People vs the masses

February 01, 2013


AS Pakistan prepares for landmark elections this spring, here’s a plea to the country’s politicians, young and old, male and female: stop talking down to the Pakistani ‘masses’ and start addressing the ‘people’ of Pakistan. Yes, there’s a difference — a very big one.

Make the switch — in mindsets as well as in your vocabulary — and you will see. Suddenly, being a politician in Pakistan will become more of a challenge. It will also become, hopefully, more interesting and fulfilling.

Addressing ‘people’ means listening first to their hopes and aspirations, recognising them as citizens and voters, as men and women who have choices which they exercise intelligently and with dignity. The ‘masses’ can be neglected, ignored and browbeaten. They can be manipulated and denigrated — and their votes can be bought and sold. Try doing that to ‘people’ — and you will have a full-fledged revolution on your hands.

In the words of Emma Lazarus, the masses are tired, poor and huddled, yearning to breathe free. In contrast, people are first and foremost, free and proud individuals and second, part of a group.

For an even better distinction between the two, read Pope Pius XII’s Christmas radio message in 1944, where he talks of masses as no more than “a shapeless multitude, an inert mass to be manipulated and exploited”. On the other hand, a “people”, he says, is much more remarkable, representing a “group of persons, each of whom — ‘at his proper place and in his own way’ — is able to form its own opinion on public matters and has the freedom to express its own political sentiments and bring them to bear positively on the common good”. A state does not make a people; rather, a people make a state, the pope explains further.

Having spent more time than necessary listening to and reading speeches by politicians from across the world, it is clear to me that there are those who speak eloquently yet simply and directly to their fellow citizens. And others who harangue the masses and bore them into further inertia.

In his seminal inaugural address in 1961, the late president John F. Kennedy addressed his “fellow Americans” as well as “fellow citizens of the world” and forever set the benchmark for eloquence for his successors. So far only Barack Obama can match Kennedy’s oratory.

The same cannot be said for the long, boring, repetitive tirades by leaders of the Communist Party in China (although this is now changing with the new generation of leaders) and the post-communist rulers of Russia. Or how about Kim Jong-un addressing the long-suffering people of North Korea?

There is much to criticise in the conduct and musings of Pakistani politicians, whatever their affiliation. But the one thing above all that has always struck me as outdated — and yet so reflective of feudal Pakistani attitudes towards democracy — is the inevitable talk of the masses. True, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto set up the ‘Pakistan Peoples Party’ — but his speeches were addressed to the faceless, nameless masses.

But Bhutto and his clan are not alone. Listen carefully and it is clear that whether they speak in English or Urdu, whether their words are peppered with religious quotations or not, Pakistani politicians will always make a reference to unnamed, anonymous Pakistani masses.

In recent weeks, we’ve heard the politicians come out with more slogans, promising basic services for all, so-called tsunamis of self-righteousness against corruption and/or popular uprisings such as the one in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. It all sounds fine for a bit … until the sad, unfortunate appeal at the end to the Pakistani masses. That’s when most people turn off.

Nobody wants to be lumped together with millions of others into one sad, faceless, inert blob. After all, the world today is full of examples of people exercising their rights as citizens rather than the action of soulless masses.

The Arab Spring was about people’s power, not the force of the masses. It was the Egyptian people — like the Tunisians before them — who came out into the street, demanding change and transformation.

Even viewed from the outside, it is clear that Pakistan is also changing — although many politicians in the country may not realise it just yet. The many feudals who sit in the assemblies may still talk complacently of the power they wield over the masses, but that grip is loosening rapidly. Education and access to media — both traditional and new social media — is transforming the faceless masses into empowered people.

It may be happening more slowly than in other parts of the world — and it may be happening against the wishes of a Pakistani elite which prefers the status quo — but Pakistani traditions and society are changing. As in neighbouring India, the rising middle class in Pakistan is making sure that politicians pay attention to their demands for better basic services, education, health — and gender equality.

At a recent seminar on Pakistani democracy held in Brussels, participants were unanimous in their admiration for the courage, patience and fortitude of the people of Pakistan. There were references to the myriad civil society initiatives taken to provide basic services, the societal struggle for human rights and initiatives under way to build regional alliances across South Asia.

While Pakistani politicians got short shrift, the people were hailed as the ones who really saved Pakistan from becoming a failed state. As one participant pointed out to much applause: “The state may be failing the people of Pakistan, but the Pakistani people are not failing the state.”

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.