The onset of the 17th century witnessed greater participation of the public in community work across the landscape of the world. In the 21st century, Pakistan is no exception to that trend.
This public participation is not limited to community work, as at times it has altered the course of a nation’s politics and national integration. In some places, emerging public opinion resulted in the deterioration of democratic peace, the prosperity of the masses and the international standing of that country. The glaring events of the Iranian Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Arab Spring are examples of how public opinion turned into public rage.
Contrary to that, in some places, public opinion altered the future of nations from dark to bright. Progressive movements in the United States in the early 20th century and the French Revolution in the 18th century show the bright side of emerging public opinion.
A brief analysis of these revolutions shows that the emerging power of public opinion can be a blessing as well as a threat to a nation’s stability and to inclusiveness in society. The presence of inclusive institutions and dedicated leadership is a necessary requirement for effective and constructive utilization of public opinion.
By and large, the nations of Western Europe have been successful in global standing, with institutions that are strong enough to provide the needs of their people. In the late 20th century, decolonization of the USSR in the aftermath of the Cold War stemmed from public opinion against the Soviet government owing to its failure to provide fundamental rights. Putting it differently, the USSR broke up into multiple independent states because of public opinion against the priority of the Soviet government, which was to contain capitalism at the cost of the prosperity of the masses.
At times public opinion has done well in the national as well as in the global arena. After experiencing nuclear attacks at the end of World War II, the Japanese government eventually became strong enough to opt for atomic weapons itself, but it respected public opinion and turned its attention instead toward peaceful technological advancement. As a result, it now is difficult to find anyone in the world who doesn’t know Japan as “the lord of technology.”
The contemporary world is no exception to this. The recent uprising in Catalonia and the cause of freedom for the Kurds in the Middle East vis-a-vis the recent public anger in Iran against government policies shows that the emergence of public opinion is an unending project and must be handled with care to turn this opinion into the strength of the nation.
Pakistan is also dealing with the emerging power of public opinion. The emergence of a culture of protest owing to various causes and active use of social media vis-a-vis the desire of common Pakistanis to participate in politico-economic matters is a practical manifestation of this. Putting it differently, the increasing input by the public in questioning politico-religious and military lords shows the increasing emergence of public opinion.
Now, here comes the question: Will this emerging public opinion be good for the diversified society of Pakistan? Surely, the answer lies in the effectiveness of its politico-economic institutions.
Unfortunately, the past trend of Pakistani institutions shows a grim picture of bureaucracy and favoritism. The result is quite evident in the form of economic woes of the country in general and the masses in particular.
A lack of dedicated national leadership is also adding fuel to the fire. Everyone accepts this bitter reality but some opt to negate it.
Keeping in view the above facts, it is hard to project positive utilization of public opinion, and the opposite scenario – the chance of chaos – is dominant. Conflicting opinions among politico-religious elites and their respective manipulation of the masses by a demagogue approach would result in further divides in the nation based on political and religious beliefs. This could be an indicator of future clashes among the people of Pakistan on sectarian grounds.
It is high time for policymakers and politico-religious elites to judge the pulse of Pakistani opinion and devise a comprehensive plan of action to avert the danger of the emerging power of public opinion and turn it into effective fuel for the development of the country.
To accomplish this, policies like the National Action Plan (NAP) and National Internal Security Policy must be implemented in their true spirit. Failing to do so would result in negative consequences for which the whole nation would have to pay in the form of humanitarian and financial loss and perhaps in geographic terms too owing to the lack of unity upon matters of security, Kashmir, and non-state actors.
Luckily, the recent US policy on South Asia has streamlined the opinion of the masses to a certain extent. Also, the active role of the Pakistani judiciary and the NAB seem to be a blessing in disguise. Similarly, the political activism and greater questioning of policymakers on various platforms including social media by common men have created a fear of accountability among decision-makers.
These developments show prospects of the emerging power of public opinion. This opportunity can be seized by political rulers to develop a national narrative and conduct inclusiveness of society as well as of institutions.
Only future policies of the government and their implementation will tell which way the future of emerging power of public opinion is going to shape Pakistan’s stability and prosperity.