Dreaming of revolution-By Ayesha Siddiqa

PEOPLE in politically troubled lands often begin to think nostalgically about the idea of a revolution even though they might not have experienced one.

Such a longing indicates the level of frustration with their own ability to change conditions.

Then there are others who seem more hopeful than others. An army officer was recently of the view that the current food crisis and price inflation problems could be solved if the government agreed to subsidise three basic things — food, electricity and water — which it must guarantee to the people. Since the gentleman was too forceful it was difficult for others to draw his attention to the fact that a country that is busy buying major weapons systems might find it difficult to find the money to subsidise food. This applies to not just Pakistan but other countries as well including our next-door neighbour. It is a matter of simple arithmetic.

There are a few who would argue that there is never a dearth of resources in the country but that the civilian sector lacks the capacity to properly utilise resources. The poor capacity is not an incorrect assumption except that civilian capacity can never build up in a country where frequent military takeovers are a reality. The ‘good soldiers’ do not realise that their show of efficiency always comes with a huge cost to the civilian sector. Ours, unfortunately, is maimed at present and cannot improve unless political conditions stabilise. Could one call it a coincidence that the officer himself had joined the civil service and left a much-coveted military job?

The other side would argue that political stability can never come with the kind of political leadership we have. In fact, as the gentleman I am referring to argued, people will have to get up and march against bad politicians. He was probably suggesting a mass movement, which can be a precursor to revolution. Furthermore, his argument was that things would not improve if people did not shake off their slumber and rise up against the questionable political leadership. There are many in this land of the pure who argue that the problem with Pakistan is not with its leadership but the kind of people we are: absolutely fickle in behaviour and prone to electing poor leaders.

Not that anyone can dare instruct a military man in history but it would make a lot of difference if this gentleman and many others like him take a few lessons in world history. If they do so they would see that mass movements become difficult where states are extremely strong and societies weak. Moreover, mass movements become difficult where the elite are not only predatory but also rent-seeking and dependent on external forces for their survival.

Pakistan has a history of external dependency which has traditionally allowed foreign forces to dictate their agenda to the Pakistani leadership. Usually the justification for pleasing outside forces is the country’s financial dependency. We are told that if certain countries and the multilateral aid donors influenced by the foreign powers do not provide financial assistance the country would capsize or receive a poor credit rating, which means that no one would willingly lend Pakistan money for business or development ventures. Furthermore, foreign assistance is necessary so that we can arm ourselves to strengthen national security.

Interestingly, our security has always remained under threat because of the embargo imposed by our foreign patrons. Surely the external patrons are not entirely to blame if we do not agree with their agenda because they provide aid to have their agenda followed rather than our own. This has become all too obvious in the past few months. However, neither the military nor the civilian leadership has the courage to refuse foreign assistance.

What is even worse is that our ruling oligarchs tend to use rhetoric regarding the need to maintain sovereignty to muster support from the general public when they are the ones who constantly sabotage the country’s political and diplomatic independence. The elite also fail to tell the people that the country’s endemic political and financial dependence on foreign powers is due to the rulers’ personal concerns rather than national security or integrity.

It was interesting to read in Shuja Nawaz’s book Crossed Swords how Gen Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s then ambassador to the US Amjad Ali, and Governors General Iskander Mirza and Ghulam Mohammad had established independent lines of communication with the US seeking Washington’s support and friendship for personal benefits. The situation today is exactly similar. Any nation that allows foreign forces to intervene so willingly cannot produce good politics.

One of the consequences of this global system of patronage is that it creates a strong, top-down state where the elite benefit from pursuing foreign agendas at home. The state then extracts resources, develops a security framework and conducts other functions to satisfy its foreign patrons instead of pursuing policies to satisfy society.

A glance at Pakistan will prove the point. The state’s lack of capacity to reorganise relations between the centre and the federating units or amongst its various institutions is due to the fact that it has to constantly shuffle to fulfil the requirements of its patrons and its own oligarchs. For instance, the phenomenon of the ‘disappeared’ stems from the need of the ruling elite to satisfy its various external clients including the Americans, the Chinese and many more. Understandably, the state has failed to provide any satisfactory answer regarding the whereabouts of the missing people.

A strong state and a weak society, which is a ramification of the above-mentioned equation, is an unhealthy combination which generates greater socio-political instability. For one, it creates a strong system of domestic patronage in which various ruling classes or groups ape the system we observe at the global level. So the political parties, civil and military bureaucracies, financial groups and even the clergy have their own independent systems of patronage which cater to the needs of the chosen few. Facilities are provided to those that support a certain group once it is in power while others are ostracised. The amount of authority or repression that is generally used under a regime also depends on a particular government’s ability to use violence and power.

This behaviour saps the people’s energy to protest. In our case, the marriage between global and domestic patronage has also killed or subdued all major sources of an alternative ideology that could arouse the people and give them hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. So can we really blame the ordinary people for being spineless given the collusion between the international and domestic oligarchies?

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.


Courtesy: Daily Dawn, 8/8/2008

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