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Statusquo or Change


WHEN considered as an agent of social, economic or political change, activism possesses an anti-status quo value. Nonetheless it can also entail efforts that are meant to impede a change or maintain the status quo. In either case it contributes to the shaping of attitudes and behaviour of individuals, groups, institutions and states.
It is difficult to measure the impact of activism in terms of change, particularly during times of protracted crises or turmoil. After civilian protests and uprisings gripped the countries of the so-called Arab Spring, many expected that long-term changes would come about there. But eventually, most of these ‘processes of change’ culminated in an unexpected return to the status quo.
Activism can have both positive and negative consequences of varying degrees over short, medium and long periods of time. Again, it is difficult to identify the required methods and amount of activism which could bring about the desired change. Many believe that change is a natural and spontaneous process and can by itself open up new vistas, but it largely depends on the vision of the leaders and activists in which direction they will direct the change.
Multiple processes of activism are gaining ground in Pakistan with political and religious parties leading the recent discourse on activism. Social welfare and rights groups are also quite active in Pakistan, but ultimately they contribute to enriching existing religious and political discourses. Their activism has yet to create the sort of synergy and ‘social acceptance’ that can have an impact on the ongoing processes of socio-cultural and political change in society.
Political and religious parties are leading the recent discourse on activism.
The anti-government agitation movements of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) represent the most recent spate of political activism in Pakistan. Jamaat-i-Islami and Deobandi religious-political parties are trying to reinvigorate their traditional mode of activism and politics of alliances with a view to responding to emerging internal challenges in the country. The JI’s moot in Lahore and the Deobandi parties’ recently reached agreement to respond collectively to common challenges can be seen in this perspective.
Political and religious activism not only have broader spaces available in the country, they, in fact, are correlated and complement each other. This was seen in the recent demonstrations by the PTI and PAT where both parties developed mutual coordination despite their different normative backgrounds.
The recent wave of activism is also conceived as the ultimate outcome of the power struggle within different institutions where old and new power stakeholders want to determine their share in the power structure of the country.
Much has been written on the recent political crisis in terms of ‘class conflict’ suggesting that newly emerging middle classes not only want to see some quick fixes to many structural problems facing the country but also want to play a role in political affairs.
The argument is supported by evidence that the ongoing political activism is confined to major urban centres where the neo middle class has larger concentrations. Also, an increasing rift between traditional and neo middle classes can be seen in urban centres.
The character of the traditional middle class is changing in many ways. This class was mainly the product of the industrialisation of 1960-80 and dependent on the means of production. It was based in the central and coastal parts of the country. Few of their segments have entered the modern and hi-tech phase of industrialisation, and they need to see adjustments and reforms in the current economy and trade policies of the state.
During the last two decades, the services-based middle classes expanded, giving birth to a new culture of consumerism. The consumer economy has impacted the behaviour of the middle classes that need a consumer-friendly economy and culture. Not only do the middle classes want an expansion in the services sector they also want a change in the economic structure.
Apart from the emerging education structures and changes in social norms, the Pakistani diaspora has also played the role of a catalyst in shaping the behaviour of the consumer middle class. Most diaspora communities are engaged in the services sector or are part of the labour industry abroad.
Apparently, conflict of interest between these middle classes is based on consumer vs production socio-economic interests. The PTI represents the neo middle class, which wants a complete shift in the political-economic approach of the state.
The PML-N presents itself as the custodian of the interests of another segment of the middle class. The boundaries of these classes and their political behaviour overlap in places, but their domains are getting clearer. Interestingly, the parties, which claim to represent the lower classes of the country, mainly the rural communities, are suffering as the political discourse is being shaped largely by the major urban centres. Of course, media plays an important role in shaping political views, which are supportive of the urban political discourse.
Another significant factor is the social media, which is shaping urban-based political narratives. These narratives support neo middle-class interests, and the PTI has brought virtual activism into the streets.
But the PTI is not diversifying its political strategies, and it appears as if the party is caught up in the romance of agitation and activism. This reflects the dichotomy of the PTI elite’s political behaviour. The elite want full authority to implement their agendas and do not regard a provincial government sufficient to demonstrate their capacities.
The social and religious profiles of the middle classes create space for religious, political activism. The average Pakistani wants to be progressive in a conservative framework, and religious-political parties, and to some extent mainstream urban-based parties exploit these sentiments. Rightly or wrongly, the religious-political parties always consider themselves as agents of change but do not prove themselves the real competitors of mainstream political parties. Through their politics and activism they win hearts of the people but the minds remain with the political parties.
This creates space for alliances between mainstream right-wing political parties and religious-political parties. Through such alliances, the space shrinks for secular, liberal parties.
The romance of activism; by Muhammad Amir Rana, dawn.com
The writer is a security analyst.