Pakistan is in the grip of a heatwave. There has been no spring season to usher in the transition from winter, and a long summer now beckons. It scarcely matters whether this particular abrupt rise in temperatures is directly explained by global warming. The climate science is in any case clear that many parts of Pakistan’s plain regions are likely to become unlivable due to extreme heat in a few, short decades.
Pakistan’s political and intellectual mainstream couldn’t care less. These days the only mention of heatwaves in the public domain relates to no-confidence motions, long marches and D-Chowk power shows. We are constantly reminded that temperatures are rising rapidly in and around the corridors of power and that something big is about to give.
But how will Imran Khan’s potential demise and/or the ascension of usual suspects like Pervez Elahi to the office of chief minister Punjab affect 220m people in whose name the purportedly committed democrats in the mainstream opposition are confidently projecting regime change?
Frankly, I’ve heard neither side in what is effectively a factional conflict within the ruling class actually invoking real issues, including climate change. The recently restored HEC chairman has been crying hoarse about the crisis of higher education, but no policy statement has been forthcoming from the mainstream opposition on this front. There have been vague assertions that the IMF-lain debt trap will be redressed, but has anyone promised to curb the alleged land grabbing of Bahria Town and other real estate moguls, tax corporate gains or rationalise the defence budget? The issue of missing persons, which was taken up in particular by Maryam Nawaz, appears once again to have gone missing.
Furthermore, no one has articulated a programme to address more micro-level daily tribulations of the working masses in the proverbial thana, katcheri and patwarkhana. Katchi abadi dwellers and street vendors cannot expect an end to the extortionary violence of state functionaries. The best Shehbaz Sharif has come up with sounds like music to khaki ears: a ‘national government’ featuring major parties and technocrats to boot.
Our heavily commercialised media sphere wants the palace intrigues to sound like a suspense thriller. But it all feels like a damp squib to me. And my sense is that most working people feel similarly.
I do not want to suggest that the masses are completely disinterested in how this latest episode of intra-ruling class wrangling will end. Working people rely on political patrons to navigate our arbitrary and exclusionary socioeconomic order, so whether any particular patron sits on the treasury or opposition benches is certainly of interest.
Which is to say that the majority of Pakistan’s people perceive themselves to have no meaningful role in politics other than to side with a patron-of-choice. It is telling, for instance, that there has been no meaningful mobilisation involving ordinary Pakistanis against the dramatic increase in the cost of living. It is not as if working people do not care. But there is little belief in the people’s collective power to really change things.
It is worth being reminded that many young people in metropolitan Pakistan really vested their faith in Imran Khan’s slogans of ‘Naya Pakistan’, believing that change was on the horizon. Today, this has largely been replaced by despondency.
The only silver lining is that the realities of the political economy have been laid bare. Rickshaw drivers and university professors alike know that the country is kept afloat through geopolitical rents that flow largely to the security establishment. The latter brought Imran Khan and the PTI to power, and its so-called neutrality is now paving the way for a new dispensation.
All this having been said, there is no use lamenting the inability and unwillingness of mainstream politicians to really make a break with the establishment-centric system. What is required is for the youthful majority to reignite hope in the possibilities of popular power — beyond the superficial slogans of ‘change’ which once animated the PTI. Many young people certainly articulate forceful opinions about the incumbent structure of power in online spaces, but transformative change will not come only through brave Facebook posts and tweets. Something else has to happen.
In the past, popular power was generated through formal associations like student and trade unions. Today, this country yearns once again for politically conscious youth to reclaim the mantle of progressive politics by mobilising on ground alongside working masses, ethnonational movements and feminists fighting patriarchy. To return to where I started, this is not about fighting someone else’s fight. Pakistan’s working and youthful majority must come together to contend with real crises that threaten the future of our lands, water bodies, mountains and humanity.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.