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Brands of socialism

Socialist rock bands may be the rage in Pakistan but some examples of Indian Socialism have their adherents across the border. Sunil Sethi writes.

india Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:26 IST
Sunil Sethi

"Come rebel with me," shouts the young man with an electric guitar on stage, emerging from a miasma of purple smoke and green laser beams. He stamps and gyrates and throws off his leather jacket as he bursts into revolutionary Urdu lyrics by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib set to rock music.

The cheering crowd is on its feet and, by the time he's on to the sloganeering number 'Dahshatgardi Murdabad' (Death to terrorism), it is lustily singing and dancing to his bhangra moves and clicking pictures on cell phones.

Meet Taimur Rahman of the Laal Band and a leading light of the Mazdoor Kisan Party, Pakistan's crowd-pulling socialist rocker. Armed with a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and son of the distinguished editor Rashed Rahman, Taimur is accompanied by his brother Haider on the flute and his pretty wife Mahvesh Waqar, a popular TV anchor, strutting her stuff in high heels and a tambourine. In 21st century India, upper class red rebels of Taimur's ilk may seem an anomaly but in Pakistan, where most kinds of musical entertainment in public are not permissible, they are a welcome, even necessary, form of political protest and release for pent-up emotion.

Can Pakistan be Egypt?
But is the Laal Band not in danger for its combination of popular music and revolutionary fervour from fundamentalist groups? Not really, counters informed opinion, because left-wing and civil rights groups are not influential enough to stem the rising tide of Islamist orthodoxy and an ingrained "culture of patronage politics".

In a recent critique, the political analyst Huma Yusuf questions why Pakistan is incapable of erupting in the kind of popular uprising that has lately convulsed Egypt. "The economy is teetering, food inflation is soaring, fuel shortages are rife and the unemployment rate is up to 34%. Add to that religious fervor, rabid anti-Americanism and rampant corruption and you've got a veritable Molotov cocktail."

Her answer is that in a society that tolerates intolerance and rewards vigilantism, Pakistanis are unable to forge the kind of consensus witnessed in Cairo. "Success and survival in Pakistan depend on who you know, not what you are able to do. Given the country's history of tumultuous politics and takeovers, it is impossible to know who might one day be in a position to offer you opportunity, clemency, electricity or anything else you might need."

Or as political commentator Abbas Zaidi notes in a recent blog: "Pakistanis are essentially tamashbeens, spectacle-loving people — and we will cheer on with gusto anyone who does our dirty work, while we sit and watch."

Luxury cars
There is a storm of angry letters from readers on a news item in a leading daily about legislators' luxury cars parked in the reserved parking lot of the Sindh legislature in Karachi — a fleet of Mercedes Benz, BMWs , Land Cruisers and Humvees of American manufacture. The sight outside the National Assembly in Islamabad is much the same. The fleet of second-hand Toyota Corollas offered free to Senate members are deemed an insult because members want brand new cars; as a result the unused Toyotas are gathering dust. Is this painful display of luxury logical in a country with a public debt of Rs 8.89 trillion, the report asks. To drive the point home further, it highlights the contrast with the modest and sturdy Ambassadors used by Indian leaders and officials in New Delhi on Republic Day. "What a sight it was to see Indian service chiefs disembark, one after another, from their old and small cars, as did the ministers."

Socialist rock bands may be the rage in Pakistan but some examples of Indian Socialism have their adherents across the border.

Sunil Sethi is the host of Just Books on NDTV.