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Beyond the politics of rallies

Updated October 22, 2014


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

IT is the season of political rallies. There is no shortage of adjectives for the organisers, and enthusiastic media persons are ready to exaggerate the success of each rally in gushing words — ‘mammoth’, ‘massive’, ‘sea of humanity’, ‘unprecedented’. It goes on and on.

Each successive rally is declared as ‘the people’s verdict’ in favour of the respective parties. ‘Change is in the air’ is the buzzword, and revolution appears to be around the corner. Dreams come cheap for a populace desperate to see their wretched life changed.

Unlike in the past, the rallies have become much more entertaining with background music and enthusiastic supporters dancing to the tunes amid fiery speeches. The large participation of women has changed the complexion of such political events. The live telecasts of the proceedings may have also contributed to the changing political culture. It all seems good. But the question that matters most is what lies beyond these rallies.

Lofty promises appeal to a frustrated populace; the danger is such pledges raise expectations that cannot be fulfilled.

As the sit-in in Islamabad enters its third month, the focus has increasingly shifted to other cities. Both Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have taken the battle into the Punjab heartland and the citadel of the Sharifs’ power. The huge response does reflect the growing public discontent and changing political dynamics in the country’s most powerful province.

For the first time, the Sharifs’ power base has been seriously challenged. The slogan for change, however shallow, has caught the imagination of two groups — the youth and the educated urban middle classes. They are now also drawing support from the urban poor. It has really turned into a mass protest movement against a corrupt and family-dominated political culture. This momentum has also been the cause of serious concern to the PPP that is struggling to recover from its historic defeat in Punjab.

What started as a demand for the auditing of votes, has taken a completely different turn even beyond the call for the resignation of the prime minister. Without any such possibility on the horizon, it has now taken on the flavour of a full-fledged election campaign.

While Imran Khan’s populist rhetoric largely revolves around the government’s ineptness and the promise of a ‘new Pakistan’ free from corruption and with justice for everyone, Qadri has presented a blueprint for a ‘revolution’. From his earlier stance of complete destruction of the old order, the cleric now sees an opportunity to join the system by taking part in the elections whenever they take place.

Surely, all those lofty promises are extremely appealing to people frustrated with the current state of affairs. But the danger is that these unrealistic pledges raise high expectations that cannot be met. While most of the criticism of the government’s policies and the Sharif family’s stranglehold on power is valid, the solution offered by the challengers to deal with some of the most complex problems confronted by the country are far too simplistic.

Populist slogans are an easy method to mobilise public support, but they do not provide long-term solutions to challenges. While it is easy to burn inflated electricity bills and exhort people not to pay their taxes, it will be much more difficult to put the system right when in power

Qadri promises free housing and healthcare to every citizen and 50pc subsidy on electricity and gas bills. He also vows to make Pakistan a part of the emerging economic powers, the group known as BRICS including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. All this sounds great. But how is it going to happen? With the Chaudhries of Gujrat, Mustafa Khar and several others of their ilk joining the bandwagon, one wonders about Qadri’s promised revolution.

Threatened with finding itself completely out of the game, the PPP has also come out of hibernation and held its first big rally in Karachi in years. The party is trying to show that it has not lost its mass appeal, and can compete with other opposition political parties such as Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. But the show was more of a government-sponsored event. Most of the people were bussed in from the party’s rural strongholds with little participation by the local population.

While dwelling mostly on the sacrifices rendered by leaders of the PPP, Bilawal Bhutto had little to say on the way forward. He attacked political opponents across the political spectrum, but said nothing about the pathetic performance of his own party’s government in Sindh which has earned the dubious distinction of being the country’s worst governed province.

It has become convenient for both Imran Khan and the PPP leaders to divert the focus on the issue of governance in the provinces where their party rules. The claim to have turned around Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is far from true.

The KP Assembly session was convened after four months as everyone from the chief minister to the members of the provincial assembly have been busy with the Islamabad sit-in. Would it not be better for parties to set an example of good governance in their provinces first?

Indeed, rallies and protests are an important part of democratic politics, but they cannot be seen as an end in themselves. Qadri may not have much stake in democratic politics anyway, but it is the PTI that may be in danger of burning itself out by peaking too early. How long can the PTI sustain the momentum? There is no way the rallies can bring down the government and force fresh elections.

But hang on. Maybe it will not be a long wait as Nawaz Sharif himself is quite capable of bringing about his own downfall. One can trust him to do so. He has done it in the past and there is certainly no indication of him having changed. Despite the support of parliament, the paralysis of his government has worsened. Living in Wonderland he is unwilling to reform. Wait for Sharif to do something unintelligent to wreck the boat.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2014