Tuesday October 19, 2021

Will the youth rise again?

December 02, 2019

How long can a major youth-bulge country, led by a self-serving power elite, remain immune from a youth-led political turmoil? It is not about 'if' but 'when'.

Something is bound to emerge from the spectacular failure that was the PTI's phoney revolution. Is a giant about to rise from slumber – from a long period of hibernation, in the form of youth activism?

It is a bit amusing to see young men and women waving red flags and singing songs their grandfathers had once sung. Some bystanders felt reinvigorated by the thundering slogans raised by students and young people at the Student Solidarity March last Friday. "I want to be student again," tweeted Sherry Rehman. Perhaps, it is a bit late for the PPP to school itself and adjust with what is going on and what is about to come.

The success of the nationwide Student Solidarity March hints at the potential of a different variant of populism in Pakistani society. Three decades after the hammer and sickle flag was lowered, the symbols used by the marchers might have appeared funny or frivolous to many. In fact, all populisms, of the left and the right variants, appear funny till they cease to be funny.

The US laughed at Trump before electing him president. Imran Khan's stories of zillions of dollars of looted money stashed abroad and his promises of turning Pakistan into a Nordic country through the magic of his personal honesty became credible only when they were repeated a million times by a million tongues. In similar circumstances, Ukraine elected a professional comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, as its president, while we have ended up with a whole ensemble of amateur entertainers who are getting irritating by the day.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how the PTI's narrative defeated reality. Thirteen months into government, the party still wants to live in the world of its slightly modified narrative. Unfortunately, people need tomatoes to cook – and young people will certainly prefer jobs over the witch hunt of the ruling party's political opponents.

What happens when one brand of populism meets its master? Do these young men and women get up in the morning heavy with a hangover, take a mug of coffee and start doing what abbu demands of them? Or do they join a different party, offering different types of drinks and music? The world does not yet know what comes after populism – realism or more populism?

De-politicisation of the political space is one scenario, perhaps the intended one. In such a world, with an arena emptied of all opponents, the PTI can rule forever. Such a scenario would be somewhat credible had the party delivered an ounce of what it had promised. Only if it had taken the first baby step to fulfil its promise of turning the Gullu Buts of the Punjab Police into the Bobbys of the Scotland Yard, rather than changing a provincial inspector general for the fifth time in a year.

The PTI gained a lot of ground due to youth activism. In Pakistan's urban centre, it was able to appeal to the youth of the educated middle class. Unfortunately, the youth has suffered the most from the 'tabdeeli'. The unprecedented slashing of higher education budgets, without bringing in an alternative model, has put universities in an existential crisis. It has ended many benefits that students were enjoying and made higher education prohibitively expensive for many families. Slow growth means absence of jobs and few opportunities for entrepreneurship.

After discrediting all other political parties through an unprecedented smear campaign, the PTI has discredited itself through its utter inefficiency and by serving on the table of the same sort of rent-seekers, crony capitalists and opportunists. The PTI's change is merely a euphemism for entrenching continuity.

The real test of the marchers lies in recruiting poor youth to their cause. Can relatively privileged urban youth rekindle the dreams of their poor brothers and sisters and turn them into a force for change alongside themselves? It is they who are absent from the political arena and it is their involvement that can prove a game-changer. Despite all hardships and cruelties, they must learn to speak for themselves.

Perhaps Marx was all wrong about the future course of history. History does not follow a linear route and social sciences have still found no tools to predict the future. But Marx had the courage to imagine a different world – a courage that is hard to find in today's academia. Apart from his incisive analysis of class interest and conflict, it is this power of imagination that makes him one of the greatest influences in human history.

The last time we saw such romanticism at work was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Such romanticism can cut both ways. Nationalization of industries gave a good part of the corporate sector into the hands of bureaucrats who destroyed the nationalised industries and harmed Pakistan's economy. Resisting privatization means keeping industries in the hands of the babus who cannot produce a proper notification under the gaze of the Supreme Court.

It is easy to romanticise student unions today, though it is quite hard to see how they benefitted Pakistani society. At best they gave us Javed Hashmi and at worst Sheikh Rashid.

Then there have been student wings of political parties: all the leadership of the Jamaat-e-Islami comes from campuses. In Sindh, nationalists destroyed education and in Karachi APMSO and its upgraded version, the MQM, brutalised the city and irreparably harmed national economy by keeping the megacity hostage for decades.

The students' demands for a fair society and democratic freedom carry much weight. Society can only benefit from activism geared to such demands. In the past, student activism has catalysed political change in unforeseen ways. We do not know what will emerge from the revival of youth activism, if it goes any further.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

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Twitter: @zaighamkhan