Writing on January 5, 1930, Mao Tse Tung wrote that “a single spark can light a prairie fire” to motivate his comrades in their revolutionary struggle in the face of depressing political odds. On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street-fruit vendor set himself on fire, sparking the democratic Tunisian Revolution that triggered the Arab Spring against autocratic regimes. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an unarmed African-American, was wantonly murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, sparking unprecedented, mass protests across America that are cutting across region, class, party, race and ethnic lines, challenging the established capitalist order in a Presidential election year.
In overtly subjective terms, there was no new clear cause for sparking a prairie fire in each incident. Mao’s Chinese Revolution didn’t succeed until 1948; Tunisia was firmly in the 24 year autocratic grip of President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali. Police brutality and race riots were common enough in America since the 1960s. Yet, clearly, the underlying objective conditions were ripe for sweeping change at each juncture. How, then, can we juxtapose subjective and objective conditions to ask whether and when some spark somewhere in Pakistan will light a prairie fire?
The objective conditions are well established. Covid-19 has laid bare the bankruptcy of the ruling civil-military elites that have progressively drowned the economy in debt, impoverished the masses, spawned regional inequalities, exacerbated ethnic tensions and constantly undermined notions of trust, rights and justice. These were embedded in a democratic Constitution reflecting a rare social contract achieved consensually in 1973 after losing half the country. But subjective conditions have been rare and, even when forthcoming, been dissipated at the altar of corruption and political opportunism. For example, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto seized the moment in 1971-72 to proclaim a “New Pakistan” based on principles of democracy and socialism. But his autocratic ways enabled the defenders of the ancien regime to overthrow and murder him. In 2007, a judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry, revolted against a military dictator and sparked elements of civil society to wage a prolonged struggle to oust him. However, the same judge was later possessed by megalomania to become larger than the Constitution, sack a prime minister and start playing to the tune of the same vested interests against whom he had led the original revolt. In 2013, a democratically elected, born-again, Nawaz Sharif showed signs of revolting against the old Establishment, only to be ousted by another Messiah judge tilting at the windmills of The Godfather. Finally, a “Naya Pakistan” against the corruption of the rapacious elites and unaccountable Establishment was pledged by Imran Khan in 2018, only to become a willing pawn in their hands and stifle dissent by subverting democratic norms and political freedoms.
The two political parties, the PPP and PMLN, that have offered any semblance of resistance to the Establishment in one form or another at any point of time have done so only on account of the whimsical personalities of their leaders and not organically since the leaders were born from the womb of the Establishment and succumbed to corrupt institutional practices and mismanagement on a big scale. The same is true of the PTI leaders. That would account for the missing subjective conditions to exploit the objective situation today. Much the same can be said of the judiciary that cannot conjure up the integrity or courage to defend the Constitution against the raids of the Establishment.
The subjective conditions are characterised by the political castration of these two parties and leaders by NAB and the judiciary under pressure of the Establishment. Consequently, the political parties are immobilized and prevented from rousing the hearts and minds of the populace. Unfortunately, too, neither party’s aging and ailing leadership is ready to hand over the reins to younger stalwarts, whether dynastic or otherwise, who may be ready to pay the price of incarceration for challenging the established order. Indeed, backroom negotiations aimed at survival have made them impotent.
If everyone is waiting for someone else to ignite the spark somewhere so that the people can spring into action and “save” the situation, we should not make the mistake of condemning the political situation as “unsalvageable”. At every existential moment of overwhelming economic or political crisis, Pakistan’s Establishment has been propped up and “saved” by imperialist foreign powers, most notably the US in pursuit of strategic adventures, with large dollops of money. But that era is coming to an end as Western capitalism faces its greatest challenge since WW2. This challenge is expressed internally by rising voices across established party affiliations for addressing issues of inequality, racism, climate change, health and personal freedoms. It is expressed externally by the breakdown of globalization supply chains, re-imposition of trade and travel barriers and an economy spiraling into acute recession.
If Pakistan is to fend for itself, the Establishment will have to relinquish power and unbounded avarice. It’s only a matter of time before a single spark during the time of Corona and after the hardship budget will light a prairie fire.