“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” is a phrase famously attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette supposedly spoken by her during one of the famines that occurred in France during the reign of her husband, Louis XVI. The story goes that upon hearing the suffering of the common French people due to shortage of bread, Queen remarked, “Then let them eat cake”. The anecdote demonstrates the obliviousness of the French aristocracy and monarchy to the misery and hardship of the common people. This disconnect between the monarchy and masses was one of the main reasons that led to the bloody French Revolution.

The ignorance and obliviousness of Queen Marie was reflected by Dr. Hafeez Sheikh, Imran Khan’s advisor on Finance, last week when he commented that tomatoes were being sold at Rs. 17 per kilogram in Karachi. He made this comment, mustering all the confidence at his disposal, at a time when actual price of tomatoes was around Rs. 300 per kilogram. When journalists told Dr. Hafeez that price of tomatoes was way above what he was quoting, he remarked that these are lies being told on media. The episode ironically followed a press conference called to boast the achievements of government in stabilizing the economy and to count the virtues of adjustment program imposed by IMF. This incidence speaks volumes of the distance between the ruler and ruled, elite and masses and haves and have nots of Pakistan’s society.

The episode is also a criticism of modern representative democracy. Common people elect their representatives and give these representatives the right to make decisions on their behalf supposedly for the betterment of the masses. The said right is very sacred and should be exercised with utmost care and sincerity. However, how can these representatives, and people appointed by them at the most important positions, represent or uplift the masses when they are not aware of the circumstances in which these masses are living? How can the rules claim to work for the welfare of the people when they do not have the knowledge about the prices of basic items of everyday use? How can the government expect the people to trust them and fight for the system when common people have no stakes in the system? Surely, the episode calls for some reflection by the leaders who claim to represent the ‘general will’.

However, the advisor in question was not an elected person. Instead, he has been appointed as a technical person to head the finance ministry by previous governments and the current one. One can argue that since these advisors and experts are not answerable to common people, therefore they are not concerned about them or at least indifferent to them. These technical people find their way in every government and represent big interests like IMF, mega businesses etc. In fact, this is the constituency of these experts and they serve their interests. Just as an elected representative is supposed to cater to the needs to his constituency, these experts are supposed to serve the people who brought them in power. The number of technical people heading ministries in this government is way more than the previous ones. Moreover, in the coming days, government is looking to expand the number of technical people in the ministries.

There is bound to be a fundamental difference in the approach of an elected person and an appointed person. Both will act according to their own incentives. Elected person knows that he will have to go back to his electorate and get re-elected. Therefore, he will try to maintain contact with his constituents and not do anything that will turn his electorate against him. Appointed person will also act to protect the interests of his constituency. He will be interested in macro-economic issues, will subsidize big businesses and look out for their interests. These experts might attain macro-economic stability, that Dr. Hafeez was boasting about, however they will remain oblivious of the cost of this “stability” to the common people.

Leaders, experts and advisors in a representative democracy should not get bogged down by macro-economic issues, like GDP, Debt to GDP ratio, Fiscal Deficit etc., to a level that they do not know what are the problems of masses? It is only when they have an idea of the suffering of masses, they can take some steps to alleviate that suffering. Additionally, government should trust its elected members and make them in charge of ministries. It is in the interest of rulers and elite to not push the situation to an extent where an episode similar to that of French Revolution becomes inevitable.