The word ‘tabdeeli’ has been flaunted quite a lot in the Pakistani press lately, with politicians and political parties, such as the PAT and PTI talking of ‘tabdeeli’ in Pakistan. But what does it mean? Does it refer to a comprehensive overhauling or cosmetic changes in structures and processes? This is important to answer to ascertain whether those who talk of tabdeeli will bring any real change or perpetuate existing structures and processes that have led to much degeneration in Pakistan.

If one was to look at the word ‘tabdeeli’ from an linguistic perspective, it infers going from one state to another, and this is proven by looking at the roots letters: ‘Badal’ which indicates a change of state. So when one hears the word ‘tabdeeli,’ one naturally assumes a change of state or condition in which transformation has taken place. This is similar to a cube of ice which goes from being solid to liquid when it dissolves. Anything less than this would not be classed as ‘tabdeeli’ but could be referred to as ‘Islah’ i.e. reformation in which the core structures and processes are kept in place but peripheral changes take place to update or modernize something.  Clearly the language we hear from political parties in Pakistan is that of ‘tabdeeli’ not ‘Islah’, meaning that these political parties have set for themselves an objective of overturning the post colonial structures and processes inherited by the Pakistani state post 1947.

If we were to examine history, the enlightenment period in Europe can be seen as ushering in ‘tabdeeli’ with structures and processes overturned and new structures and processes taking their place that were couched on fundamentals such as secularism, freedom, liberalism and rationalism. Likewise, the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 resulted in a ‘tabdeeli’ in which new structures and processes were institutionalized. Even if we were to look to Islamic history, and analyze Medina before and after the Hijra, one will realize that ‘tabdeeli’ had taken place with structures and processes stemming from polytheism being replaced with new monotheistic structures and processes. None of these ‘tabdeeli’ scenarios resulted in existing structures and processes co-existing or merging with new structures and processes but with the new taking over and uprooting the old. This was because ‘tabdeeli’ was clearly understood and there was no confusion over what it meant.

Now if we were to look to the manifestos of existing political parties that shout for ‘tabdeeli,’ do they really understand what ‘tabdeeli’ actually means or is it a case of political pragmatism with political parties exploiting public demands for political objectives? Having glanced through many of the manifestos of Pakistani political parties, the impression is much of the same and focuses on improving education, health services, the judiciary, elections, agriculture and taxation. This is all good but the fundamental structures and processes are not touched upon; only reinforced through the manifestos. For example, structures and processes do not emerge in a vacuum but are established on values, which shape, determine and trigger structures and processes. To demonstrate this point, let’s look at existing economic structures and processes: are they deconstructed from values? The answer is clearly not, with values underpinning existing economic structures and processes, such as freedom of ownership, property rights, patents, utilitarianism and free markets, all of which play a crucial role in capitalistic economic structures and processes. Post modernists have played a key role here in criticizing the concepts and ideas related to existing structures and processes since the 1960s, leading to the formation of critical theory. However, this cannot be said of political parties in Pakistan, as they have accepted and work to embed the values on which the post colonial structures and processes are built on in Pakistan.

So what is real ‘tabdeeli’? This would be a process in which the fundamental structures and processes are addressed, in particular the values which are integral to such structures and processes. If one was to observe the post colonial Pakistan state, values such as secularism, freedom of ownership, liberalism, nationalism, free markets and patriotism would need to be deconstructed and addressed, with a new set of values presented on which to re-construct new structures and processes that would form the bedrock of a new society. It is only through this way that ‘tabdeeli’ can be brought; otherwise calls of ‘tabdeeli’ will continue to resonate with the people but be artificial on behalf of the advocates. Another crucial aspect of ‘tabdeeli’ is to ensure that the new values resonate with the people, in that they are fully embraced, therefore giving legitimacy to the new structures and processes that will come into being. This naturally means that the new values must have some intrinsic relation to the people whether to their religion, culture or history. When looking at this in the context of Pakistan, with Pakistani society becoming more conservative, any ‘tabdeeli’ would have to take this trend into consideration. Otherwise, one risks presenting new values which have no resonance or impact amongst the people, resulting in them having no backbone and thus disappearing overnight. This has been the case so far, with ‘tabdeeli’ proponents having no clarity on what ‘tabdeeli’ actually is and secondly, presenting values which not only reinforce existing paradigms but are also aloof from what the people want and feel. This is the challenge, in understanding what ‘tabdeeli’ really means and then translating it into values, which will reconstruct society but at the same time have acceptance in society. Otherwise, one risks building a spiders’ web, which can be blown away rather quickly.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.