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September 7, 2010

Status-quo revolution


September 7, 2010

The founder of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Altaf Hussain, or everyone's Altaf Bhai, may never return to Pakistan. That is how one can interpret his latest statement containing his conditions for giving up his residence in London and coming back to his hometown, Karachi. One, he wants the people of Pakistan, particularly the youth, to start a "revolution" that he could join and, two, he would be needing the permission of his party's decision-making Rabita Committee to be able to come back.
None of this is likely to happen in the foreseeable future and, therefore, we would be getting more of the same, at times serious and intriguing statements emanating from that famous Edgware Road address in London where Altaf Hussain maintains his headquarters, which are sprinkled with comical stuff that provides welcome relief from the spiteful nature of Pakistani politics.
The talk of a revolution has become quite a fashion in Pakistan. Altaf Hussain isn't the first politician to mention it as the likely outcome of the country's journey towards anarchy. However, his recipe for triggering a revolution is to involve not only the citizens' yearning for a change, but also "patriotic generals" willing to move against corrupt political leaders and feudal lords.
This means that past army generals who captured power weren't patriotic enough as they failed to act against corrupt politicians and the landed aristocracy. Among them was Gen Pervez Musharraf who received unqualified support from Altaf Hussain, and, like him, came from a Karachi-based, Urdu-speaking middle-class family.
If the past is any guide, all generals, whether patriotic or unpatriotic, find it profitable to establish alliances with not only "corrupt" politicians and feudal lords, but also industrialists, bureaucrats and members of the intelligentsia to prolong their stay in power. And there is no reason it would be any different the next time a general takes power and offers himself as a saviour of

the nation.
The path that they pursue after every military coup is by now familiar: intimidate the judiciary and seek legitimacy for their unconstitutional rule from the superior courts, hold local-government elections and keep delaying assembly polls, create splits in rival political parties and form a new party by using the Muslim League label, bring together opportunist politicians and, if need be, organise a referendum to give a democratic facade to all their illegalities.
Accountability is also practiced for a while, though the purpose usually is to force everyone into submission. One hopes Altaf Bhai doesn't want this kind of "revolution," though that is how things could work out once a general is in the saddle and everyone is at his beck and call.
Despite the talk of revolution, there are no signs that it is waiting to happen. Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif have been warning that a revolution was round the corner if the problems of the poor and the dispossessed weren't addressed. The Punjab chief minister, in particular, is frequently pointing to this possibility, and sometimes reciting Faiz Ahmad Faiz's revolutionary poems to highlight the issue. His answer to this challenge would probably mean making the system of government and justice more responsive to the needs of the people, instead of taking land from the landlords and distributing it among the landless, as Altaf Hussain is advocating. The latter could afford to plead such a move as his party represents the urban-based middle class, unlike the Sharif brothers' PML-N that includes in its ranks many landowners.
As the unprecedented floods destroyed life-savings and livelihoods, one should be even more concerned that the conditions are becoming ripe for a revolution. It is even possible that the frequent mention of a likely revolution by the likes of Shahbaz Sharif and Altaf Hussain start inspiring the have-nots and prompting them to attempt a violent change. However, there isn't any strong grassroots movement of peasants, workers or other sections of the population whose leadership could organise the disaffected masses into a potent force capable of launching a revolution. The small parties working for the cause of the peasants and labourers had never been so weak, the trade unions are now unable to organise strikes and the leftists are a divided lot.
In fact, it is likely that the same ruling dispensation of which Shahbaz Sharif's PML-N and Altaf Hussain's MQM are a part, together with the once-upon-a-time progressive PPP of President Asif Ali Zardari, will ensure that any uprising by the "revolutionaries" comprising poor and hungry Pakistanis is crushed by employing state power. It would be more in their interest, and also of the military, to maintain the status quo than to allow a revolutionary change. Rather, it serves everyone's purpose to talk about the plight of the poor while enjoying a privileged lifestyle made possible by using public money and tailoring laws and policies to suit their needs.
In his entertaining telephone speeches to large gatherings of MQM supporters, who always appear to be a disciplined lot, Altaf Hussain has also been talking about the French Revolution. It is possible his followers have started reading accounts of the violent change in France in July 1789, when poor and hungry French people stormed the Bastille, which stored weapons, held prisoners and was the symbol of power of the royalty and nobility. Subsequently, King Louis XVI was executed and feudalism brought to an end through a law.
Some of the causes of the French Revolution were stated to be extreme poverty, a huge national debt, the high price of bread that caused mass hunger, the imposition of a new tax on farmers by the Catholic Church, which owned most of the land, the surge of enlightenment due to the growing dislike for the royalty and nobility and the urge among the masses for freedom of religion. Some of these causes are familiar to us as Pakistan is presently facing almost the same situation. But the major state organs, including the armed forces, the established political and religious parties and those capable of bringing about a change, are all geared towards preserving the status quo.
One remembers there was much liking in Pakistan in the 1980s for a change on the lines of Iran's Islamic Revolution. The hope was that, for a clean break from the past, the existing ruling elite in Pakistan would be eliminated the way it was in Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini in the early days of the revolution. The Iranian revolution has endured. But, although a new class of rulers led by the clergy is now entrenched in power, the government led by the Ayatollahs, apart from its stress on religion, has been striving to meet the socio-economic needs of the people.
The urge for a change in Pakistan has become stronger due to the disappointment with both military and civilian rule, but there is no agreement on the right solution for the country's numerous problems. The confusion is best explained by Altaf Hussain's complex recipe for setting things rights. Formation of a national government as Altaf Hussain has proposed, asking the Supreme Court to use Article 190 of the Constitution to bring in the military to tackle corruption, and seeking the intervention of "patriotic generals" to sort out corrupt politicians and feudal lords are neither a democratic nor a martial-law solution to the crises plaguing Pakistan. It is sort of a mixture in which politicians, technocrats, judges and generals have a role to play.
It is a tall order, but to give it a chance of success Altaf Hussain, as the initiator of this process, should take the lead and pull the MQM out of the coalition government to set the ball rolling. To show his sincerity, he could also invite the military to conduct a "clean-up" operation to make Karachi weapons-free, put an end to targeted killings and restore the city to its former glory.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahim [email protected]

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