The missing roots | Pakistan Today

The missing roots

Political parties in Pakistan routinely fail to represent the people at the grass-root level


Pakistan’s missing grass-root level political activism could verily be the reason that any form of revolution that’s wrought upon the country ends up making but a splash worth of impact, while making promises of tornadoes and tsunamis to come.

Irrespective of what we are repeatedly told, the people at the grass-root level are not part of the current, or any former, political turbulence. Their problems and needs are not raised nor represented. And if this is not rectified the results could indeed be dire for the country in the long run.

Journalist and researcher, Ali Arqam, has spent quite a bit of time working on the political setups prominent in the country. He presents a very bleak picture.

“Grass-roots politics died due to degenerated politics of the left which claims to challenge the existing power structures and bring people from the lower quarters to the fore. This is while bourgeoisie politics relies on existing power structures as feudal lords, and what not”, he said.

“It does not pose a threat to these structures, but in many ways contributes to strengthening them, which is precisely why when the left’s politics suffers degeneration it ends up in the same place as where feudal lords or urban feudals did. What we find is MQM styled politics and the death of actual activism that is needed. Kenan Malik summed it up perfectly when he said, ‘the sense of being politically abandoned has been most acute within the traditional working class as social-democratic parties have cut their links with their old constituencies’”.

On the other hand the devolution of power or bringing about a local bodies system could rectify the situation to an extent, but that path is seldom chosen.

“Politicians will never swing this way because they abhor and despise losing any power from their hands. Local bodies would mean that the person using his vote is in direct interaction with the person asking for it — that is how democracy has to work, but our ‘leaders’ can’t afford it,” he added.

Fahad Rahman, an educator from Lahore, whose focus is on psychology, feels the people that exist at the very basic level of society are often only decorations in different political rallies and processions that take place around the country.

“I’m not sure whether all types of political activism is equally beneficial for the country so I’m just going to talk about peaceful, and social justice related activism. The lack of such discourse and activism is one factor that prevents Pakistan from creating a state and institutions that actually uplift citizens rather than oppress them” , he said.

“Currently there is a whole jalsa and mini jalsas in the country and that can fit the definition of political activism. Also MQM JI and JUI-F, etc, spend a lot of time on street-level politics. However, other than that, we need more real political activism at this level”.

Irrespective of what we are repeatedly told, the people at the grass-root level are not part of the current, or any former, political turbulence. Their problems and needs are not raised nor represented

Of course that isn’t where the story ends. Grass-root level representation, or lack thereof, has other reasons as well. Fahad further elaborated on this aspect by outlining the role of the elite class.

“The other side of the spectrum has the elite who either don’t want the status quo to really change (given how it benefits them tremendously) or they aren’t invested in Pakistan as they have one foot out the country anyway. The more social justice movements gain power and voice the better the chances that some of our oppressive laws, institutions and customs will change”, he added.

The situation that we are facing at present holds no real promise. The grass-roots will not be brought onto the table till the political parties that are meant to serve them are able to see them as free individuals and not just one-dimensional votes. “PML-N is getting a lot of votes from the sheer fact that institutions of rural feudalism and poverty and corruption ensure that people vote rationally on grounds of who can build roads and provide them with an insider in the state machinery. While PTI doesn’t even bother to cater to the grass-roots. Honestly there doesn’t seem to be even a small cosmetic change that can change this status quo other than larger structural changes in the economic and land-owning systems,” Fahad stressed.

Sehrish Ali, marketing professional from Karachi, fears that this continuous trend of ignoring the grass-roots is going to spiral into a slew of repercussions, many of which we are already unsuccessfully trying to tackle.

“If the people at the grass-root are going to be troubled by issues such as poverty and all that comes with it, it becomes hard to look at the bigger picture. Plus they are used as puppets to get the dirty work done. It’s hard to get the people at that level excited about anything when they are so close to the dirt. They become cold, withdrawn, paranoid and bitter”, she said.

“It isn’t surprising that they go on to disregard the nation’s laws. We are suffering from unending problems, such as erosion of patriotism, brain drain, lack of opportunities, etc. It defeats the purpose of democracy entirely when there is no real dialogue between the people and the government”.

The recent political scenario has also made many more aware of the different facets of the political atmosphere of the country. The youth has verily risen, although it can be debated as to what portion of that youth comes from lower income groups.

