COMMENT: Vive la revolution? — Shahab Usto - Saturday, April 09, 2011

As against the regime-specific Arab revolts, ours would be a lower-and-middle-class uprising, demanding a drastic redistribution of wealth, power and resources that are now concentrated in the hands of a few thousand powerful families and public offices 

Revolution is a new buzzword. Politicians, panelists, columnists and even common men are talking of it as if it is a given, the writing on the wall. Though very few try to fathom its nature, objective or driving forces, yet the increasing clamour of an ‘impending’ revolution compels one to reflect: are we really in for a revolution? If yes, then who will bring it and in what shape? And will it benefit the common man, the supposedly real sufferer of the existing unjust socio-political order?

Historically, revolutions have had three basic prerequisites: a revolutionary leadership, obsolete socio-political dispensation and an opportune triggering event. Rarely have people found all the three ingredients in place, and even when they did the resulting revolution did not necessarily lead to the desired results. Therefore, notwithstanding the fact that the contemporary world owes much of its political rights and liberties to the three epoch-making cataclysms — the English, the French, and the American Revolutions — the word revolution continues to cause goose pimples because of the uncertainty and mayhem that often accompany revolutions.

Yet, no one can avoid a revolution ‘dialectically’ poised to happen, that is, when the existing political system has outlived its utility and a new revolutionary leadership has won over a sizeable section of the masses with a new socio-political agenda to take over the state, even using violent means. That is how the October revolution took place in Russia in 1917 and turned a backward Russian empire into a socialist republic that, for all its scholastic aberrations, dominated half the post-war world until its demise in 1991.

So, is Pakistan dialectically fated to go through a ‘revolution’ because seemingly the existing socio-political system has failed? On the face of it, Pakistan does not seem to be headed for a ‘revolution’, in its radical and transformational sense. None of the existing political leaderships is ‘revolutionary’, that is, bent on transforming the socio-political makeup or ideological parameters of the state. None has the requisite revolutionary cadres, nor a manifesto attractive enough to stir the masses into revolutionary zeal. Yes, chaos and anarchy may well result from the incendiary speeches made by some charlatans espousing the revolution.

The other alternative, of course, to this ‘failed’ democratic dispensation is a military takeover, which is being discussed sotto voce by a section of the media and the pro-security-rather-than-democracy business elite. But a military takeover, in whatever form, has only papered over the political divisions within society. It has never resolved the myriad underlying social, economic, sectarian and ethnic divisions. The military regime’s favourite potion — authoritarian dispensation, supply side economics and an urban-rural elitist coalition — has not only failed but pushed the country into deeper crises.

Even the much trumpeted 5-6 percent GDP growth and macroeconomic stability achieved by authoritarian regimes fell miserably short of uplifting the greater mass of people from abject poverty and degradation as the propertied and business classes ate much of the cake, causing more social disparity and political disaffection. So, it is time we shunned the penchant for military rule, under any garb. But that does not mean giving carte blanche to a corrupt and inefficient civilian government.

In fact, democracy gathers strength only when it provides an efficient, diligent, accountable and socially committed government; when it nurtures legitimate institutional mechanisms to mediate and resolve the conflicts that arise among citizens, state institutions and federating units, and when it brings into play all the stakeholders in modern statecraft — political parties, NGOs, media, rights activists, intelligentsia, and the supra-national trade, commercial and diplomatic regimes. Thus, democracy creates a powerful deterrence to an errant executive.

But to do that, democracy requires both space and time. Unfortunately, the long authoritarian traditions have denied democracy time and space to forge a combination of institutional and civic-political deterrence to delinquent rulers. No wonder, none of the elected governments, including the present one, has come up with efficient governance and a robust rule of law. Yet, our democracy has matured enough to bring about far-reaching constitutional reforms. But since the reforms have not changed the plight of the common man as the country continues to suffer from bad governance and economic indiscipline, there may be a great number of desperate people wishing for a radical revolt in Pakistan.

Which raises the question: can Pakistan weather such a revolt? As against the regime-specific Arab revolts, ours would be a lower-and-middle-class uprising, demanding a drastic redistribution of wealth, power and resources that are now concentrated in the hands of a few thousand powerful families and public offices. If these wealth-power-resource hoarders refused to yield to the public demands relying on the state’s coercive apparatus, then there could also be a bloodbath. Moreover, considering the existing highly polarised political, sectarian and ethnic environment, a national revolutionary movement could easily slide into myriad civil strifes.

More alarmingly, given the political parties’ tenuous control over their cadres, the ultimate burden of restoring order would fall upon the security apparatus that is already too stretched and burdened by the war on terror. And what if the lower ranks of the security personnel coming from the same depressed and suppressed social classes also joined the rioters? Calling for a revolution in the given realities by a leadership that fundamentally lacks the requisite tools, if not the sincerity of intentions, could mean inviting the withering away of the state through interminable chaos and conflict.

And the revolution for what? If by revolution is meant widespread socio-economic and political reforms, then the best vehicle is democracy in its true and unadulterated form. It is something else that the powerful vested interests would not allow democracy to dilute their wealth and power for the benefit of the deprived and marginalised people. But then how will these forces stall the ‘shift’ that is already underway, again thanks to this limpid democracy? Just consider: parliament has regained its powers. The judiciary is free. The provinces are stepping out of the pall of a strong centre. Media and civil society are scathingly scrutinising. Ministers and babus (bureaucrats) are increasingly facing the public wrath, no matter how disorganised. Finally, ‘big government’ is giving way to a ‘big society’, making it difficult for the former to control the latter for its own ends.

Our ‘revolutionaries’ would do a great favour if they just kept this process going, allowing no one to tamper with or reverse it. Yes, many excuses will come in the way, most important being the internal and regional security imperatives demanding prioritising security over social development and giving the establishment an overarching role over the state. But this argument holds no water as many successful emerging democracies are also politically stable. Indeed, a defence-induced internal implosion, a la Yugoslavia, seems more probable in economically unstable states.

Many of the security threats — jihadis in southern Punjab, nationalists in Balochistan, or ‘ethnic wars’ in the country’s economic hub, Karachi — have economic origins demanding more focus on economic, social and human development. We must maintain a minimum deterrence, but the economy must grow at seven percent per annum to break the poverty trap. It is time the ruling classes and elites acted beyond their personal, class and institutional interests. Or a cataclysm may be triggered in the name of revolution, leaving none to raise a toast of victory or cry out: Vive la revolution!

The writer is a lawyer and academic. He can be reached at

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