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(First published on June 08, 2019)

From Narendra Modi to Viktor Orban, the phenomenal rise of troubling populism is no secret today. We live in an age where the technological prowess when coupled with the rigidity of absolutism wreaks the kind of havoc that would pale Hitler’s crimes against humanity in comparison. The threat is real. The perils are infinite. Nazis could only aspire to fiddle with the human genome through what they called the science of eugenics. Today the human genetic code lies bare before eyes prone to infinite exploitations. Machines and the machinations of man’s darker impulses collude to build the ultimate doomsday machine, the pain of which will be permanently etched in the fabric of space and time. And yet most do not see the risks. Why would they? Many are enablers. Others brainwashed not to notice. And this dice with the destiny of mankind continues. The same brinkmanship gave you the worst man monsters of history in the past. Mankind couldn’t be in graver danger.

So what are we to do if this evil grows into something bigger. Let’s talk about it in a minute for that is the purpose of this piece. First let me point out that this worry, this growing concern, this unnamed fear will be exploited by the worst enablers of chaos tomorrow. Need examples? In 2003 when moderates like Colin Powell and Tony Blair were forced to endorse the case for the invasion of Iraq, remember who were the greatest champions of the war? Fox News. Come Obama, they kept spreading the hate and bile into the US news media veins. McCain was defeated. But his vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, her fan Steve Bannon and countless others became the part of the Tea Party movement. While the few conscientious neocons were left looking askance, a huge number of them converted overnight to libertarianism. One of them was Fox News. Now they decry Iraq war and pose as its worst victims. Today like always Fox showcases the worst impulses of the society while playing the victim card.

The Steve Bannons who appear on your television and refuse to see a parallel between what is happening in Europe and what led to the holocaust, will one day tell you how it all was a liberal conspiracy and they the ultimate victims. Fox News will perhaps induct neo-Nazis as its hosts and then their polar opposites. Reason? Because rich men like Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox News, Sky News, Star News, and countless useless rags have no skin in the game. They would burn down the world if it amuses them and to do that they would change color every five minutes. One minute he is a Jew, next only a Whiteman, another just another Aussie and in reality only a rich old man with a warped mentality. So they will continue to arm the fault lines within the human civilisation and encourage every bad political impulse. The impact will not harm them in their ivory castles after all.

So what is to be done to survive the onslaught of populist regimes? How do you keep up the struggle against the perversion of democratic institutions? How do you restore democracy when atmospherics change? Ask us for we have survived many such populist regimes in Pakistan and restored democracy as much as was humanly possible. Here are some useful lessons.

Lesson one: Remember who you are. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude when they suffer from mass insomnia, they start forgetting everything and fearing total memory fail they create signs with simple writings like son, daughter, home to remind them who is who and what is what. Reaffirmation of core principles helps. Create literature even if it is for your eyes only. Remind yourself them you are proponents of liberal, pluralist democracy. That racial, cast and creed related, of color and lingual divides mean nothing to you. And please don’t confuse basic, simple and time-tested principles like democracy with contentious thoughts like socialism.

Lesson two: Survive. You are no good dead to anyone. For instance in a country like India where saffron-clad terrorists mow down critics in broad daylight, you have to choose safety first. So what does it entail? Conversion or complacency? Certainly not. But you do not need to take unnecessary risks. Find a creative way to frame your argument. You do not need to win all of them. And as pointed out earlier, create literature. This way your best arguments can be preserved. Remember it is always wise not to be item one on anyone’s list of priorities. If you rise to the top of anyone’s negative list, they will kill you. If you rise to the top of anyone’s favourite list jealousies of others will. In short, learn to survive. Which means, don’t be provoked.

Lesson three: Network. Seek out the likeminded people and stay in touch. I know the popular culture tells you that the big brother is watching. That there will be surveillance. But it is nonsense. No repressive state can have enough eyes and ears, let alone brains to spy on everyone. The technology could come handy in spying but technology doesn’t work that way. The best way to hide something is to hide it in plain sight.

Lesson four: Know thy enemy. Study the populist oppressors closely. Watch their every move. Note down their modus operandi. Chronicle every small mistake, every small misstep, every nervous tick, and every flaw. This might prove useful when you finally get your chance.

Lesson five: Be conscientious. Rely on what you believe in. Democracy. Since the ongoing coup around the world is being staged through the democratic means, if the nominal process survives, give it first preference.

Lesson six: Find a foothold. If one by one all nations turn, the world will become an extremely sorry place. It is time for the well-meaning people to think of a ‘plan B’. Who knows where it stops. If this is a broader conspiracy, the forces of good will need a place to seek shelter, regroup and fight on. It can be anywhere from Mauritania to France. But at least work to keep a fighting chance alive.

Lesson seven: Work on your material. Is it just a coincidence that suddenly every nation is witnessing total decimation of the moderate/ liberal/ secular/ pluralistic worldview? Evidently, the forces of evil are working overtime on their material. The forces of good are complacent, unimaginative, often arrogant and too compromised to survive. You need better ways to communicate your ideas, with cogent and relatable arguments, not guilt trips to sell your values which are essentially the best.

And finally: Fasten your seatbelts. Things will get uglier before they get better.

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