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The (misdirected) yearning for Zardari’s removal from office – by Ayaz Amir

The (misdirected) yearning for change
Ayaz Amir

The Pakistani non-voting middle class represents a strange phenomenon, a category waiting to be defined in some seminal work on the social sciences. This class will not be bothered to vote. It will stay aloof from the political process and will be represented in no political party. But it will bay the loudest against plummeting national values and the pressing need for immediate — almost revolutionary — change.

The members of this class will, for the most part, be living in the better-off parts of our cities. Their preferred mode of transport — which sets them apart from most of their countrymen — is the privately-owned motor car. Their children go to ‘English-medium’ schools — and why shouldn’t they when Urdu-medium education is in a state of crisis, and when mass education has never been a priority in the Islamic Republic?

There is nothing to doubt the sincerity, or call it the angst, of the non-voting Pakistani middle class. Its yearning for change is genuine enough. But since, as far as politics is concerned, its members are merely spectators, that too from a distance, and not participants or activists, they are powerless to affect or determine the course of events.

Which doesn’t prevent them from talking. In fact talk, often hysterical talk, and fulmination become substitutes for action. Foreigners wonder at our capacity for talk and its close cousin, cynicism, and our relative inability to translate some of that talk into action. There can be million-man marches against the Iraq war in New York and London but not in any Pakistani city. Because those who should be in the forefront of such activity are out of touch with the multitude.

And when the multitude, for want of anything better, votes in the PPP to power, or the PML-N, or as far as Karachi is concerned the MQM, the non-voting middle class, especially its English-speaking component, is aghast at the low intelligence, or non-discernment, of the Pakistani electorate. Over time this attitude fuels a contempt for the political process.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was no Ho Chi Minh. But he crossed class lines when he appealed to the masses and shaped his politics around them. So much water has flowed down our rivers but our non-voting middle class, what Marx might have called (but didn’t) the sick bourgeoisie, never forgave him for this sin. Even today when so many other problems have arisen, Bhutto remains the bete noire of this class.

The inertness of the middle class leads to another surprising outcome: hysterical calls, whenever a civilian government is in place, for ‘surgical’ intervention to set right the alarming course of events, or the dire state of the nation. There is a rich irony in this juxtaposition: inactivity which nothing can shake matched only by a passion for alarmism.

This is dangerous territory. The power of ‘surgical’ intervention in Pakistan rests with only one institution: the army. Hence it is scarcely an accident that every military coup — whether led by Ayub, Yahya, Zia or Musharraf — was not only welcomed (that would be too lukewarm) but hailed by Pakistan’s apology of a middle class. In other climes the middle class has been the principal bulwark of democracy. Here it is just the other way round.

For military folly the patience of this class is virtually limitless. But no sooner does the political wheel turn and a civilian government occupies the landscape devastated by military rule, the chattering classes — drawn mostly from the non-voting middle class — come into their own and start railing mercilessly against civilian ineptitude.

There is no denying civilian ineptitude. We have more than our share of it and our political parties and their leaders would benefit from a stint in purgatory or Chinese-style re-education camps. But that is hardly the point.

There is no gainsaying the corruption marking Benazir Bhutto’s two stints as prime minister. There is no denying the inadequacy, to use no stronger expression, defining the PML-N’s stints in power. Who can deny President Asif Ali Zardari’s reputation or, arguably, his inadequacy in so many particulars for the office he holds.

But if there were those who argued in days gone by that Benazir Bhutto should be allowed to complete her term, and if there was a need to punish her or kick her out of office it should be done through the ballot box; and if there were some who said that throwing out Nawaz Sharif before his time was up was not a good idea; or if there are those who say that black as his misdeeds may be President Zardari should not be the object of any ‘surgical’ intervention — whether from the army or any other quarter, and when I say any other quarter I hope my meaning is clear — it was not out of past love for Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif or present love for Zardari but only to press home the point that ‘surgical’ interventions, invariably and without exception, do more harm than good.

And that the curative powers of the normal political process, even if at times they appear tediously long, are more beneficial in the long run than any shotgun approach. After four military coups it might have been supposed that as a nation we were wiser on this score. But the impatience of the chattering classes, more than evident in talk-shows and newspaper columns, makes it clear that the hunger for ‘heavenly’ interventions remains as strong as ever.

This is to forget that surgical solutions are all of a piece. They yield no Ataturks or de Gaulles, at least not in our context. Let us be under no illusions on this count. They only lead to variations on the themes of Zia or Musharraf.

Two years of this dispensation are already over. Three years remain for the next elections — that is, if the heavens do not intervene in between. Bhutto formed the PPP in 1967 and it was only three years later that he was triumphant at the polls. If there are people of sincerity and goodwill, and ability — the first two being of no use without the third — who want to re-do, rethink or remake Pakistan, they have these three years to organise themselves and make a difference where it matters — not in TV studios or drawing rooms (the favourite haunts of the chattering classes) but the slums of our cities and the dusty lanes of rural Pakistan.

Just as music comes from musical instruments, justice from courts, the cleaning of cities from efficient municipal services, and good food from a good kitchen, political change can only come through the political process. For those worried about the state of Pakistan — and there is no shortage of such souls — there is no alternative to participating in the political process, apart of course from the march of the Triple One Brigade. And, surely, we don’t want that, do we?

