Monday June 17, 2024

The double whammy of populism

By Hussain H Zaidi
April 27, 2022

The primacy of the will (voluntarism) over the intellect (rationalism) or the other way around, and the tensions between an itching impulse coming straight from the heart (romanticism) and a sober counsel of the mind (classicism) are a perennial question in philosophy and a recurring theme in literature. In politics, this split may pit populism against constitutionalism, and the cult of the personality against respect for the law and institutions. Today’s Pakistan is a spectacle of this tug-of-war, albeit on a rather mundane scale.

In politics, rationalism appeals to common principles and programmes and puts its trust in commonsense, natural or fundamental rights, rule of law, incremental change, peaceful conflict resolution, abhorrence of war, and institution building. Democracy is seen as the preferred form of government, because these ideas form its warp and woof. It’s not exceptional individuals but credible institutions and efficient mechanisms – the market, institutional checks and balances, etc – that usher in social and economic progress. The best polity is one where the law, not persons even if they were to be an epitome of virtue and intelligence, reigns supreme.

Populism, the political expression of voluntarism, turns on its head the world of harmony and freedom envisioned by rationalism. Democracy is regarded as a sign of decay and decadence, of senility and stupor, while the very notions of fundamental rights and equality are considered to be essentially destructive. The prime political virtue for the people is not freedom but loyalty – not to the constitution or institutions but to a particular person or a clique. The principal qualification for the leader is not common sense but charisma. Rules and regulations, procedures and precedents put a spoke in the leader’s wheel and therefore should be tossed on the scrapheap when needed. Debates and arguments are at best wit and gossip and at worst an unmistakable sign of moral fragility. It’s the iron will that matters.

While populism may at times wear the garb of democracy, in reality, it’s out-and-out authoritarian. At the apex is a leader who fires the sentiments of the people by appealing to patriotism, national independence, religion, conspiracy mongering or other such magnetizing catchwords. The purpose is either to distract the people’s attention from the leader’s own failure or conceal from them the underlying cause of socio-economic problems, which the leadership is either unwilling or incapable of addressing.

Where do Pakistan’s politics and society stand in this clash of the will and the intellect? With all its shenanigans and shortcomings, Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy. At the same time, it’s a society whose infatuation with revolutionary change refuses to die down and where the cult of personality remains the hallmark of politics. There has been no dearth of leaders who claimed to – and their followers believed they did – possess the proverbial magic wand, which can turn things around in a jiffy.

Pakistan was the result of a peaceful constitutional struggle. At the time of the country’s birth, people saw in it a land for the fulfilment of their dreams. But due to the frequent changes in the government, the country found it difficult to put in place the institutions necessary to satisfy those aspirations. Then in 1958 General Ayub Khan staged a coup, which was described by its author and apologists as a revolution.

Meanwhile, leftists entered the political arena. Living in the heyday of communism, they claimed that only a Marxist revolution modeled on those which had occurred in Russia and China could bring about a real change. In their eyes, it was not the political but the capitalist economic system that had to be overthrown. The problem with the leftists was that they didn’t have, and don’t have to date, a popular support that is essential for pulling down the status quo. So the ‘red’ challenge fizzled out. However, for the dreamers that wasn’t the end of the world.

In ZA Bhutto, the zeitgeist threw up a leader who had both revolutionary ideals and popular credentials. Bhutto sought to strike a compromise between revolutionary socialism – to which he added the prefix ‘Islamic’ – and parliamentary democracy. The former found its expression in his flagship nationalization programme; while the latter was embodied in the 1973 constitution. In a way, Bhutto represented a synthesis of will and intellect. He had the heart of a revolutionary but the head of a constitutionalist. Like the protagonist of a Christopher Marlowe play, he was larger than life, with grand ambitions and a raging appetite for power. But he endeavoured to realize his ambitions within the system. Alas, he shared the tragic fate of a Marlowian hero.

Bhutto’s death 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 fresh impetus to the hopes for a comparable revolutionary change in Pakistan: The advent of 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 electables, 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 by his/her indomitable willpower.

None of the leaders who succeeded Bhutto was cast in a revolutionary mold. They might have coveted to rule with an untrammeled authority, and might have gone over the line once or twice, but they didn’t have the making of a titanic figure. They remained primarily concerned with saving their neck.

However we denounce or extol populism, it can’t be denied that successful political revolutions in history have been the handiwork of charismatic leaders: Lenin, Mao, and Khomeini in the 20th century, for example. Those societies were so out of whack that nothing short of a revolutionary change was needed to set things right.

All those revolutionary leaders were no doubt charismatic. But more than that, each was a man of an 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 an exceedingly difficult 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 considerable literary stature. Both Lenin and Mao were first rate political philosophers, while Khomeini in addition to being a leading religious scholar of his era was a notable political theorist as well. 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 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, like Donald Trump and quite a few other contemporary leaders, 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 debate between the primacy of the will or the intellect, with all their political implications, is unending. In societies like Pakistan where pygmies are cast as giants and demagogues are hailed as men of destiny, the intellect is a much safer wager than the will – and constitutionalism is a far better bet than populism.

The writer is an Islamabad-basedcolumnist.


Twitter: @hussainhzaidi