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Undying romantic impulse


July 9, 2020

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

There’s a sense of deja vu when one looks at the growing discontent with the PTI government, which was inaugurated barely two years ago amid tremendous expectations.

Here is a leader who had adopted an iconoclastic stance on the economy and governance and promised to bring about a metamorphosis of the nation’s politico-economic landscape. But as prime minister, his popularity has nosedived; and in the eye of even many of his erstwhile staunch supporters, his government’s acts of omission and commission have thrown the country into a tailspin. So what has gone wrong?

Romanticism and classicism represent the opposite poles in a perennial intellectual-cum-political divide. Classicism puts its faith in rationalism and empiricism as the reliable guide to travelling along the road to advancement and freedom. People are regarded as essentially similar everywhere, governed by the same universal laws. They only differ in how far they have travelled on the same linear road. Knowledge constitutes the only credible difference between nations or societies.

Romanticism ennobles will, sentiments, intuition or faith. In one sweep, the will can accomplish what intellect fails to do despite years of sweat and labour. Cultural differences are abiding; some nations or ethnic groups because of their inherent characteristics are destined to rule the rest.

For classicists, the fundamental condition in society is one of cooperation and consensus. Conflict and disagreement, whenever they arise, are underpinned primarily by lack of knowledge. Over time, and with pursuit of enlightened self-interest, all conflicts and all contradictions are resolved. For romanticism, by contrast, the fundamental condition in a society is one of conflict; the apparent consensus is contrived and maintained by power. Far from being an aberration of an otherwise society in concord, discord is the driving force of history and the engine of social change. Conflict is undergirded by systemic, and often irreconcilable, forces in which one side either decimates the other or gets decimated.

In politics, whereas classicism appeals to common principles, programmes and ideologies, romanticism draws strength from shared sentiments, narratives and myths. Classicism puts its trust in commonsense, natural or fundamental rights, democracy, incremental change, peaceful conflict resolution, the rule of law and institution building.

Romanticism upends this world of harmony and freedom. Democracy is regarded as a sign of decay and decadence, of senility and stupor, while the very notions of fundamental rights and equality are considered to be essentially destructive. The prime political virtue for the people is not freedom but loyalty; the principal qualification for the leader is not common sense but charisma. Rules and regulations, procedures and precedents throw a spanner in the leader’s works and therefore must be set aside when needed. Debates and arguments are only wit and gossip – a bourgeoisie notion in the terminology of revolutionary socialism. It’s the indomitable will and emotional intelligence that make all the difference. Romantics look to men and women of destiny, who, in the words of political theorist Carl Schmitt, make decisions and create politics by defining the people’s enemies.

In both intellectual and political realms, the romantic-classic divide is unending and has produced towering figures on both sides. For every Bentham, there’s a Coleridge; for every Hegel, there’s a Schopenhauer; for every Churchill, there’s a Hitler; and for every Chiang there’s a Mao.

Where do Pakistan’s politics and society stand in this clash of the romantic impulse and the classic intellect? For all its shenanigans and shortcomings, Pakistan is a democracy, where at least in theory, the law of the land reigns supreme. At the same time, it’s a society whose infatuation with a sweeping change refuses to die down and where the cult of the personality commands a creed-like devotion. Not surprisingly, the emergence of a saviour who’s capable of turning things around by sheer will and strength of character has remained a dominant theme in the socio-political narrative.

Over the years, such a narrative has produced quite a few ‘saviours’ both in uniform and wearing the garb of democracy. Until a few years ago, the person who came closest to satisfying popular aspirations for the emergence of a saviour was Z A Bhutto, who sought to strike a compromise between revolutionary socialism and parliamentary democracy. The former found its expression in his flagship nationalization programme; while the latter was embodied in the 1973 constitution, which marked the continuation of the status quo. In a way, Bhutto represented a synthesis – albeit a jerry-built – of classic and romantic ideals. Chairman Bhutto would style himself as Pakistan’s Chairman Mao but he lacked the titanic personality of the founder of the People’s Republic of China by a long way.

The fall of Bhutto in the late 1970s coincided with the advent of the Islamic revolution in Iran. The images of Ayatollah Khomeini triumphantly returning to his country having pulled down a mighty monarchy gave fresh impetus to hopes for a comparable revolutionary change in Pakistan. That said, none of Bhutto’s contemporaries or successors was cast in a revolutionary mold. They might have coveted to rule with an untrammeled authority, and, as in case of Nawaz Sharif or Benazir Bhutto, might have put up a defiant face once or twice, but they didn’t have the making of a revolutionary. They remained primarily concerned with saving their neck.

The rise of Imran Khan created the impression that at long last the much awaited saviour had arrived. Here was a leader who promised and seemed capable of uprooting the old, creaky, corrupt, and rotten-to-the core system; eschewing the politics of opportunism and the electables, redistributing wealth from the ultra-rich to those lying at the bottom of the economic heap, breaking the begging bowl once and for all, and making the nation stand on its feet – all by his indomitable willpower and charisma.

With or without taking a leaf out of the book of Carl Schmitt, Imran Khan created politics primarily by defining the peoples’ enemies: the corrupt elite, which he called mafias, self-serving politicians, and rent-seeking businesspersons. Like a true romantic, he ruled out, and continues to do so, compromise with his foes. His stature both as a cricketer and a philanthropist may have helped him get a foot in the door of power. But it was the people’s disenchantment with the erstwhile political parties that provided a fertile ground for his rise. The youth – impatient and impressionable as they are everywhere – were particularly swept off their feet by his potent anti-corruption, anti-elite narrative. Their leader had clearly defined their enemies and it was up to them to strike the final blow.

But so far the expectations of national rejuvenation have turned out to be a pipedream. Whether it’s embracing the electables and the tried and tested, announcing a tax amnesty, shedding reliance on foreign credit, curbing the powers of mafias or frequent administrative reshuffle at the top, Imran Khan has come a cropper in leading politics or governance off the beaten track. Worse, the sharp deceleration of economic growth and a perennial narrow fiscal space have thrown a wrench into the works of the government relating to job creation, income generation and price control – the ultimate test of a government in the eye of the electorate. All these have combined to make craters in the ruling party’s popularity.

Imran Khan’s supporters defend the below par performance of his government by arguing that the system is too thoroughly out of whack as to be set right in a couple of years and that if the nation is patient enough the indefatigable will of their leader would do wonders and whup the common enemies. They may have a point. The problem, however, is that once the sentiments of the people are whipped up so and their expectations are raised sky high, expecting them to be patient, though it may sound logical, is a tall order. Remember, rationality is a perfect stranger in the land of the romantics. In such circumstances, the leader’s popularity is bound to come down with a thud.

Both romanticism and classicism have their merits and demerits. The success of romanticism requires above all a titanic figure; and even such a figure may in the end fall. In a nation where pygmies are cast as giants, it’s better to put one’s money on classic ideals: incremental change, institution building and rule of law. At the same time, fascination with romantic notions is difficult to cast aside for long. Let’s wait with bated breath for the next saviour.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi