The fortune hunters by Hussain H Zaidi - The News

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Is the socio-political order rotten to the core and on the verge of a breakdown? Well, we owe our profound gratitude to people like Tahir ul Qadri who remind us from time to time that this is the case. For them, the present system is in such a hopeless predicament that nothing short of its overthrow will set things right in the polity. In other words, what we need is not transition but transformation, not chemotherapy but surgery, not reforms but revolution.

The gist of the familiar narrative is this: the system is full of contradictions and fatal flaws. In the name of improving the lot of the people, it makes them worse off. The system rewards the corrupt and the incompetent at the expense of the deserving. It brings to birth mafias and gangs and empowers thugs and thieves.

Our legislatures predominantly represent privileged classes, such as big landlords and wealthy urbanites. Politics are largely a family business in which parents make way only for their children and positions are shared only with siblings or spouses. Political parties are no more than a platform to prop up sons and daughters.

The elitist democracy shies away from undertaking drastic, pro-people reforms, and changes made are largely, if not wholly, confined to shifting the locus of power from one set of elite to another: transferring powers from the president to the prime minister or from the federal government to the provinces. For the masses, the only change is a change in masters.

For sure, such a narrative has a lot to commend itself to. But if the system is so flawed, why is it not scrapped? As the nation’s history shows: it’s easier said than done.

The first person who claimed to have played the role of the saviour of the country was the debutant military ruler General Ayub Khan. Khan’s 1958 coup d'état was widely touted as a revolution. Was it so? A revolution, in its proper meaning, goes far beyond being merely a regime change to usher in a fundamental shift in economic and political institutions and the corresponding social relations.

No such change came off when the general was at the helm. In fact, during his decade-long rule, economic disparities accentuated and a handful of families remained the principal beneficiaries of the government’s trickle-down growth strategy. One notable development was the rise of merchant capitalists as a counterpoise to the power of the traditional feudal elite. For the man in the street, though, economic and political power continued to be a forbidden fruit.

Meanwhile, the so-called leftists entered the arena. Armed with Marxist ideas of dialectical materialism and class struggle, they proposed a new system whose edifice rested on the pillars of a centrally planned economy together with state ownership of the means of production. The leftists, however, couldn’t sell their wares to the masses. So the ‘red’ challenge withered away without much ado.

The nation needed a leader who had both a revolutionary programme and popular credentials. It found one in ZA Bhutto, who put forward socialism, to which he later added the prefix ‘Islamic’, as the magic wand that would revolutionise the economy, society and politics. He was joined by several leftists, in all earnestness to be sure, who saw in him a powerful challenger of the existing order.

After coming into power, Bhutto did put into effect a socialist programme by nationalising key industrial units. He also undertook some land reforms. His socialism was a blend of a liberal democracy and public ownership of big industries. Thus it was fashioned on the west European model rather than contemporary USSR or China. But nationalisation was the only drastic change introduced by Bhutto, which in time was undone by his successors.

Ziaul Haq, who had toppled Bhutto, presented Islamisation as his panacea for a turnaround in the nation’s fortunes. But as it turned out, his ‘Islamisation’ was merely a quest for political legitimacy.

Bhutto’s daughter and the country’s first woman premier Benazir Bhutto showed some signs of departing from the beaten track in the beginning of her political career but soon realised that discretion was the better part of valour. So she became a staunch supporter of the status quo and ended up as an establishmentarian.

A few other politicians have raised the standard of revolution from time to time. A name worth mentioning is MQM leader Altaf Hussain, who talks about revolution every now and then. Imran Khan also toyed with the idea of revolution but after spending 15 years in political wilderness he realised that a change in personal fortunes was much better than that of the system. Mark how desperate for power he is these days! Nothing bad about that. This is what politics, stripped of its revolutionary cloak, is for.

About the likes of Dr Qadri, the less said the better. Nor would it be wise to look to the armed forces to spearhead a revolution, because they are among the principal beneficiaries of the system.

As for the leftists, after the demise of socialism in eastern Europe in early 1990s, they changed gears and put their complete trust in the institution of the NGOs, which is an instrument of neo-liberalism. Now, wisely enough, they seldom flirt with revolution.

Contradictions present in a socio-political system – and these are present everywhere – can be overcome either by reforming the system bit by bit (evolutionary path) or by striking it down in one go (revolutionary course). The latter is a trust in the determination of a handful of people led by a maverick leader, a Mao or a Lenin, to bring about sweeping changes in the existing social and political conditions.

The only problem is that the revolutionary course is easier to embark upon but difficult to keep treading on, as it requires tremendous sacrifices not only from followers but also from leaders.

During the last 66 years, the nation has had quite a few ‘maverick’ leaders – by our standards of course – but none of them could translate his or her promises into a substantial transformation of the fortunes of the people (yes, their own fortunes rose and sank) and their revolutionary zeal fizzled out after they had tasted power. So lethal is its addiction.

Having been let down by the ‘revolutionaries’ in the past, can we put our trust in evolution and hope that the inherent logic of the events will accomplish what the will of the ‘strongmen’ could not? We have to. Should it also fail, the fruit of revolution is always up for grabs for bounty hunters.