Sardar Sami, founder of State Youth Assembly, Islamabad, has been a part of youth based activism for a while now. He believes civil society isn’t what it used to be, and military regimes of the past are to blame. “Civil society in Pakistan is almost dead. Military regimes in the past are mostly responsible for the lack of any real political activism in Pakistan. It is high time we started to question our political and religious leaders who are manipulating all that they can to gain power“, he said.

“Even Imran Khan, who got the youth thinking and politicised them, is now depoliticising them and turning them into puppets. I voted for him to see more of the youth in politics but now all I see is him bringing back the 90s political era. PPP and PML-N learned from their past and stood for democracy, I don’t see the same maturity in the current revolution”.

Has Pakistan really had enough time to nurture the democratic system and process in the manner that was required? Is the absence of grass-root level political activism caused by our inability to understand and appreciate this system?

Sardar believes that no change comes overnight. Even the integration of the grass-roots into the current system will take decades. “England implemented the Magna Carta in 1215. Their system only developed further after democracy was left to run its course for years. We have but six decades to show for our progress, and most of that time has been spent under military rule. The grass-root is not represented because a poor man does not send another into the parliament. That has to change!” he explained.

Sabeen Jamil’s point of view echoed that of Sardar’s. A former journalist and educator, Sabeen has a unique take on grass-root level initiatives. “Authority positions are held by influential people. These people don’t represent masses. The implications are simple: masses would remain ‘unrepresented’ and their problems unresolved,” she said. “How can I address transport and mass transit when I have never travelled in anything less than a luxury car?” she laughed.

Has Pakistan really had enough time to nurture the democratic system and process in the manner that was required? Is the absence of grass-root level political activism caused by our inability to understand and appreciate this system? Ali Sajid Imami, an IT professional and social activist from Islamabad, presented a more holistic approach to the problem.

“The cause of the non-representation of the lower classes and grass-root level activism is very simple. We did not have a transitional period acclimatising us to democracy and political activism,” he explained. “We transitioned directly from imperial rulers to a political democracy.”

The problem that presented itself was simple. The lower classes and the common man never really transitioned into the political framework. “The same rulers, the same feudal lords as before, transitioned to politicians and they were the same people just trying to use a different system to keep the status quo. That’s why we don’t have common man’s representation,” Ali stated.

If the situation is not rectified then it will present its own set of problems. What happens to Pakistan if the grass-root level doesn’t find its own voice? Ali predicts bad times ahead, “On the one hand, you see the simplest way class warfare exists in Pakistan. You have lower class turning to crime. You also have a very frustrated and very malleable lower class become clay in the hands of terrorists and other charlatans. Then you look at the weird kind of competitiveness this instills. You see how people in lower middle and middle class look at the ones they think have ‘made it’ and they assume that they have their voices heard regardless of the truth of that statement,” he said.

“So they imagine that if they too climbed the class ladder to that point, they too will be heard. This unfortunately feeds into the blocked elite cycle, making them ignore the real grass-roots issues to appease the classes above them. Then you have the current PTI and PAT ‘revolution’ itself, which is a manifestation of a ‘grass-roots’ syndrome, in which a class that is definitely not at the grass-roots pretends to be both elite and grass-roots and a representative of both!” he exclaimed.

And therein lies the crux of the problem. People who have no real sensitisation or empathy towards grass-root problems are trying to administer alien fixes that often do not work. Despite this, Ali does not see the lower classes rising up and staging a revolution of their own.

“This problem has the potential to spiral into a full-fledged class war, except it won’t be between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It would be among the bourgeoisie and the other group of bourgeoisie pretending to be proletariat,” he added wistfully.

The only thing that is certain at the end of the day is that without representation of the grass-root in the political arena, policies will continue to constructed in a manner whereby they only address the nation’s problems with large gaps and fractures. Until we can find a way to really bring an entire chunk of our masses back onto the page the problems plaguing the country are most likely going nowhere.

Luavut Zahid

Luavut Zahid is Pakistan Today’s Special Correspondent. Her work places an emphasis on conflict and disasters, human rights, religious and sexual minorities, climate change, development and governance. She also serves as the Pakistan Correspondent to the Crisis Response Journal. She can be reached at: [email protected], and she tweets at: @luavut.