Street power

pervaiz-khatak-dance-in-dharna-pti-islamabadBy Rifaat Hamid Ghani

guest-contributorIn a subcontinent where street power has been instrumental in ridding its peoples of British Raj and where ignoring it has also been implosive—as in the presently heavily occupied Kashmir and the no longer existent East Pakistan—it is an achievement of sorts that our politicians have been able to trivialize it: mass demos, dharnas, rallies, jalsas, have become stale as well as tiresome.

But it would be perilously delusional to assume that the consequences of the sustained abuse of street power can be counted on as also being trivial and dull.

Pakistan’s politicians conceive of street power as a tool of political one-upmanship: who had the larger turnout where. The public why and because are secondary rather than motivational, and the objective is to wrest power from the incumbents and gain it for the leaders’ party machine. (There is much verbiage but little evidence or precedent that power thus gained will be exercised in the public interest first and foremost.) The PTI’s use of its glitzy street power has been frankly disruptive but it has yet to gain the critical mass to get Nawaz to ‘go’ as bid. Other political parties align with the lionized Imran Khan and his PTI off and on in unedifying bargaining to gain traction for—first things first—Nawaz to go. The spirit is we’ll join hands but reserve the right to turn on each other later.

This cannot attract the apolitical or unappropriated masses. The demos remain demos and do not acquire the momentum that makes a movement. But the noise and the fury does have the unwished for effect of heightening cynicism as to the potential of democracy as a form of government. And the precious freedoms of speech and association are tarnished in public perception.

The politically learned bemoan the lack of ‘ideology’: That is why the demos do not gather the momentum that makes a movement. That is a point of view, but almost every party out there including clerically-led ones, claims a practicing patent on the ability to define and serve democratic ideals. In fact the 2013 electoral results showed voters peacefully purging the system through the power of the ballot to an encouraging degree. The delayed outcry about fraud came primarily from defeated candidates rather than spontaneously from adherents who felt they had been prevented from voting, coerced, or had their ballots tampered with. PanamaLeaks tells those voters nothing they did not know about politicians amassing wealth.

It would be more meaningful for the public if the political opposition did more substantive monitoring of ongoing affairs of government than dwelling on past sins. Most of all the public would like to see politicians inside and outside parliament cooperate and facilitate the conduct of the census all agree is a prerequisite to any credible re-delineation of constituencies and apportionment of revenues and meaningful governance. For they also talk of capturing elections due in 2018. Merely striving to force out the government with administrative shut-downs achieves nothing—for the common weal, that is. Why then the intense oppositional focus on street power to push out the incumbent government as if that is the panacea?

Street power breeds many children. The religious right as an active ingredient in our political stew is an instance. This can be seen in the formidably paralyzing powers of PAT, led by our homeward-looking expat Dr Tahirul Qadri. This concerned and comfortably installed Canadian citizen is ready and able to bring fanatically committed people onto Pakistan’s streets—with a staying power the PTI’s rowdies lack if the cameras aren’t out there and the DJs too. Bear in mind that Dr Qadri’s party fares miserably at ‘rigged’ polls when not boycotting them and the PTI fared rather well in the latest ‘rigged’ elections.

There is a lesson there for interpreters of street power as a democratic index, as well as a caution for those who unquestioningly accept its activation as an invariably legitimate democratic tool. ‘Jihadists’ have not found space in the political mainstream—yet.

Pakistanis rightly fear the sustained deliberate exacerbation and exaggeration of otherwise valid though variegated perceptions of denied rights and injustices; economic and natural resources expropriated and inequitably utilized, or simply squandered, may snowball.

When populists and demagogues keep urging people to shut-down, sit-in, rant and storm they are liable to have crowds out on the streets, a government in limbo, and such an amorphous multiplicity of immediate demands as to make them impossible to meet.

Of course this would suit people who want to see Pakistan a failed state; or a quelled and controlled one where an obliging oligarch’s writ is law. Corrupt and inept and limited though he may be, PM Sharif it would appear does not meet those demands—nor does natural institutional democratic evolution suit meddlesome political players who prefer a militarized polity ‘suitably’ oriented.