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The leviathan stirred

May 20, 2013

THE revolution happened. And it happened on Facebook. Well, well, well.

It seems, as the joke going around underscored, that the cost of Naya Pakistan appeared too much and the country has settled instead for a patched-up — we hope — old lemon.

The Khan team is miffed, badly so. And why not? Their enthusiasm was infectious until it became irritating, their hearts were solid gold; they believed with the passion of the newly awakened.

People bought international air tickets to come back home to vote balla, cut short aged parents’ vacations in Canada to send them to bat and dragged ancient grandmothers along to the polling station to score one for the team.

And, perhaps more to the point, narrative causality meant that the result ought to have been different. Take any story, any of the good ones, and the outsider, the underdog, the one who challenges the monolith, the one who believes — he not just wins but has to win.

In any rightful universe, David has to beat Goliath, Cinderella must marry the prince, the sword in the stone cannot go to anyone other than the unlikely undersized challenger. This is how it works in the fitness of things. And this is the prism you need if you’re one of those scratching your head at the manner in which many Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) supporters seem to be taking electoral defeat as a personal affront. The famously apolitical leviathan of Pakistan — the elites and the young — finally shook off its apathy; inconceivable that it should have been in vain.

So how can I say that a revolution of sorts has indeed taken place? The PTI dominates just one province. As for the rest of the country, we’re back in familiar territory redux.

Yet it was a break from the past, just not the Tahrir Square sort of triumph the Khanistas imagined. Imran Khan’s contribution is that he managed to stir the leviathan — though for how long it remains to be seen. He managed to seduce a class and an age-group that has in recent decades largely tended to remain aloof and sneering of the political process.

First, the age demographic. The generally agreed-upon definition of ‘youth’ is under 30. That means people born in 1983 and after. Pinning down the urban apolitical, though, I’d be willing to stretch this back another five or six years; there exists a massive group of people that spent their lives largely in an atmosphere where the legitimate political process was under heavy fire.

They never heard Bhutto speak. The trial and its outcome is a piece of information picked up by the way during the course of their lives (it has never been in the textbooks), at a time when the whole idea of democratic politics was the target of a sustained campaign by shadowy quarters spanning at least a decade (as the outcome of the Asghar Khan case indicates).

These people were children when Benazir Bhutto made her game-changing first homecoming, and as teenagers or young adults what they experienced was the now this, now that, game of the ’90s, to end in a benevolent (compared to the Zia years, which they never experienced first-hand on account of being too young) dictatorship. For this group of people, I would postulate, George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror’ did not change the world, it was the world as they knew it — someone born in 1980 was 21 when the Twin Towers were hit.

The belief that many of this age-group display in the futility of the political process, and the venality of the political class, is not really that hard to understand, even though it is unfortunate. This group of people cannot be blamed for wanting something new even if they can be faulted for failing to do their history reading and assessment exercise.

Many of them seem to be very bitter and disappointed now, and their leader should take the time to shore up their confidence and underscore the importance of the process of politics. If would be sad if these thousands of people were allowed to slip back into bad old habits. Pakistan can only benefit from increased participation of the citizenry in the political sphere.

Second, the elites or, to adapt a term coined by a far wittier writer, the Cliftonia demographic. The wealthy and powerful men of Pakistan’s economic elites may always have kept an eye on governments and their connections with regard to their own interests, but far less so their sisters and spouses and children, men and women in well-paid jobs, many of an age now to have children of their own.

As the lexicon over last week’s elections so aptly showed, the burgers don’t do what the bun kebabs do, including vote — or such the case used to be.

But it seems that quite a few sections of these people too were drawn into Imran Khan’s train. And that may give rise to a fair amount of (rather delightful) humour, but it’s undeniably a good thing.

When the elites get involved — when the leviathan stirs — things tend to start happening, if only because of the self-assuredness and reach of the beast. Consider the case of the thousands of calls flooding the London Metropolitan police after MQM leader Altaf Hussain made statements that the elite took to be threatening.

We may not have a new Pakistan, but it isn’t entirely business as usual either. If this momentum for increased political participation can be sustained and honed over the hopefully five years before the next elections, it would provide strong impetus to send the country towards a different political trajectory.

The writer is a member of staff.