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Not through revolution

July 28, 2010


RECENT articles have pointed to the clouds of an imminent revolution inside Pakistan where a fast-deteriorating situation and repeated disappointments vis-à-vis democracy — and dictatorships — are evident.

However, genuine revolutions tend to be bloody and produce mixed results. Some have led to functional democracies and thriving economies, while others have produced totalitarian governments and stagnant economies. Let us analyse the possibilities and consequences of a revolution in Pakistan.

A genuine revolution is a fundamental change in the power structure over a short period of time through violent means, one that would result in a new class taking over as in Europe, where capitalists replaced aristocrats. Heavy taxation imposed by aristocrats on the new industrial economy to support their decadent lifestyles provided ammunition for urban grievances. European revolutions succeeded as capitalist classes had attained significant wealth and power through scientific discoveries and colonial exploits. This allowed them to overthrow decaying landed classes and establish modern thriving economies.

Outside their western comfort zones, revolutions have been less successful on other continents. The most common revolutions in non-western societies have been communist ones, spearheaded by Marxists and labour classes, as in Russia and China. Since neither was a hub of scientific discoveries or a major colonial power, the revolutionaries failed to establish a thriving economy and soon turned their attention to venting their frustrations on the masses. Iran, which saw the only recent revolution grounded in theocracy, suffered from the same problems. Whatever their brand, revolutions are rarely the result of towering leaders precipitating change. Rather, revolutions emerge from long gestation periods where certain economic classes accumulate major grievances and develop organisational capacities to respond. Leaders then present themselves as the icing on the cake.

Do any of these conditions exist in Pakistan? More importantly, which class can lead a violent revolution that fundamentally restructures politics? Our businessmen are hardly the stuff of violent revolutions. Their anger at the government is tempered as they (and much of Pakistan) don't pay much tax. The left and labour movements are weak.

The only class capable of a successful violent revolution is the mullah class, more specifically the Taliban. But that would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The Taliban have suffered setbacks and the army seems capable of keeping them at bay unless major Taliban closet sleeper-cells appear within the security forces. Thus, a violent revolution is neither likely nor desirable in Pakistan.

Two other types of political upheavals, loosely akin to revolutions, exist. The first is a liberation movement against colonialism or where an ethnic group breaks away. We have already gone through the first in 1947 and the second in 1971. But the current frustration is countrywide rather than within one ethnic group, with the exception of long-burning Balochistan. However, it is unlikely that even Balochistan will break away, especially if the government accelerates its reconciliation efforts. Furthermore, a break-up does not necessarily lead to major changes in the political structure of the rest of the country. In 1971, a general was replaced by a landlord.

The second type of upheaval constitutes major street demonstrations leading to a change in government. In this hyper-era of all things shallow, instant and disposable, such a garden variety of revolutions is the middle class's preferred choice given the taxing nature of genuine revolutions. Unlike genuine revolutions, these also often occur in democracies. Tens of thousands of people converge on the city centre, armed heavily with MacDonald burgers, espresso coffee and iPhones, and wait expectantly for the fruit to fall in their lap in 48 hours. The former Soviet states have led the way in such 'revolutions' of different colours and textures — purple, velvet and orange. Such 'revolutions' require modest effort but also produce modest changes the parties instigating the demonstrations are little better than the ones they replace.

This outcome is not impossible in Pakistan. Pushed to the wall, Nawaz Sharif could support another long march to overthrow the government. What would that lead to? It could lead to new elections which brings him to power, i.e. out of the frying pan into another frying pan. Or it could lead to a Bangladesh-type military-backed government, which achieved little and tamely handed power to the next prime minister. It could lead to a full-blooded martial law too. But future generals are unlikely to succeed where four have failed.

Sobered much by the slim prospects for drastic change, we descend further —from revolution-lites to arm-chair, drawing-room 'revolutions'. An in-house change is possible but unlikely as Zardari is keeping smaller parties happy. A judicial-cum-military 'coup' is talked about, but is unlikely. The major stakeholders (PPP, PML-N, the army and judiciary) are currently involved in a boring chess game where they go for hesitant half-moves rather than the kill.

This brings us to the distinct possibility that the clouds of revolution will thunder much over Pakistan but ultimately rain down on more suitable, distant terrains, leaving democracy intact here. What is wrong with that? Hasn't democracy done well sometimes? The sages retort that democracy works only in certain societies. Unfortunately, the same is true for dictatorships and revolutions. They cannot be bought, pre-fabricated, off-the-shelf from the nearest mall or downloaded from the Internet. The gentler hand of democracy suits our proud ethnic heterogeneity best. Thus, change will come to Pakistan — but evolutionally and democratically.

The writer is a research associate on political economy issues at the University of California at Berkeley, US.