Storming the Bastille in Pakistan

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Sahar Pirzada[1]
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

We have seen the truth of these immortal words by Dickens unfold right before our eyes in the events that have ensued after 14th August 2014 as crowds thronged to join the twin marches that pierced the cosseted capital, Islamabad. Wave upon wave of people crashed into a city known for its calm, somnolent nature. Whether they came in lakhs as claimed by the architects of this storm, or in the thousands as stressed by the authorities, they came, and the city was never the same again.

It was the best of times for those who came with genuine ideals, with the zeal for propagating change, in the hope of being instrumental in shaping their own economic destiny, because the fact of the matter is that a sizable majority of those who put rubber to the road for this march can no longer afford baseline survival.It was definitely the worst of times for the inhabitants of the city and its suburbia for whom life and commute became a veritable nightmare. It was perhaps even the worst of times for the CDA employees who had to sweep the litter of the streets and find a solution for the human waste of thousands that fertilized the green belts of the accursed areas in the sacred city. For that reason alone, if not that the thousands slept with infants and the frail alike under the uncompromising elements of rain and the scorching summer sun, it was surely the worst of times. This was most certainlyan age of foolishness, the foolishness not of ideals, but the crooked, disruptive and naive path towards them.

Without commenting on the dynamics of these fraternal marches, or the spectacle of dance and song, neither the vituperative and provocative speeches lacking tact and political decorum, what transpired that led to the storming of the Parliament? Everyone could see it coming forth as if in slow motion but both government and other political parties supporting the government’s stance stoodparalysedby  an overcautious need for political correctness before taking decisive action to stop the storm that would enevitably be upon the people of Pakistan. This hesitation, as if like a logical springboard,provided Mr Khan and MrQadri the space  to launch this revolution towards revolt and the vandalism of the Parliament. What storming the Parliament symbolizes remains a mystery, but makes one traverse a wormhole back in history to the storming of the Bastille.

The Storming of the Bastille, a medieval fortress and prison in Paris occurred on the morning of 14 July 1789.The Bastille represented royal authority and was reputed to have housed hundreds of prisoners, forgotten and left in the direst of conditions by LouisXVI.It was perceived by the torturedmasses as a symbol of the tyranny of the monarchy.At the time, allegedly much like today, the ruling aristocracy was divorced from the reality of the peasant’s pitiful existence crushed under the weight of poverty and inhumane governance.The plight of the people went unheard and many myths about the time still live on such as Marie Antionette’s response, “let them eat cake”to a peasant farmer who approached her crying that the people had no bread to eat.

This lesson in history  automatically draws an analogy in our minds about the part fictional and mostly true scripts of the march speeches.

That the country is drowning in poverty is no secret. According to a survey report by SDPI as many as 58.7 million people in Pakistan are living in multidimensional poverty with 46 per cent of rural population and 18 per cent of urban households falling below the poverty line.As reported in March 2013,nearly six thousand suicides have been recorded in Pakistan from 2010- 2013, most of them male, unemployed and under 40. The availabilityof everyday amenities vital to all such as gas and electricity are a dreamscape that once was. Justice is doled out only to the rich and influential who havethe meansand the average man finds himself lost on the labyrinthine road to delayed justice, if it at all exists for him. This, when he is simultaneously being sucked into in an exhausting struggle to understand what the ‘ fuel adjustment’ charge on his electricity bill is, or why he has to wait in line all night long, on a few select days a week to get the gas that is needed to run his car thatgets him to work in an underpaid job. According to ShahidJavedBurki, former Vice President at the World Bank, “There has been a significant slowdown in the rate of economic growth. Between 2008 and 2013 the economy grew at an average of 3 percent a year. This was less than one half the rate of increase needed to accommodate some million and a half newcomers who join the workforce every year.” This, added to the fact that Pakistan’s current population growth rateaccording to World Population Review is at 2 percent per year, “its median population age” according to Burki,“is 22 years which means that of Pakistan’s 190 million people, 96 million are under that age.” They come into the job market with expectations and as published by the Pak Employment Trend 2013 the employment to population ratio from 2012- to 2013 was 39%. The IMF April 2014 Economic Outlook found 6.7% of the total labour force in 2013 to be unemployed.

Yes, that part is all true. To compare it to pre-revolution 18th century France would be unfair but not that far off.Adding fat to this cauldron of political stew, not unlike the pre-revolution monarchy, the same political dynamics apply; though within a democratic voting structure, we are faced with the challenges of dynastic politics.

Dynastic politics has been our legacy, and the tool that has sculpted our post colonial political face since 1947. There exist about 20 political families whose names are more easily recognizable than common household items across all strata of society. The Bhuttos/Zaradaris in Sindh, the Sharifs, the Chadhrys in Punjab,TheMagzis and Bugtis in Bulochistan. In KP the dynastic elite parties of AsfandiarWaliKhan , the grandson of Bacha Khan to name a few. The religious parties too, perpetuate the dynastic paradigm; for example, the JamiatUlema-e-Islam (JUI) and the national JamiatUlema-e-Pakistan (JUP) are no exemptions either in the recruitment of political dynastic elite. MaulanaFazlurRahman replaced the leadership of JUI from his father Mufti Mahmmood, and spawned his own party, JUI-F, when his leadership was challenged. JUP leader Shah Ahmad Noorani was followed by his son, AnasNoorani.

Election upon repeated election, punctuated by military rule or the hypocracy of democratic dictatorship either in the form of an elected elite or an elected man in uniform brings about no dent in the hardening of dynastic politics. Let’s face it, dynastic politics is easy. Both for the voter and the political representative.

