DESPITE the economy, geopolitics, the climate — despite it all — Pakistan’s major cities are abuzz. There are theatre, food, literary, and film festivals. Art biennales and gallery openings. New restaurants with fusion cuisines and food blogs to rank them.
Young graduates are flocking to tech incubators and start-ups, and monetising apps and e-commerce. Weekends bring fashion shows, new museums, comedy nights. Local adventure guides facilitate travel to the country’s hidden corners. Cafes are proliferating and emerging as sites of dialogue, learning, creativity. But all is not what it seems.
Those who moan about the state of Pakistan’s democracy, economy or social fabric, are presented with its creative cities — or nodes — as a rebuttal. No doubt, an increasingly aware cohort of young, middle-class Pakistanis are causing a stir. This is the dividend of globalisation, the internet, and the reverse brain drain, driven both by anti-immigration and Islamophobic trends abroad, and patriotism back home.
The role of social media in spurring these creative energies should not be underestimated. Online platforms have allowed young people to transcend the limits of family, kinship and class-bound networks and connect with like-minded souls from across the country, and indeed the globe. Good ideas are replicated. This is the positive story that this administration wants told; the middle-class modernity that has become the face of Pakistani resilience.
A process to disengage from the political sphere is on-going.
But there is an alternative interpretation. Perhaps these initiatives and emerging collectives are a release valve for energies that are not more productively channelled through political participation. The less people engage with the political system — whether by voting, interacting with the bureaucracy, seeking transparency and accountability, challenging policy or organising civil society — the more likely they are to seek out cafes, cinemas and concerts.
The apoliticisation at the crux of growing cultural industries is apparent. So when the telecoms and IT regulators want to ban social media platforms — or be better equipped to block them — youthful chatter online focuses on the inconvenience of such a proposal for communications and e-commerce, rather than the violation of free speech. A process to disengage from the political sphere is well under way.
It seems strange to write this after the euphoria of the past two elections, which celebrated the rise of the youth voter. Recall that in the 2018 elections, the 26-35 age bracket was the largest, with 27 per cent of registered voters falling in that range, and 20pc of voters were aged between 18 and 25. Youthful energy so defined the PTI voter that the derogatory moniker coined to refer to party supporters focused on their juvenility.
The argument also seems incongruous when recent years have witnessed the emergence of youthful segments who have articulated grievances and — knowing that injustices are structural and chronic, and can only be mitigated through the proper democratic channels — launched compelling civil society movements.
Ironically, the occurrence of these trends in parallel now threatens to dissociate the youth from meaningful political engagement. The frenzy around the polls recast politics as party. For young voters, political participation takes the form of dharnas, face paint, DJs, jalsas, and pop art-inspired kurtas printed with politicians’ faces.
This is a far cry from the actual business of politics, which relies on grass-roots engagement, canvassing, policy analysis, recourse to law, compromise, community organising, and consensus building. Meaningful political engagement is a slow grind, often unrewarding. It needs a commitment to values and ideals articulated as policy and long-term thinking.
In Pakistan, those who truly engage are discouraged, intimidated, harassed, disappeared. Because their work may result in accountability, it is quickly stopped. Thus middle-class complacency combined with a valid fear of the consequences of substantive participation will continue to drive apathy and disengagement. Political participation will soon seem the most inappropriate articulation of fresh ideas or lofty ambitions.
We can disperse the blame: on to the media that has failed to engage and inform young people; on political parties for failing to articulate their concerns; on the judiciary for failing to uphold the law of the land; and, above all, on the system for caring little about representation, service delivery or accountability. But blame is not an antidote.
In the short term, the urban buzz will help sustain optimism and drive creativity. But in the long term, it will normalise the structural factors that are destroying Pakistani democracy. We must enjoy our cultural industries and help them flourish, but we must not lose sight of their double edge.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2019