Awaiting the demagogue

Published February 25, 2011

UPHEAVAL in the Middle East has got people here wondering, are we next? Cynics have dismissed the very idea as absurd. We aren't the Middle East! We get rid of our dictators every 10 years! We have a free media, elections!

Others point to the similarities. A young population with few economic prospects? Check. Corruption and severe misgovernance? Check. A disillusioned populace with access to cellphones and increasingly aware of goings-on in the world? Check.

So, are we next?

To answer that would be to suppose someone predicted the peaceful uprisings in the Middle East. To the best of my knowledge, no one did. If the Middle Easterners themselves were unable to predict what is happening in their midst, it stretches credibility to believe someone here knows how the contagion effect will ripple through Pakistani society. du jour

But never let the facts get in the way of a good debate. Raymond Davis and revolts and revolutions are the topics and everyone's got an opinion.

So here's my tuppence: if Pakistan is primed for anything — anything out of the ordinary, that is — it's for a demagogue to barnstorm the country and ride a wave of popular support to power.

No revolts or revolutions here, just a plain ol' demagogue. Like Zulfi Bhutto 45 years ago. But this time the demagogue won't appear from the Left. There is no Left left.

He — and you can bet your bottom dollar it will be a 'he' — will come from the Right, ready to gather up in his demagogic embrace the Children of Zia.

His plan will be straightforward, a three-step dance to power. immediate

One, he will be fiercely nationalistic. In ZAB's days, that meant beating the India drum. But while India is still the ultimate enemy in the popular imagination, it has receded as the enemy. That honour now falls to the US, and 'the West' by extension.

So our demagogue will beat up, verbally, on America. He will promise to keep our nukes safe and recover our lost sovereignty. Pakistan will be strong — strong! — and its honour and dignity will be restored.

Honour and dignity, those great intangibles, are sure-fire ways of stirring the public's passions. Arguments couched in a fierce nationalism also have the benefit of explaining away all internal weaknesses and failures on external enemies.

Two, our demagogue will pledge a return to Pakistan's true — Islamic — roots. It won't be the chop-off-limbs-and-sever-heads variety militants have offered in recent times. The public isn't quite ready for a Saudi- or Taliban-style Islamic state.

No, our demagogue will be clever. He will talk about morals, about justice, about equality, all dipped in a patina of Islam.

Can't feed your family? Stop mimicking the West, the demagogue will say, and be true to your religion and values, a higher power will take care of you.

Worried about crime in your neighbourhood? Pray more, the demagogue will urge, crimes are reflection of a society that has strayed from the path of the benevolent Creator.

Desperate for justice? You won't get any from this colonial, godless system left behind by the white man to keep Muslims in chains, the demagogue will cry. There is a perfect system of justice we have ignored. It worked centuries ago, we must revive it.

Third, there will be some kind of quack economic formula to 'fix' the country. With inflation, unemployment and inequality topping the list of the public's grievances and a state that is structurally unable to respond to the needs of its people, our demagogue will look to offer something quick on the economic front.

ZAB rode the nationalism wave sweeping through parts of the world back in the 1970s. But with the public-sector enterprises already weighed down with epic losses, there's little room to add more employees and little appetite anywhere for a fresh round of nationalisation.

Instead, the demagogue will promise to sprinkle a little economic fairy dust here and there. People below certain incomes will be offered free electricity and no taxes. 'Internships' in government departments will funnel a few thousand rupees to families across the country each month.

Government officials will be made responsible for the basic needs of dozens of families, forced to use their corruption proceeds to 'do good'. Private hospitals and schools will be forced to provide their services to the poor, with the government promising to pick up the tab later.

It will all sound and look good in theory, which will be enough for the demagogue to take to the people while criss-crossing the country for support.

A three-pronged agenda — fierce nationalism, conservative Islam and quick-fix economics — in the hands of a charismatic politician with the ambition, nous and indefatigability to tap into a vein of deep public discontent — it's happened before, it can happen again.

In recent years, Imran Khan has tried to position himself this way. But the imperious aristocrat lacks a connection with the 'common man' and doesn't have the interest or ability to nurture a party base.

Now Shah Mehmood Qureshi is trying, but it already appears too contrived. The Raymond Davis fiasco isn't Tashkent circa 1966, when ZAB turned on his boss, Ayub Khan. Qureshi's ambition and ego appear to have gotten the better of any semblance of timing. In politics, timing is everything.

But others will keep trying. It's too tempting not to, the existing system having consistently failed swathes of the population.

So yes, we are primed for something. But all this talk of revolution and revolt has obscured the more obvious possibilities.

Somewhere, right now, our next demagogue is looking at the country and licking his lips.



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