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Pakistan: Writing a new script

by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, 18 January 2013

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Dawn, 18 January 2013

In terms of pure political theatre, Tahirul Qadri’s Blue Area ‘revolution’ has been compelling viewing. Many of us were chaos junkies even before cable TV; round-the-clock coverage means that charlatans like Qadri leave no holds barred in feeding our habit.

Having successfully captivated the urban public, the script-writers are now busy choreographing their concluding scene.

For the record, an overwhelming majority of the masses that the newest brand of right-wing populists claim to represent is not nearly as concerned with long marches and so on as we might otherwise think. The everyday business of survival is what matters; the rhetoric of revolution rings increasingly hollow.

Indeed leftist political ideals are a sad casualty of the populist brand of politics with which we are currently afflicted. No longer do hordes of political activists make their way into villages and working-class neighbourhoods to mobilise the classes that they want to emancipate.

Urban middle classes are the vanguard of today’s ‘revolutionary’ politics, and the media and judiciary have replaced the political party as the instrument of change.

It is not just in Pakistan that this shift has taken place. Since the end of the Cold War structural changes in the global political economy that have reinforced the class power of the rich whilst opening up space for the mythical ‘middle class’ have been augmented by the discursive manoeuvres of pro-establishment thinkers and political practitioners such that the insurrectionary language of yesteryear is the politically correct terminology of today.

This is not to suggest, however, that it is all doom and gloom. There are still many progressive political movements operating outside the mainstream that are able to garner mass support.

Of course such movements are often isolated because they are easily criminalised by fearful states, but no matter how totalitarian the regime in question, there is no evidence that systemic challenges to the status quo are in danger of being eliminated. What appears to have been eliminated, unfortunately, is the kind of unified political challenge to capitalism (and the dystopia of liberal democracy) that was a constant on the political landscape throughout the 20th century.

The fact that a plethora of social and political movements have emerged to replace the more delimited left movements of the past is not necessarily a problem in and of itself. The problem arises because these movements often end up butting heads with one another rather than coming together to take on the ‘system’.

I contend that the occupation of the federal capital by a demagogue like Qadri is an indicator of just how badly stricken the structure of power in Pakistan is. Yet there is no guarantee that this precarious structure will necessarily give way, because those who want change are simply not organised enough to make it happen.

A system teetering on the brink of collapse does not necessarily mean that everything has ground to a halt. As I suggested earlier, most of Pakistan continues to function as per usual even while sections of the media are crying revolution.

Notwithstanding our worst nightmares, therefore, there is no question of some mullah — of the Tahirul Qadri variety or the more militant Taliban type — storming the proverbial Bastille (read: Islamabad) and suddenly turning the world upside down.

Indeed, there are just too many contenders for power now for there to be any meaningful consensus over how to take forward the incumbent Pakistan project. And none of the contenders actually possesses enough power to be able to subjugate any of the others.

Even if the military and judiciary — along with the civilian state apparatus — remain completely hand-in-glove, these institutions are not able to ensure the subservience of the many political stooges that they have patronised over the years.

And then there is the question of who is being patronised — or not, as the case may be — by Uncle Sam (along with the other foreign powers that exercise inordinate influence within our body politic). In short, too many cooks have spoiled the broth. As it turns out, it is precisely the possibility of impending chaos that petrifies many otherwise level-headed observers. But one need only dwell on the fact that everyday life continued for most Pakistanis even while Tahirul Qadri’s surreal ‘revolution’ unfolded in Islamabad to appreciate that societal implosion is not on the immediate horizon.

All of this brings me to why progressives need to get their act together, and focus less on what we are being fed by the TV and more on real people’s lives. For a start, there is a need to stop taking the rhetoric of rightists at face value: they do not represent the aspirations of working people, and it is time to say so, and to actually start reacquainting ourselves with the very people that must be at the forefront of a real politics of change.

Second, while Pakistani society is not about to implode, internal divisions are becoming increasingly difficult for it to bear, and here I refer not only to ethnic-nationalism but to all social fault lines and movements that are giving rise to (violent) conflict. It is an indictment of the state that it continues to try and manipulate these fault lines to serve its own ends, but, as I have already suggested, these manipulations are exacerbating rather than redressing contradictions within the structure of power.

Either way, it is the responsibility of progressives to pre-empt, or at the very least respond to, the machinations of the establishment in an appropriate manner. This involves, in the very first instance, trying to bring together all anti-establishment forces. This has historically been the role of the left, both in this country and around the world, and objective conditions in Pakistan today are crying out for progressives to once again play this role.

In the final analysis, one can adopt two very different postures in relation to the attempts to stage-manage the ongoing democratic transition.

The easy approach involves sitting on our hands, lamenting our collective fate, and willing the collapse we have been portending for some time to become a reality.

The more difficult option is to permanently undermine the once-powerful hegemonic structure by both ensuring the success of the democratic transition and pushing its limits in the interests of real social transformation. Rest assured this is not the script from which Qadri or his backers are reading.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.


The above article from Dawn is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use