrisy.

How can a democracy be any good if at its heart there is this huge residue of fakery and hypocrisy?