The Dawn: Oct 17, 2014

PUNJAB NOTES: Political crowd: reality of illusion

Mushtaq Soofi 

Political crowd is an integral part of the kind of politics the leaders and people in Punjab are quite fond of for various reasons, explained and unexplained. Our established politicians periodically hold political rallies to send the message to all who matter that they still have a firm grip on the people’s pulse. Thus they ensure to perpetuate their role as leading actors on the political stage though this in itself may not be sufficient enough. But the fact is that their coven and back-door dealing with the kingmakers cannot produce any tangible results if they fail to demonstrate their clout by show of mass strength. And the tested and tried recipe for baking a political cake is to get hold of political firewood called ‘Jalsa’(rally) and ‘Jiyala (diehard). The crowd a politician can pull is thought to be a litmus test of his popularity regardless of the fact whether it can impact his electoral performance. But the strength of the crowd certainly puts him in the race.

A political rally in the Punjab can be an open or a closed crowd. Usually it’s a closed one because it does not have the character of an open crowd whose defining feature is spontaneity. The closed crowd is pre-planned and organised preceded by a lot of publicity. This is how Elias Canetti in his celebrated book ‘Crowds and Power’ defines the closed crowd: “the first thing to be noted about it is that it has a boundary. It establishes itself by accepting its limitation. It creates a space for itself which it will fill. -- The entrances to this space are limited in number--”. No wonder if the description vividly reminds you of a recent political rally along with its venue held in Multan where several persons got crushed to death in a stampede and many more were injured.

Let us first try to understand the nature and behaviour of a closed political crowd. The cliché is true that all the existing societies are hierarchy-ridden and being so created thrive on inequality; lower in rank acknowledge those who are higher in rank as their leaders. Acceptance of unequal status whether it’s economic or social results in a loss of human dignity for majority as the social bottom is always much bigger than the top. So equality with resultant dignity is an eternal dream. A political rally worth the name in our society plays with this dream. It promises a new beginning, a re-constructed society based on human equality from which would flow the rule of law and justice.

The lure it holds out is irresistible and paves the way for crowd formation. An empty throbless space turns into a place full of reverberations. The crowd, when it gathers, imperceptibly ejects from its collective psyche its real life experiences. Members of the crowd feel as if they are really one; all distinctions that define them seem to have banished. A heightened sense of togetherness breeds a mesmerising haze that makes them believe all are equal and share the same goal. They breathe like a massive single body. An all-engulfing feeling of unbreakable bond expresses itself as universal unity. But it proves a short-lived euphoric illusion; it lasts as long as the centre stage holds; the forceful articulation of an around-the-corner utopia rings loud and an all-pervasive sense of togetherness keeps the real world at bay, blurring the walls between the temporary and the permanent. The temporary is what is being evoked; an audio-visual landscape of an inexperienced but desired world of freedom and equality. And the permanent is what stands outside; the age old society based on hierarchy where freedom or semblance of freedom is proportionate to what you possess and equality is considered an ill-conceived notion contrary to the principles of nature.

The crunch comes when the rally nears its end. The crowd suddenly has a presentiment of its disintegration. Fear of dispersal is the beginning of the end of a trance induced by a soothing whiff of promise. The act of coming together and dispersal are two highly contrasting scenes. The former signals an inflated unanimity and the latter the anxious individual concern. The moment of dispersal is the bursting of a bubble; painful reminder of what you actually are; an individual with your entire individual concerns which you subconsciously wished away while being a part of the crowd.

The closed crowd, which our political rally usually is, has a boundary as pointed out earlier. The space it fills has entrances limited in number. The boundary and the limited number of entrances which protect the crowd from intrusion and external threat become a stumbling block as it makes the orderly dispersal difficult. The crowd which breathed like a single organism within moments turns into an aggregate of individuals desperate to leave the enclosure as quickly as possible. The person that was being experienced as your own self while the rally was in progress suddenly appears as other blocking your way. The other that appears to hinder you on your way back to where you belong is what causes a stampede. That is the moment when the dream shared by a crowd degenerates into a nightmare suffered by individuals.

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