Thursday May 30, 2024

A (mock) revolution gone awry

By Hussain H Zaidi
May 29, 2023

Composed on the grandest of scales and couched in the most sublime of languages, the epic represents the highest form of poetry. Typically, this genre describes the glorious saga of a legendary hero endowed with extraordinary qualities of head and heart, who goes through fire and water in the quest of a lofty objective. It celebrates a bygone golden era, historical or mythical, in the evolution of a nation or civilization. Ferdowsi’s magnum opus ‘Shahnameh’ describes the rise and growth of the Persian empire until its fall.

The mock epic turns the world of the epic upside down. While the epic is grand in both style and substance, the mock epic is grand only in style. Its subject is trivial, but its treatment is ostentatious. Its hero is an ordinary mortal. His desires are mundane, his goals are petty, his quest is commonplace, and his commitment is ephemeral.

Alexander Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’ depicts an upper-class beau’s theft of a lock of hair from a belle of the same class. It’s this contrast between the substance and the style, the subject and its treatment that makes mock epic a distinctive genre as well as a pungent satire on the vanities of contemporary society or a section of it.

Closely connected with the mock epic is the notion of caricature, which is the exaggerated depiction of a real or fictional character in respect of certain physical characteristics (height, etc) or behaviour (greed, etc). The notion of caricature may also be used to highlight a contrast between what a person or a coterie claims to be and what they actually are. While like a mock epic, a caricature may prompt laughter, at bottom it’s also a criticism, at times denunciation, of human infirmities or social evils.

The analogy of the contrast between the epic and the mock epic has special relevance to Pakistani politics, whose latest phase involves the unraveling of the PTI, where infatuation with a revolutionary change refuses to die down. In such a society, pygmies present themselves as giants, ordinary mortals claim to be messiahs, imposters are seen as men of destiny, and populists and their lackeys pose as revolutionaries.

Mere change in government or even in political authority – a coup d’état – doesn’t constitute a revolution. Revolutions involve putting in place a new socio-political order through a complete overhaul of the existing structures and associations. Though every revolution is red in tooth and claw – as the erstwhile regime doesn’t voluntarily abdicate – not every violent change is revolutionary.

Likewise, grave and widespread discontent with the existing political and economic relations on the back of a gradual breakdown of the social order is always a necessary condition for revolutionary change. Yet, popular discontent by itself can’t culminate into a revolution. The engine of revolution is a credible opposition, usually comprising disparate elements, united in their commitment to revolutionary ideals and prepared to risk their life and freedom for their fruition. If we agree with John Milton, poet of ‘Paradise Lost’, the best-known epic in the English language, that a revolution is the means of accomplishing freedom, there must be men and women who are willing to sacrifice their own liberties for the sake of others.

At the time of Pakistan’s birth, common people saw in it a land for the fulfilment of their dreams. The failure to put in place the institutions necessary for satisfying those aspirations shattered those dreams. For a while, leftists living in the heyday of communism presented a socialist revolution modeled on those which had occurred in Russia and China as the only recipe. But the ‘red’ challenge fizzled out due to lack of popular support. However, for the dreamers that wasn’t the end of the world.

In ZA Bhutto, the zeitgeist threw up a leader who had both socialist revolutionary ideals and popular credentials. But he too failed to revolutionize society, losing in the end both power and life. The fall of Bhutto coincided with the advent of the Islamic revolution in Iran. The images of Ayatollah Khomeini triumphantly returning to his country having thrown overboard a mighty monarchy gave a fresh impetus to the hopes for a comparable revolutionary change in Pakistan.

The rise of Imran Khan was seen as a personification of such hopes. Finally, here was a leader who was committed to and capable of uprooting the old, creaky, rotten-to-the core system, casting aside the politics of the opportunists and the electable, redistributing the wealth from the ultra-rich to those lying at the bottom of the economic heap, breaking the begging bowl, and making the nation stand on its feet – all culminating in ‘Naya Pakistan’.

To his credit, Khan was able to appeal to a cross-section of the society: the fashionable and upper middle-class segment, the disgruntled educated youth, and the ultra conservatives. Above all, he created an army of keyboard warriors desperate to denounce and denigrate lock, stock and barrel, anyone who dared to disagree with their leader. His victory in the 2018 elections signaled that the Naya Pakistan was a concrete reality.

However, as it turned out, beneath the sparkling illusion of Naya Pakistan larked the deep, dark reality of the old regime. Substantially, the same set of factors contributed to the PTI’s victory as those of most other parties in the past: popularity as well as wealth, the electable, and the support of the invisible hand. All that the elections accomplished was to replace one political party with another at the helm. Society remained sucked in the status quo.

After the fall of its government, the PTI started biting the hand that had propped it up to power. In the matter of days, the heroes were branded as villains – with the proviso of course that should they agree to patronize the party once more, they would be restored to their heroic status. Such is not the stuff revolutionary parties are made of.

Nor does mere charisma make a leader revolutionary. Lenin, Mao, and Khomeini, who spearheaded revolution in the respective country in the 20th century, were more than charismatic men of exceptional character. Neither of them was addicted to a life of luxury. Instead, in the course of their revolutionary movements, they lived in such hard circumstances as would try the patience of a saint.

Lenin was imprisoned by the Czar regime and later lived several years in exile in Siberia and Western Europe. Mao’s famous Long March saw him and his Red Army comrades travel more than 10,000 kilometers over impossible terrain for over a year. It was an epic campaign during which thousands laid down their lives. Khomeini was exiled by the Shah for fifteen years before his triumphant return to Tehran.

Not only that, those revolutionaries had a profound understanding of the contemporary social forces at work and each had a considerable literary stature. Their writings not only stirred the emotions of their followers but also laid bare the contradictions inherent in the system each was struggling against and thus gave them a clear sense of direction. Such is the stuff a genuine revolutionary leader is made of.

Populism bears the same relation to revolution as the mock epic has with the epic. It becomes at best rudderless and at worst a recipe for disaster when the leader, as well as his clique, has neither the character nor the intellect needed to spearhead a revolutionary change. Such a leader is essentially a demagogue, whose core competence lies in breathing fire and fury at anyone who shows the faintest of signs of dissent – and nothing more. Such a leader is no more than a caricature of a genuine change-maker.

In such societies, populism may represent a double whammy: it may shake the people’s faith in the existing institutions without being capable of putting in place a viable alternative.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist. He tweets @hussainhzaidi and can be reached at: