The Illusionists

In this violent and unjust world an eternal problem seems to be that the messiahs, whether secular or spiritual, succeed only for a while, if at all, and the world quietly slips back into its wicked old ways. Declarations, charters, laws and sermons notwithstanding, the world remains an unjust one as it has for countless centuries.
Despite this, or because of it, the professional manipulators of men, mostly priests and politicians, do manage to carry on business as usual by playing upon the hopes and fears of the people. All that they have to do is to create a yearning for a new order, a new golden age, that rests on an ideology or a belief that already has roots in the minds of the people.
These dream merchants, the ultimate illusionists, often capture the imagination of the people in societies under economic, political and social stress due to misrule by greedy opportunists. This is a situation waiting for the appearance of a charismatic, impassioned and imaginative leader who can rally the people around, and promise a swift and radical transition to a new order.
But a swift and radical transition has hardly ever been a peaceful transition, and the transition itself has hardly ever been to a paradise regained. Even the rallying slogan of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ can lead to a reign of terror followed by a long spell of authoritarian rule. This is evident from what happened during and after the French, Russian, Chinese and Iranian revolutions.
Of all the revolutions the French Revolution (1789) has excited the imagination of the people around the world more than any other political event of modern times. Recently in Pakistan too the memory of the French Revolution has been invoked often by some leaders as part of their vision. This romantic notion does appear to have some relevance to our situation as the French Revolution was a popular revolt against the feudal establishment, monarchy and the church, except that it was the political aspect of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, from the late 17th to 18th centuries, that had at its core a belief in reason as the foundation of human knowledge and progress.
Though the story of the French Revolution is rather complicated, it can be summed up briefly for the benefit of the future revolutionaries living in this Age of Obscurantanism in Pakistan. The violent phase of the French Revolution began with the execution, in 1793, of a king, Louis XVI, and ended 21 years later, in 1824, with the coronation of another king, Louis XVIII. In between the execution of one king and the coronation of another was an orgy of slaughter by the ‘citizens’, military take over, and another orgy of slaughter by the armies on the battlefields all over Europe. In the end parliamentary government was inaugurated after the restoration of constitutional monarchy in 1814 – something that the king executed in 1793 had conceded and put in place in 1792.
But the fascination with the romance of revolution, especially the French Revolution, has not faded. The slogans of power to the people do evoke a deep-seated yearning in the hearts and minds of the people to gain what has been denied to them. For those seeking fulfillment of their dreams, the fury of the destructive force of a revolution has a strange fascination as does the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. It frightens and fascinates; it brings forth acts of courage and sacrifice, and of revenge and terror. Thus it is that whenever a revolution is unleashed ‘a terrible beauty is born’ to cast its spell over the masses.
The societies where revolutionary change appeals to the masses are those that have yet to figure out how to manage evolutionary change through democratic processes. A large majority of the people in these societies have yet to accept the incontrovertible lesson of history that an evolutionary and democratic change, though a bit heavy footed, is the only sustainable way forward.
In Pakistan, today, the political discourse is dominated by an undefined demand and promise expressed in one word: change. It is usually elaborated by one more word: inqelab, revolution. When pressed for more details the votaries of change rattle off a predictable list of actions that need to be taken, and an equally predictable list of the enemies of the people. Neither of the two lists implies even an intention to change the culture of society from feudal and tribal to that of a modern polity. For the last two weeks all emphasis has been placed on electoral reforms as the key to all other reforms from the end of corruption to the beginning of Islamisation.
But the political culture of a society cannot make a transition from feudal-tribal to the modern through the simple expedient of enforcing any particular kind of electoral laws, as is being demanded by the votaries of change. It is only through industrialisation and urbanisation that a feudal-tribal culture can be displaced, So long as that does not happen no amount of tampering with the electoral laws, short of disenfranchising the rural population, can bring about a radical change in the political culture of society.
The change in the socio-political culture not being on the agenda of any political party, what is, then, the agenda, especially of the two major votaries of change – the PTI of Imran Khan and the MQI of Dr Tahirul Qadri? The PTI, so far, stands for a change of regime through free and fair elections at the appointed time. The MQI also stands for regime change, but has demanded dissolution of the present setup by the 10th of this month, and the selection of a caretaker cabinet by a committee of all the ‘stakeholders’ including the judiciary and the army.
But Dr Qadri has also declared that the caretaker setup will be appointed by the ‘parliament’ of four million people who will gather in Islamabad on the 14th of this month. He has also advised the armed forces not to stop the long march to Islamabad but facilitate it, and defy any orders to the contrary by the government.
This advice by Shaikh-ul-Islam, who commands great respect as a scholar and exponent of Islam, coming soon after the judicial exposition of the implications of ‘lawful command’ under the Army Act, has the potential to spread doubt and discontent in the ranks of the armed forces. These mutually reinforcing religious and judicial formulations would be a very potent factor if there is a breakdown of whatever is left of the writ of the state.
This is not all. Though Dr Qadri has assured that his disciplined followers would not indulge in any act of violence, a rally of four million people, or even one million, will not consist of his followers alone. There would be others too including, for sure, ‘uninvited guests’ with an agenda of their own. What if violence does break out? If the army does not intervene, Islamabad will be sacked; if it does intervene there will be too many casualties or division within the army, or both.
Either way the illusion of the triumph of the people over all odds, created by the eloquence of Dr Qadri, will dissipate in no time, yielding to contagious lawlessness encouraged by the weakening of the federal authority and spearheaded by the extremists, terrorists, separatists, regionalists and ordinary criminals all over the country. Where would we go from there?