Container democracy

Some believe revolution fails when there’s no immediate change of government. But revolution can be a process, progressing in stages, the pressure taking months or years. In developed America, the system became seriously corrupted, increasingly ‘corporatized’ and militarized, especially after Reagan’s time. Only big money buys Presidents and power and the courts. Princeton University has just released an in-depth study to illustrate why the US is no longer a functioning democracy. The little guys don’t stand a chance.
Consequently, the attempted revolution there – the Occupy Movement (and the older Green Party) focusing on economic democracy and ordinary people — is harder, and takes longer. It has been three years already, but it keeps moving, spreading to over 900 towns and cities. The withdrawal from the Vietnam War was a people’s revolution, albeit narrower. Oligarchies have a grip both here and there. But circumstances are so dire here, we can’t afford leisurely change.
Why should other parties object to justice for the poor? They don’t. They object to the undoing of a crooked system that facilitates undue power and profits. The deprivation of the masses is an unintended consequence. It’s supposedly the administration’s fault. Those opposed to the revolution are fighting to preserve the status quo; nothing personal!
Lacking other justification, a desperate government has awarded religious-like sanctity to the Red Zone which the revolutionists originally had not even considered – and which the present power itself violated when previously in opposition (even carrying placards against looting of the poor, high prices, and selling of public enterprises).
But has the revolution painted itself into a corner with premature deadlines? Wouldn’t it have been better to accelerate nuisance value, spurring widened activism with a continued diet of damaging exposes? It unexpectedly happened when Dr. Qadri announced bringing the revolution virtually to everyone’s doorstep. Those unable to go to Islamabad no longer lose out on being part of the revolution. No leaving home for weeks, living under the open sky, continuous discomfort, lack of sleep. Much more difficult for officialdom to crush. If they beat down on one, it can move elsewhere. No need to crash ‘Red Zones’. Brilliant actually. How long can the cops cope, especially when current pre-emptive arrests leave no more room in jails?
It’ll be an ongoing process, learning the use of the tools of participatory democracy that Dr. Qadri calls for. ‘Representative democracy’, to date, has been in appearance only — sans people’s voice or consent after casting of votes. Throughout, the powers-that-be interpreted ‘mandate’ to mean absolute power without room for dissent or debate. Constituencies rendered voiceless and unserved for five year stretches.
No taxation without representation. – That’s another message. Claimed representation didn’t exist in practice. Too many including the elected, don’t pay taxes. More black money siphoned abroad than all taxes put together. Delayed income tax payments won’t create too many problems. But non-payment of utilities? What when they’re disconnected? How will people cook? How will businesses and home-based women workers earn? – Unless friendly persuasion wins over gas and electricity functionaries to the cause?
Palpable change on a country-wide scale seldom comes overnight, especially where development has been poor or non-existent. The principle and plans have to be differentiated from the implementation. Enough competent personnel are needed. How does one replace or reform functionaries, bureaucrats and police – not just colluding politicians and ministers — accustomed to earning more from bribes than salaries, or doing nothing?
Yet, the first step has been a successful one. — The first step being the planting of the idea amongst a vast number, that a revolution is necessary and possible. Few believed it could be when first spelt out in unambiguous terms. Earlier, a proliferation of armchair anchors and critics, barring some exceptions, had a field-day; months of undermining such hopes along with the personalities behind them.
In time, other parties will have to shape up or ship out. Programmes of reform and plans in terms that ordinary people can understand and personally identify with, will have to be matched by other parties if they are to remain relevant.
Some parties considered their options. Should they jump on the bandwagon? Some backed off. Some simultaneously made overtures while performing a balancing act ….. in case the revolution didn’t pan out immediately.
Rival parties have reason to worry. Most, like Zardari, depend on the status quo and a manipulative system to survive. Ultimately, they’ll have to put their money where their mouths are instead of in Swiss and other offshore banks, to prevent followers from jumping ship away from the feudal hold, ‘biradiri’, and empty promises.
Disturbingly, vast numbers don’t even know they have rights. So the revolutionary process involves comprehensive education and awareness. Unknown or unnoticed earlier, a headstart already existed. It started a generation ago, not as a political revolution but a purely social movement. It focused strongly on education, health and other basics of life. It first displayed its outlook, numbers, and outstanding organization and steadfastness at the Awami Tehreek’s first Islamabad sit-in.
Although Dr. Tahirul Qadri’s focus on revolution may have came late in life in response to a fast-deteriorating socio-economic condition, it turned out to be the perfect foundation for political change. Followers come from largely modest backgrounds, but are educated or skilled. They are already aware of basic rights, and brought up on principles of justice, equity, give-and-take. They made smooth transitions into the political mode without feeling the difference. In the ultimate, it’s the personal that’s political.
There’s no doubting the integrity of either leader. They come unaccompanied by the baggage of corruption that clings to most politicians. Given KPK’s culture as a tough, martial race, one can only marvel they tolerated appalling neglect for so long.
Unlike what most people are led to believe, there isn’t just one kind of democracy, either in definition or practice. Being man-made, it is as innovative and variable as the purpose behind it. It is mechanism or goal, depending on the motives of those who design it. Some – whether investors, bureaucrats or cynics — see democracy as a necessary management and administrative tool to handle vast numbers of people constituting an economy, in an orderly fashion. But they too realize that, for people to voluntarily go along with a system imposed on them, it has to make some sense to them.
The idea of democracy is an obvious one, even if the mechanism for achievement is not. People nevertheless need some kind of a roadmap to view themselves in the wider context. A professed democracy, working or not, is one such blueprint. In reform, it involves revamping entire country-wide systems, putting high emphasis and funds into essential public services and public institutions. It has to choose between public duty and playing second fiddle to foreign lending institutions and crippling globalization.
It involves prioritizing policies that upends previous ones. It’s risky business, because corrupt governments and parties have everything to fear from transparency. The greater the inequality gap, the more drastic the steps. But much can be learned from the inspiring Cuban success against global odds and blockades. Unfortunately, revolution often takes an unavoidable toll on victims.
Who could have imagined that containers would be making reluctant history!
There’s much to merit containers – they can provide safety, shelter from rain and sun, relative privacy and quiet that everyone needs a degree of, helping marches going longer. Minimal relief helps to counter killjoys, onscreen and off. But containers are a bad idea for containing democracy.

 The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.

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