Goes without saying, Tahir-ul-Qadri’s little pantomime in Islamabad certainly won’t be missed. We can sleep easy knowing that a severe lack of options compelled the powers-that-be to import a cartoon from Canada, put him in a container, and park him in Islamabad *hoping* that something would come of it.
Well, it didn’t.
For that, we can thank the opposition parties, who wanted nothing to do with it, and also the government for a fairly measured and non-violent response. There was an agreement of a rather dubious kind at the end between Qadri and members of the ruling coalition, but I have little doubt that it’ll be worth less than the paper it’s printed on come election time.
That said, there were two things worth analyzing from both the protest in Islamabad, and the rally that preceded it in Lahore. The first is the composition of the protestors who came out for the Lahore rally, and then the ones who actually accompanied Qadri’s container from Lahore all the way to Islamabad, and spent 4 days out in the cold. The intuitive thing would be to suggest these people were mostly the rent-a-crowd sorts, urban lumpen types paid to stand outside in the cold. Interestingly enough, journalistic accounts from the protest suggest that they really weren’t. This short report for example, by Mahvish Ahmad for Tanqeed, profiles the prototypical protestor and highlights how they’re mostly from secondary urban locations and belong to what can be classified as the upwardly-mobile demographic. For what it’s worth, I’ve been studying Minhaj-ul-Quran’s (Qadri’s organization) facebook page, and there are lots of pictures, videos, news-clippings, and comments being posted by a lot of internet-savvy young Punjabi men.
Then to cap it all off there’s this video clip of a twenty-something guy in a suit singing a birthday song for Tahir-ul-Qadri (who’s not even present, btw). The song is in three different languages (Urdu, Arabic, and English), which in itself is quite indicative of the aspirations of Pakistan’s upwardly mobile middle class – English = Modernity, Urdu = Nationalism, Arabic = Religion.
The second point, related to the first, is the protest itself. So we know that the drama itself was orchestrated and well funded, both by followers of Qadri and by more sinister quarters, but the protestors were certainly real. This in turn created a situation whereby certain people, online and in the press, sympathized with the protesters, and talked about how the cause itself was genuine. I think I can sympathize with the people in so far as I can sympathize with anyone standing outside in the cold for 4 days, listening to a guy rant on and on about a number of things, most of which didn’t concern them or their well being. Over and above that though, I don’t sympathize with the cause, especially when elections are just around the corner, and I certainly don’t sympathize with middle-class populism that’s completely premised on a slogan to implement article 62 and 63 of the constitution (only people of ‘good Islamic character’ can be representatives), to ‘save the state’ and to free the country from ‘corruption’ (whatever that means) so that trains can run on time. People come out for all sorts of silly reasons every where in the world, and I think it’s only fair we differentiate between a legitimate protest, and a reactionary crowd.
Finally, and not to jinx this or anything, but we’re reaching a point where there are several parties competing for electoral power and all of them have a vested interest in keeping the system running. That for a country with a history like ours is completely unprecedented. Had this been the 90s, at least one of the major parties would’ve joined in the anti-government protests, burned down a few buildings, and created a situation where necessity and emergency would’ve trumped constitutionally ordained transitions.
The important thing to take from all of this is that the PPP’s been terrible in government, and soon everyone will have a chance to vote for whoever they think will be better. PTI’s been feeling a bit deflated these days, but I still think they have enough of a nuisance value to kick the PML-N into action in Punjab – which they have done to a certain extent. And finally, the psychological impact of having a civilian led transition will be huge, and will only work towards establishing the most basic rules of our political game – i.e. how to transfer from one government to another without killing, burning, and looting.
I think we owe ourselves that much after 65 years.