Will revolution save Pakistan?

Several recent articles have pointed hovering clouds of imminent revolution in Pakistan given the fast deteriorating situation and repeated disappointments with democracy and dictatorships. 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. In fact, most immediately successful revolutions have produced poor results later on. A dispassionate analysis of the possibilities and consequences of revolution in Pakistan seems sensible before pulling out our prayer rugs in support, so that revolutions do not disappoint us too, like the East Asian dictatorship model.
A genuine revolution is a fundamental change in power structure over a short period of time through violent means, and results in a new class taking over power, as in Europe, where capitalists replaced aristocrats. Heavy taxation by aristocrats on the new industrial economy to support their decadent life-styles 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 labor classes, as in Russia and China. Since neither was a hub of scientific discoveries or major colonial power, the revolutionaries failed to establish a thriving economy subsequently and soon turned their attention to venting their frustrations on the masses. Iran, the only recent theocratic revolution, suffered the same problems.
Whichever the brand, revolutions are rarely results of towering leaders suddenly descending from heavens and precipitating change. Rather, revolutions emerge from long gestation periods where certain economic classes accumulate major grievances and develop organizational capacities to respond. Leaders then serve as icing on a cake already well baked in the oven for long.
Do any of these conditions exist in Pakistan, or 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. In life, you get what you pay for and sometimes not even that. The left and labor movements are weak. The only class capable of a successful violent revolution is the mulla class, more specifically Taliban. But that would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire! With recent set-backs, Taliban are no longer breathing down Islamabad’s swan-like neck. The army seems capable of keeping them at bay if not eradicating them unless major Taliban closet sleeper-cells appear within the Army to split it down the middle. 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 country-wide 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, break-up does not necessarily lead to major changes in political structure in rest of the country. In 1971, a general was replaced by a landlord!
The second type is major street demonstrations leading to change in government. In this hyper-era of all things cheap, easy, artificial, shallow, instant and disposable, such garden-variety revolutions have become middle-class preferred choices 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 center, armed heavily with MacDonald burgers, espresso coffee and iphones, and wait expectantly for the fruit to fall in their lap in 48 hours. It helps if the army stays neutral. The former Soviet states have led the way in such ‘revolutions’ of different colors–purple, velvet and orange. Such ‘revolutions’ require modest effort but also produce modest changes: the parties instigating the demonstrations are little better than the one they replace.
This outcome is not impossible in Pakistan. Pushed to the wall, NS (only politician able to bring required numbers to Islamabad) could lead another long march that overthrows the government. What will that lead to? It could lead to new elections which bring NS to power, i.e., out of the frying pan into another frying pan. Or it could lead to a 3-year Bangladesh-type military-backed government, which achieved little and tamely handed power to Hasina with a three-fourths majority. It could lead to a full-blooded martial law too. But future generals will unlikely succeed where four have failed. These possibilities seem part of NS’s calculus and hold him back from drastic actions.
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 being talked about, but is unlikely. The major stakeholders (PPP, NS, army and judiciary) are currently involved in a boring chess game where they go for hesitant half-moves rather than the kill—much like irritating, early-morning, fat cats perched on the house wall, which growl, scowl and half-punch at each other for long but ultimately walk away, realizing that small mice are eminently more manageable pray. Even if this happens, it will lead to one of the options above–hence the half-moves.
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 super-mall or downloaded from internet. They are not free-size garments that fit every society. Among the three ‘misfits’, the gentler hand of democracy suits our proud ethnic heterogeneity best. Thus, change will come to Pakistan—but evolutionally and democratically.
Dr. Niaz Murtaza, University of California, Berkeley. murtazaniaz@yahoo.com



Filed under Pakistan

11 responses to “Will revolution save Pakistan?

  1. I agree with Dr Niaz. We do not a revolution, as often professed by Imran Khan and likes, to bring a meaningful change. We already lack charismatic leadership which can induce a spark in the people at a mass scale. Any attempt by the religious fundamentals would bring more tragedy and chaos, a semblance of which we have seen in the Sialkot lynching episode, where bearded barbarians showed their vengeance of extreme extent.
    At the same time, we need fresh faces, not descendants of dynasties or belonging to parties with personal names of their “leaders.” There is lot more that can be done to harness the deteriorating political scenario, provided rule of law is observed by everyone.

  2. Sher Zaman

    Revolutions were the harbingers of change a few decades ago, but now the times have changed. Perhaps that’s why we haven’t seen a revolution for quite some time now.

  3. Subhan

    Excellent article with deep political, situational insight and political satire. Also very well articulated … I usually read and move on but after reading this i had to take a moment and say how wonderful it is to still have people like Dr Niaz with indepth understanding of current issues.

  4. Ammar

    For some of us the future of Pakistan may seem bleak, but I do see a light at the end of the tunnel, the first step is recognition and I feel that most of us do realize that Pakistan is going through a period of turmoil and face the foremost danger of rampant religious extremism which is spreading like plague and corrupting our society. The issue of transparency is also crucial as the state must ensure the use of public resources in a transparent and effective manner; the taxpayers must pay taxes and then ask for a greater level of accountability.

  5. Tilsim

    I second Subhan’s praise. It’s a wonderful piece.

    Unless democracy is derailed, I sense a societal response will emerge to the challenges that face us; it remains to be seen what form it takes but the debates are starting. It is interesting to see on PTH that various camps can emerge – a healthy sign. Ultimately practical politics and active participation from citizens is needed to usher in change.

  6. azhar aslam

    what is a revolution ?

  7. ali hamdani

    Revolution is the real need of time as people coming on streets and tearing down buildings will just add to the present instability in Pakistan.

  8. eraj danish

    The breeding ground for terrorist is the lack of basic needs in Pakistan. If we can manage to curtail this menace, we can surely discourage new terrorists from becoming.

  9. Mustafa

    Wel written article but Dr Naz fails to mention the new interest the general population has in politics. Also revolutioons can also come through elections when people vote for a different party that wants to bring change. People power also exists, Hugo Chavez came with people power. Erdogan is different from the establishment and military, he ha brought change via a democratic process. I see this happening in Pakistan. The only thing left is a free and fair election commission. Which at the moment is not independant. Once they become independant we can have freee and fair elections and introduce non violent yet radical change.

  10. Feroz Khan

    A revolution really means a full complete turn and back to the starting point.

    What will a revolution achieve in Pakistan?


  11. Sadia Hussain

    I wonder why so much hope is pinned to a bloody revolution we need to believe in democratic evolution and progression. Pakistan today is confronted with the mammoth challenge of religious extremism and if democracy is toppled then it will inevitably pave way for extremism.