One more point: the lawyers’ movement was the first occasion in our tumultuous history that parts of the non-voting middle class were shaken out of their habitual inactivity. This movement was something they could relate to and hence they were inspired by it. But then came a halt to this process that should have been carried forward when the movement’s leadership committed the fatal error of boycotting the Feb 2008 elections.

After the elections the initiative lay not with the lawyers’ movement, as it had done for much of 2007, but with the political leadership thrown up by the elections. And much as the chattering classes may wish to deny it, the restoration of the rightful judiciary happened not because of the lawyers’ movement, by then in debt to the PML-N which was helping sustain it, but by the political process.

Aitzaz Ahsan, Munir Malik, Ali Ahmed Kurd, Tariq Mahmood, to name only these four, should have been in the present National Assembly. How the tone of this assembly would have improved. Imran Khan too should have been in it instead of being a prophet in the wilderness as he is at present, his tone increasingly raucous as he points with strained finger to the promised land.

India achieved independence, and Pakistan became a separate state, through the workings of the political process. No saviour will set Pakistan right. If Pakistan is to be rethought and remodelled — there being an urgent necessity for both — this will only happen through the political process. History leaves us with no other choice.


Source: The News, 12 Feb 2010

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  • The chattering class of Pakistan has two major problems:
    1. They don’t exercise their right to vote.
    2. They don’t accept the verdict when others have exercised the same right.
    Their flimsy excuses in both cases run something like this: “awam” are ignorant; democracy doesn’t suit “us”; voting is never fair; candidates are uneducated; people really need “danda”, etc, etc.

  • A sense of gloom and all-pervasive disillusionment and despair seems to have overtaken the opponents of Zardari and most favorable opponents of democracy. Since a civilian elected government is on the helm of affairs, the anger and frustration of specific section of the society is increasing with every passing day. Things have reached a point where some voices are widely talking about military rule, as they are failing to digest democracy as they are habitual of licking feet of uniformers. In the turbulent 63-year history?, Is it really the case that everything wrong can so glibly be dumped into the basket of the political class and the authoritarian and dictatorial dispensations of military coup-makers rehabilitated as ‘better’? While the results and fallout of military rule always become visible until sometime after they have departed. This arguably, is the case with the Musharraf dispensation. The energy crisis, food inflation and disrupted supply, unemployment and other such problems impacting the daily lives of ordinary citizens are undeniable in their ferocious erosion of the people’s ability to keep their heads above water. The effects of terrorism, now nestling in our very bosom, have reduced to a large extent by the commitment of the Govt to flush out militants. By the operations against the terrorists, their ability to inflict damage indiscriminately on lives and property has almost dead. The diehard critics of the present dispensation are satisfied with the superficial answer that everything has gone wrong under this government, and if only it and the president are changed, all will be hunky-dory. Those with a sharpened axe to further grind go so far as to paint a doomsday scenario for the country until and unless the present leadership is removed. These are the people which are equally responsible for the mishaps with this country. They are equally responsible for every wrongdoing with this country. They are worst then autocracy and these are the people that always hindered smooth functioning of democracy.

  • The above article of Ayaz Amir reappeared in Rahid Orakzai notes on Facebook.
    Here is an interesting comment from Zakia R. Khwaja…
    Some years ago, I was present at a meeting and it was interrupted by a person who came in to inform us that a bomb had exploded somewhere and twenty people were dead. All present made clucking noises of commiseration and after much shaking off heads went back to the business of the meeting. That was the first time the sheer apathy of our nation struck me. Apathy and numbness. Twenty families would be mourning their dead and all we could think about was our balance sheets and bottom lines. A couple of decades ago when political activism had integrity and was not a dirty word, these same people would have been picketing in the streets. Where was the josh, the valvalah that I had heard my parents talk about? The urge to effect change and the confidence that they could? The power of the educated that could change destinies and histories. I don’t know which Pakistan they had been talking about; looking around the table, I could find no remnants of it.

    Why are we like this now?
    1) Our national institutions and political parties have failed us time and again and now we’re just tired of putting faith in them. Why get involved and set ourselves up for disappointment?
    … See more
    2) We believe our votes will change nothing because the election results will be rigged anyway. We do not think our electoral process is transparent.

    3) It’s so much easier to be behind the scenes and sneering rather than being the ones in the arena getting sneered at. Politics is a dirty, corrupt game aur apni izzat apnay haath.

    4) Once working for the government was an honor, a conferring of merit almost, the most stable job. Now, our educated youth would rather work for multinationals and private sector companies and rake in the money. Government jobs don’t command the respect they once did unless you are the top man on the totem pole.

    5) We have lost confidence in ourselves and in our power to effect change. With the dog-eat-dog-world that is Pakistan today, people are trying to make ends meet, carve a living for themselves and their families, get by. The middle classes with their motorcars and english medium educations are also feeling the pinch of soaring prices and political uncertainty. The quest for bettering the quality of our lives has made us insular, unthinking off the larger community which also faces these same problems. Nobody has time to participate in the political process communally when they’re worrying about their child’s fees and the month’s groceries. They want instant gratification, solutions and ‘surgical interventions.’

    The above points are by no means excuses. It is well past the time we were shaken out of our apathy and tried to address some of the issues leading to our numbness. If for no other reason than that tomorrow it could be us caught in an explosion while people get on with their meetings.