In the last ten to fifteen days one has heard ‘constitution’, ‘rule of law’, ‘good governance’, ‘democracy’ and many similar words being uttered by so many people but with different meanings. However, looking at what is happening it doesn’t seem that these words make any sense any more. In fact, what is happening at the movement is not about politics but manipulation of politics through a parallel and even more forceful handling of public narrative. The victory belongs to those who can show greater capacity to play with people’s minds and make them believe that they hold the solution to the problems in their hands.
The media, of course, seems to be a willing partner. It even loves the game in which it may feel like a kingmaker when it is just another pawn. The protestors, their leadership and the media, which appears to be totally in love with these people at the moment, is fast creating and recreating myths and narratives. We are told that the country has arrived at a point when things couldn’t change except for this local version of Arab Spring. Anchors and analysts name Syria’s Assad and Egypt’s Mubarak in the same breath as the government in Pakistan.
Here one would like to give full marks to the PTI and the PAT for playing a strong hand at controlling the popular narrative. The long march, the reference to Syria and Egypt or Nelson Mandela and Mahatama Gandhi is meant to create a ‘shock effect’ meant to confuse people to an extent that they forget what they actually believe in or what is right or wrong. No one can deny the PTI and the PAT their right to protest.
No one even denies that the government ought to be blamed for not making an effort to improve governance. But how do we judge that we reached a point where strangulating a government through such actions was the only option? For every PTI/PAT worker we talk to, there are many more who complain about what the government could not achieve but they also mention what the government did achieve. But we don’t hear the other voice as loudly as those selling a ‘new’ Pakistan. For instance, it is difficult to hear that the metro bus project, which is irksome to many of the seemingly pro-poor and pro-people aunties and uncles of Islamabad, is considered a blessing by many of the low-income people who will save some money as a result. This is not to suggest that the government has a misplaced sense of prioritisation. There are many things that it could do which may not be visible but could have been better. But then ordinary people do look at infrastructure. For all Imran Khan’s claims that the people of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) love him because a lot of them voted for him, many are uncomfortable with his inability to deliver anything that he promised. Many Pakhtuns and other ethnicities from K-P talk about lack of infrastructure. The K-P government’s shortfalls never make it to the discussion table. Are we surprised?
Drawing a comparison with the Middle East is also dangerous because while focusing on the euphoria around the change in Cairo (for instance) we forget the peculiarities of the case and that those that brought the change ultimately failed and were side lined. The liberal or moderate and educated youth of Egypt, who thought they tweeted Hosni Mubarak out of power, were never the victors. Interestingly, the PTI/PAT leaders are not the only ones creating a new Pakistan. There are others like the JI, the JuD and similar organisations that are engaging the other Pakistan through welfare and organising movements to protest the crisis in Gaza. We, on the other hand, are not sure who would Tahirul Qadri take on board to bring about a revolution. Furthermore, considering that the opposition and the ruling party are engaged in a zero-sum game, they could be pushing in a direction where everyone would beg for the military to intervene out of frustration. The current march would not do anything but push the country towards the ‘end of politics’ which only gives birth to extremities rather than find a permanent solution.
The possibility of a soft or hard military intervention or the religious right strengthening are not the only two issues. We are not even sure if the ‘naya Pakistan’ leadership will be able to deliver themselves. Lost in the popular narrative created by the media. do we ever look at the inner capacity of the new leadership? Why are all the big landowners and pirs that are part of the PTI and do not object when people come and bow down in front of them any different from those in the traditional parties which are now out of favour with the media and the evolving elite of this country? Are the PTI Makhdooms and real estate walas a different brand? Why does it seem that these people will not market themselves and standing up for the rights of the poor while looking down upon them? As per the new narrative, middle class, poor and governance are terms that sell quite well. Even those that are part of the elite will often present themselves as the middle class.
Can we consider the possibility that the actual middle class or the dispossessed would be happy with change but also intertwined with stability? We cannot afford to let this country slip into greater chaos and confusion where nothing makes sense and that entire people do is turn towards war lords. We are not Syria or Egypt as yet. But this also means that we must not lose sight of the need for a dialogue and for not playing a zero-sum game. Wish that instead of manipulating rhetoric the leadership of the marchers and the government would understand that we stand on the brink of becoming Syria or Nigeria like, especially when our dream gets shattered. It really hurts to see this country crash like this.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 21st, 2014.
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