Can youth activism drive meaningful political change in Pakistan?
The short answer to that is maybe, with a few caveats. Is the incumbent establishment well-entrenched and internationally supported? Are there ‘opposition’ groups ready to hijack any activist movement for their own political goals? Are people in the country sharply divided across ethnic, religious and tribal lines? Is there a clear vision behind the movement, or are we limited purely to regime / ideological changes? Is there the unity, discipline and will beind the movement to implement their vision?
Nevertheless, change IS possible if there is massive action, and political change driven by youth movements / civil society groups is a realistic target if there is a clear vision beyond regime change and the movement behind the action has the ability to implement said vision.
We turn to business and two simple yet profound maxims that can help us understand better what is required to drive real political and democratic change in Pakistan.
What Worked Before Will Not Work Now
We cannot keep relying on old methods or simply repeat what has happened elsewhere. Each significant political change happens due to a specific set of circumstances. The London riots most definitely would not have happened five years ago given the same preceding events. The surge of popularity the PPP enjoyed in 1986 and 2007 would not have been possible in 1982 or 2003, simply because the necessary social / political conditions were not there.
If we are going to achieve lasting, meaningful change (and not change for the sake of change), then our approach to it must change as well. Movements in North Africa and Middle East have relied on massive action based on an unshakeable ideological framework and the will to do whatever it takes to deliver change. That is no small undertaking, and similar ingredients would be needed in Pakistan as well.
But there is another side to driving political change – when the incumbent political setup is focused on retaining it’s own power and when the primary opposition players are keen to hijack populist movements (witness the hijacking of the Lawyers’ movement by PML-N) and rely on massive tribal and economic networks to retain their own power bases, change cannot happen from within the system.
And that is where it gets uncomfortable. We will, as a nation, need to change our approach to problem-solving (taking action is change enough in some quarters) and if working within the system setup for us by new politicans every ten years hasn’t delivered, then we must step out of our comfort zone and work outside the system.
2. Ready, Fire, Aim
Ready – the belief that only action can resolve the current problems, the will to do whatever it takes.
Fire – massive action.
Aim – Calibrating your vision so that you can drive lasting change, and not waste your efforts.
It is more important to be ready to fight to the end before you start. It’s more important to take massive action instead of just planning. And at the end, it is important to have a clear vision so that activism is not sidelined by the wishes of more powerful groups or fails to deliver real change.
The current conditions in Pakistan are less than ideal for the type of youth and social activism we’ve become used to in the last couple of years around the world.
It is a closed political system where the incumbents and the opposition exert control via feudal, economic, religious and social networks. The same divides that define political differences also make the system near-impossible to penetrate.
The country has suffered mass emigration in the last decade. According to UN statistics, there are 46 immigrants leaving Pakistan every hour. According to another study, Pakistan has the 11th highest incidence of emigration around the world. The countries worse off than us are usually war zones or completely failed states. When your best, brightest and most capable talent is consistently leaving the country, who will be left behind to lead the change?
We are keen to jump on the bandwagon of a noble cause, but when those causes are routinely hijacked by those in power for their personal benefit, what does our support actually achieve?
Be Ready For The Uprising…And Beyond
But then again, these are exactly the type of conditions that foster a more emotional, sometimes violent, almost always volcanic, shift in public perception. The Pakistani people, will, sooner or later, take to the streets en masse. It will not be to attend a rally / concert, and they won’t be going home the next day to their jobs.
For now, TV, the convenient lack of loadshedding and the ethnic and religious divides by the more extreme elements of our political spectrum (you can include the MQM as well as the religious parties here) and the feudal power of PML and PPP have kept the revolution in check. But the dam will break (whether it’s Imran Khan who leads the first wave or someone else), and when it does, there will be hell.
But that’s usually where revolutions stop. If we are to genuinely become a better nation than before, we need a completely revamped system with sweeping powers given to the new leaders to make the necessary changes, give them time and accept the good with the bad.
If we are to genuinely better our lot, we need to have a gameplan for after the war. There’s no freedom in burning down your own home without the means to build a new and better one, unless you prefer no home at all.
And now, just for fun – “Uprising” by Muse.