The cleric and populist moment

August 10, 2014

Of half-baked revolutions and August 14

The cleric and populist moment

The populist leaders and the imported dual-nationality holding clerics are all packing their bags to hop on a bus to usher in something new. One shouts for revolution. The irony in this is laughable; promising a revolution on the eve of the birth of a country that owes its existence to a constitutionally espoused formula. The other wants a mid-term election. This is self-destructive. One has a half-cooked idea, the other has ambition. Both have some street power but not enough political power. Neither are likely to or should succeed if the federal government gets its strategy right.

The best advice that one can give the federal government in the lead up to August 14 is this: get a grip.

Let me explain why.

Here is a national secret: Pakistan doesn’t like revolutions. Especially not half-baked ones. It loves the idea of one, it may even admire one -- but that is completely different from acting to achieve one.

Trace it back to history. Pakistan itself was an argument that evolved. It was no revolution that overthrew the status quo. This state and even the initial promises it made largely preserved the status quo with minor tinkering. Its populism has endorsed electoral democracy -- think the PPP even in its heyday. Ballot box has been the most celebrated, albeit not the most enduring way, to power.

On the days and in the years when it celebrated military coups, it soon grew cynical of the promise of a radical change. It lost its reverence for military generals dressed as saviours. It is even more irreverent towards clerics when it comes to politics. Listen to the local mullah and commit human rights violations? Sure. But follow a mullah for political solutions within the existing system? Much more difficult. That is why the TTP is an actual threat and unfortunately appealing to those who secretly admire its promise of a brutal Islamic state; because it wants to break the system and radically so. A cleric within the system is much worse off in terms of political power leading to a political mandate.

Pakistan’s courts and people have constantly inched back towards the original promise: evolution but not revolution. Despite all their rhetoric, the imported clerics and the born-again Muslim politicians will be up against this mindset. They simply cannot break it. Not this year and not the next. Multiply that by a few decades too for good measure. The only real threat is something you have imagined but not seen.

Here is a national secret: Pakistan doesn’t like revolutions. Especially not half-baked ones. It loves the idea of one, it may even admire one -- but that is completely different from acting to achieve one.

If a political order is hard to break, convincing people to depart from their political habits is even harder. Few have managed it in history. Those who did successfully replace the status quo with a system that looked, smelled and felt radically different, making it revolutionary. But if the slogan of a half-cooked revolution lacks appeal, a mid-term election does not even qualify for interest. It just doesn’t do it for Pakistan right now. It doesn’t replace anything. At least nothing that matters to a highly emotional nation.

Another reason why the federal government should be calm about August 14: Pakistan has a sense of humour. Those that it lauds it can mock once it tests their patience. This is particularly true of those promising a revolution or a ‘new’ Pakistan. Sure, Pakistan loves a big crowd and parts of it will come out to ogle or even be a part of it but it is too busy in its own life and its immediate needs to test a system that has increasing institutional depth.

For those marching on the capital, status quo is not good enough -- as an ideology or even as a political mobilisation strategy. Upping the ante is their only road to avoiding embarrassment. Creating actual or the threat of potential unrest is their best bet. And this is what gives the federal government its trump card. Keep a tight leash, manage your plans and do not initiate violence. Make sure that you are seen as facilitators, but feel free to block the important roads. Make sure that the opposition is the one that looks responsible for disrupting the daily lives of those travelling on the roads or living in the cities the ‘march’ passes through.

Better still, wait it out completely. Let the clerics and the populists have their moment. On the side, launch a truly national drive to help IDPs or come up with any idea to get people involved. One grand political rally, a few days after the sit-in the country’s attention will move elsewhere. The festive atmosphere among the protestors is likely to die within a couple of days.

Once they become a nuisance and the locals of Islamabad complain of the hurdles in their daily lives and begin urging the protestors to leave. You will have a pretext. Even if you have to force people out, you will not look bad. And the unintended benefit? You will have a precedent that will justify action in the future. You can win your battles looking your best. Just ask your lawyers.

Remember the Occupy Wall Street movement? The government let it last for months. The anger behind it was that of a generation. Each time it tried to force people out initially, it got bad press. But once the people at the sit-in became less of a tourist attraction and more of a nuisance for those around them, they had to go. Sympathy doesn’t take long to die -- especially when it is political. A call for another election or a cleaner system may evoke interest but it doesn’t bother people enough to disrupt their own lives. Ending inequality was a far more powerful idea but each organised state has managed to resist it.

The federal government here is only trying to maintain the promise of an election after the constitutionally guaranteed term.

The populist’s and the cleric’s real battle is not against corruption or the state. It is against a mindset and political behaviour. The people of Pakistan can manage ordered chaos but they will not actively court more uncertainty. The thrill of a political rally is different but it is also fleeting. The federal government will just need to keep its head calm and it will come out on top.

The cleric and the populist have taken a gamble. But they have come up short on ideas. I am of course no fan of revolutions and I wanted to take this opportunity to analyse the way in which an elected government should handle half-baked ideas. As Bill Clinton reminds us of a saying in the South, "you’re a day late and a dollar short."

The cleric and populist moment