It is true now that due to the gift of media proliferation in the post Musharraf era, no one, even at the grassroots level is ignorant of banner politics and the catch phrases du jour, albeit shrouded in the media’s propaganda garb. But there does exist a large mass of uninvolved or misinformed voters, and the truth is that the sleepiest of voters respond to a name that has been passed down to him through generations. Voting becomes easy for the voter. As for the scion of a political dynasty, the process is something he or she inherits in their genes and for which they are  groomed in quite  the same way as a tradesman grooms his son for a trade through apprenticeship. According to educationist HamidaKhuro, “Meritocracy is a middle class, post industrial revolution concept” adding that the apprenticeship factor or ‘learn from the father’ matters. For most politicians it is simply a family trade and name recognition is a factor, agendas matter but the name is always there. So in a way one can conclude, it is no better than being a shopkeeper where politics is a trade. In a worst case scenario it is a trade where money is made, and sometimes through the selling of conscience, in a pattern that is well known through the influence of a name that is known well.

The military too, though internally a meritocracy operates in a dynastic manner when given free reign in politics, and aligns itself, soon enough, with the dynastic powerhouses, for instance Musharraf and the Chaudrys’. Either that route, or their offspring enter politics, again, on the basis of the power and influence that their name yields. Ayub Khan and sons in Parliament, Zia and son and Musharraf and son. Unfortunately, this military meets politics faultline predates the birth of Pakistan or its borders and goes as far back as Napolean and the French Revolution. Rightly so,As Lord Aston said, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, which perhaps gave even Napoleon the lust for the crown of Emperor. History teaches us, we should listen.

This brings us back to the alleged curse of dynastic tradition and feigned democracies in Pakistan.We are jubilant over the perception of a democratic election, despite Imran Khan’s rants of rigging and unfair elections, when perhaps, the real problem lies in the fact that we are just choosing between at best, a political triumvirate.In my opinion, instead of perpetually lamenting unfair, rigged elections and being a thorn in the side of elected governments, we should focus our outrage at how unfair candidacy options are. Elite oligarchical rule is legitimized through the conjuring of an illusion that the public has the power to choose its leaders even though the political players remain the same old people, or their offspring with a recognizable surname.

But I must concede to the argument that newer isn’t always better, the recent drama that has unfolded on our political stage is testament to that. MrTahirUlQadri, who has done nothing but add nuisance value to the political process and augment a deep sense of frustration in his devout following. Mr Khan’sfollowing is based mainly on his value as a clean, charismatic sporting icon and the fact that he built a hospital in memory of his mother.

Qadri was successful because he cashed in on the social vacuum created by our personal religious ignorance, quite in the same way as the local cleric at the neighbourhood mosque manipulates us into allegiance as a result of our spiritual and scriptural nescience. Imran Khan met success because there was a space vacant for an iconic leadership, and he came in with bats waving, vituperative verbal guns blazing, and a loud diatribe of utopian rhetoric that would appeal to one and all. But has anyone ever asked the two messiahs of change what their game plan would be after the street festivals are over?

What they have in their favour besides these poorly rehearsed moves is the merit of non association to dynastic politics. Is that a formula for success? Some may argue that it is. Even there, unfortunately for himself, Imran, though not fated for a political dynasty,is leaning towards an internal party dictatorship. He recently announced that he himself would select candidates and give out all party tickets.Additionally, he practically commanded his party members to turn in their resignations in the National assembly.

Let us look at JUI, which is the only religious party that is not aligned to dynastic traditions and works along the lines of democracy within the party. It has its own system of elections and even its current Aamir was elected as the new chief of the party for 5 years through a ballot presented to 31,301 members out of which 25, 533 voted in favour of Siraj –ulHaq. The party does well and is often, even through this current crisis been applauded for its contribution to a peaceful solution. Also, unlike dynastic politics where the older members remain in power for decades stagnating political thought, the JUI gives opportunity to newer blood, providing youngsters the opportunity and incentive to groom themselves for a position of power within the party.

Another non dynastic party that is an undeniable presence in Pakistan is the MQM. Everyone fears it, and everyone respects it, no matter what they say about its exiled political leader. When he speaks, everyone sits up and listens. Some attribute it to fear others to good party governance. We will never know. But it works.

So it seems, the internally democratic, conservative, hard line, religiously aligned parties are making a space for themselves paradoxically, in a left-seeking political environment and public mood. Also, this gives electoral legitimacy to governments like Sharifs’ which makes one wonder, what is really working for us. Before we scream bloody murder (read revolution) let’s take a minute to understand what we are really looking for.

Putting aside this festival of change that preceded, let us recognize this as a passionate cry of the people to change the existing status quo. Where they went amiss was in the assumption that ‘La Guillotine” in the form of the PMs resignation  would be handed to them in gleaming, freshly cast iron. Mistake. Change is a great thing, democracy an even more beautiful thing but wisdom lies in pressurizing a complacent government to pull up its socks,to continually reinvent its strategy, to engage with the people more and constantly be answerable to them for the choices they make. And to that end as Jefferson once said, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”…just to keep everyone on their toes but what we smelt was blood, not just of the people but of democracy being made to bleed out.

What these revolutionaries do not understand is clear in Martin Luther Jr’s belief that in trying to crush democracy out of shapeit will twist itself once again into the same tortured forms. Like a demon it will come back to haunt them.

[1] The author is an educationist and Editor of Criterion.