Last week, Sara Taseer, jewellery designer and daughter of Salmaan Taseer, caused a bit of a ruckus on Twitter. She commented on a picture of women from Panjgur, Balochistan, queuing to vote: “Love seeing this turnout of women #PakistanElections 2018, but then I think would I allow these ladies to make a decision even about what will be cooking in my kitchen today? And these ladies will decide on the future of the nation. Scary thought.”
The idea that the poor are too dumb to vote is a popular opinion. General Ayub Khan for one supported such a view, that democratic vote should not be in the hands of the general uneducated populace. The Greek philosopher Plato had similar views as Ms Taseer further tweeted: “The father of Western philosophy Plato, believed one must elevate oneself in thought & learning prior to being able to delve in democratic tradition. I must admit I've always felt one must attain a level of education prior to attaining voting privilege #justsaying.”
The claim of people who hold such an opinion is that education brings awareness, without which political opinions will be ill-informed. Further, poverty makes people vote for whoever will give them a plate of biryani, and our country is built on the biryani vote. So the poor, and the illiterate, should not have the privilege to vote i.e. the right to vote should not be a fundamental right.
Needless to say, such a view makes it seem like the decision over a candidate is rocket science; that a poor woman from Balochistan cannot understand what she is voting for when she queues in blistering heat to do so, and when such a person is coerced (or paid in biryani) to vote, they not have the intelligence to make a decision that is the best for the country.
But why would a poor man not vote for the man giving them food and transport? Why do we demand so much of our citizens, that they have a selfless love for the democratic process and the Pakistani state, that they forgo private material gains? Those handing out biryani degs are to blame of course, but for a lot of Pakistanis such “bribes” are services their representatives provide them, akin to a representative making sure a road or hospital will be built in the village if they are voted in.
It is easy to be selfless and dutiful when ones belly is full, there is money in the bank account and one can debate in English and misquote Plato. Which brings me to the idea of education. Ms Taseer argued that education is essential to make a well-informed decision, yet was oblivious to Plato’s actual problematic philosophy, opening herself up to the same criticism she levelled against Baloch women. Her uncritical use of Plato to justify her stance betrayed the fact that she meant not education, but social class should determine the right to vote - people who can read Foreign Policy and the Guardian, and drop names of political philosophers make better decisions at the ballot box.
Why is quoting Plato a problem? Did he not recommend a democratic utopia where only the most educated and wisest would have right to rule? I mean, that sounds pretty wonderful, right?
Well, firstly Plato wasn’t much of a fan of democracy and the most educated and wise ruler was not selected just based on merit for Plato, but on a mix of social class, and a structured system of education that programmed the philosopher king/kings. Everyone is divided into different classes when born: bronze, silver and gold. Gold are the leaders as they are most valuable to the community, silver for auxiliaries and bronze for the least “useful” members of society like farmers, artisans and slaves. The system ensures a dictator at the head of society, mass censorship with heavy indoctrination and thought control beginning in childhood. This can easily be reframed as a thorough “education” that wipes out dissent against the “true”, moral and intellectually superior ideas of the ruling class or philosophers who know best.
For Plato, a democracy would turn into anarchy as every citizen would be out for himself. Thus a nation should be governed by elites who would look after the needs of all people in a way that ensured that the state prospered. This was basically a focus on order over freedom. Plato's philosopher king might be unpopular, but he would be wise.
But throughout human history we have found that people would rather be free, than be told and be given what is actually better for them. And, being “wise” is a social construct, where formal education is given a higher value than any other life experience, or cultural or indigenous knowledge.
Plato’s Republic was never meant to be a reality. It was a thought experiment - a discussion to expose the meaning of justice and how to achieve it. Yes, education is an important component, but we cannot dismiss the opinions and choices of so many people just because they have not been to school and neither can we make rules to exclude them. Even if one was to accept that we end up with muggy leaders because of a stupid voter population and biryani bribes, we cannot establish that such a phenomenon is a rule and exists all the time in all poor/undereducated groups and thus we cannot legislate against it.
But also, we should not. Understanding why can help us get one step closer to understanding the diversity of political culture in Pakistan to build a symbiotic democratic tradition across classes.
The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the
former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.