We have a choice

September 20, 2019

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The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

MOST young Pakistanis born in the nineties and noughties grew up hearing stories about how democracy in our country was a failure, largely due to the antics of the PML-N and PPP who exchanged stints in government between the Zia and Musharraf dictatorships. The two parties came and went twice each between 1988 and 1999, neither completing a full term in government, inadvertently or otherwise playing into the hands of the judicial and military establishments.

It was this propaganda against democracy that drove many young people into Imran Khan’s arms. Recall that the current prime minister claimed to embody the aspirations of Pakistan’s youth, and promised a regime free of cronyism and the unproductive politics of vendetta that was supposedly the preserve of the PPP and PML-N.

A little over a year since coming to power, the PTI’s claims to be the embodiment of a new political horizon stand exposed. The present government is committed only to a politics of vendetta, the arrest of the PPP’s Khursheed Shah the latest example of its unwillingness to do anything more than gag the opposition. The economy is in a shambles, foreign policy an utter failure, and ministers are regularly embarrassing themselves and their party.

And what about our almost 150 million young people? Even more educated and mobile segments suffer from economic precarity, many without prospects of a secure future. Forget the almost 30m out-of-school children wallowing in poverty, and millions more rendered refugees in their own country by war and ecological disasters.

No, the present government appears to have no plan for them whatsoever.

At least some young people will be marching in Pakistani cities.

In the rest of the world, governments backed by corporate lobbies are hardly concerned about young people and the future of the world either, but in many countries, real issues still feature at some level in mainstream political and intellectual debate. In fact, young people in other parts of the world appear to have taken matters into their own hands. Today, a movement sparked by teenagers, the Swede Greta Thunberg most notable amongst them, is once again taking the streets around the world, demanding that governments act now to secure the future of today’s youth and future generations of humanity. Thankfully, at least some young people in Pakistan are in the know and will be marching in Turbat, Peshawar, Thatta, Faisalabad — and beyond.

They are the heirs to generations of revolutionaries who have struggled to upend an inegalitarian and unjust social order. It is called capitalism, and it is wrecking our planet and immiserating billions in the process. Establishments generate war, pillage peripheral regions for their natural resources, and then criminalise those who speak up against it all. A real politics of change challenges all of this. I don’t want to suggest that the climate strikes herald an imminent global revolution. But the fact that young people are being politicised — about climate change in general, and the workings of a political-economic system that is based on class exploitation, systemic oppression of women and girls, and ensures that most of the world’s people (primarily brown and black) are still ruled by a handful of imperialist powers — is cause for great hope.

It suggests that genuine democratic movements spearheaded by the biggest stakeholders of society — young people — are still taking root, despite the fact that formal rep­r­­e­sentative institutions around the world remain oligarchic. Indeed, one of the most powerful slogans of the movement — ‘System change, not climate change’ — confirms that participants recognise that their struggle is not simply about individual con­s­­umption choi­ces, but about building a mass political force that can make systemic change happen.

Today’s marches in many cities of Pakistan will still only bring together a small proportion of our country’s young people; some are yet to be convinced, while many more simply do not know or have the free time to participate (just like most labourers continue to go through their daily grind on May 1).

Of the many constituencies of young people who must be brought into the Climate Action Movement is the one that consciously supported the PTI and helped bring it to power. They must ask themselves whether the PTI has helped Pakistan move beyond the politics of vendetta or if in fact things have gotten even worse.

If there is a silver lining to the experience of the past 12 months, it is the fact that many ordinary Pakistanis — particularly in Punjab — are increasingly aware and critical of the role that the establishment plays in making what Cyril Almeida calls ‘hybrid’ regimes that lead us deeper into the abyss. It is time to join the dots and move beyond our establishment-centric model and build an organic politics of the people, by the people, and for the people. We all have a choice, and our very future depends on it.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2019