ANALYSIS: Is the party over? —Salman Tarik Kureshi - Saturday, October 02, 2010

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The moderate right is programmatically clear and is divided at present only because of personality issues between Nawaz Sharif and others who claim the Muslim League label. But the PPP drifts rudderless in ideological darkness

I had suggested in these pages last week that the two-alliance political polarity slowly emerging in Pakistan was already acquiring its right wing, centred around the PML-N, but that its left wing was still to evolve. Some friends have disagreed. What about the PPP, they say. Its current failures notwithstanding, is that not the core entity for culturally liberal, socially egalitarian democrats?

In today’s piece, I would like to revisit certain points in the PPP’s history and show how it has lost its social democratic compass, as it sails towards political irrelevance.

Initially formed at the residence of J A Rahim in Karachi, the PPP was officially launched at a convention at the Pak Tea House, Lahore, in November 1967. The party was a child of the 1960s — a decade known the world over for its non-conformist, anti-establishment upsurge and its passion for social justice. Vigorous espousal of democratic, pro-poor values caused the PPP to emerge strongly in the assemblies and amongst the hungry, justice-seeking people at large.

Some contended that the PPP was in fact an establishment ploy, with a temporarily out-of-work politician (the late Mr Bhutto) mouthing radical democratic and socialist slogans only to deceive the masses. Well, whatever his private promptings, the objective actions of Mr Bhutto in power included fathering a national constitution, thereby placing himself alongside such illustrious democratic figures as Thomas Jefferson, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Jawaharlal Nehru and Tunku Abdur Rahman. As regards his socialist credentials, we have the evidence of the four waves of nationalisation carried out by his government. Many of course contend that these nationalisations destroyed the backbone of the economy; the fact is that at the time socialism-without-nationalisation would have been something of an oxymoron.

But, as members of our urban elite never tire of arguing, the PPP is actually a feudal party and Mr Bhutto and other party leaders were feudal lords who hated capitalist material progress. Now, it is true that the Bhuttos were a land-owning family. The fact is that this ‘feudal’ government carried out not one but two waves of land reforms, forcing the landed classes to seek all kinds of subterfuges to cling to some portion of their holdings. It was the pseudo-Islamic propaganda of the middle class General Ziaul Haq that led to the reversal of the land reforms. Less than a dozen years after the PPP’s creation, its charismatic founder was executed on the orders of this usurper.

In 1986, a courageous ray of light shone out against the suffocating darkness of the Zia regime. Benazir Bhutto landed at Lahore to one of the biggest and most tumultuous welcomes ever accorded to anyone until then. She then flew down to Karachi, to the mammoth, million-plus procession — the greatest this city had ever seen — that welcomed her return. It was dark as the procession turned from Nursery into Shahrah-e-Quaideen, but someone in a small jeep in front of the truck in which she rode was shining a spotlight towards her. Her face seemed almost haloed there — she was a fairy princess, defying an evil sorcerer.

In 1988, Zia died and she led her party into the elections that followed.

There is a point about the selection of PPP candidates that went into this election that bears note. Feeling (correctly) that the establishment would shamelessly stack the cards against them, the First Couple of the PPP sought to award party tickets to “sure winners” in the various constituencies, whether these were PPP loyalists or not. This brought on board a crowd of opportunists and even some former functionaries of the Zia regime.

The PPP was successful on 32 percent of the seats polled, making it the largest single party in parliament. But this compared poorly with its earlier performances. In 1970, the PPP had won 81 seats, a whopping 60 percent of the West Pakistan seats. In that election, this party swept Punjab, gaining 62 of the province’s 82 NA seats — an incredible 76 percent. By contrast, in 1988, the PPP’s tally in the largest province was only 29 percent of the 150 Punjab seats. Where the PPP had earlier swept the heavily populated GT Road districts, doing much less well in the comparatively backward feudal domains of the Seraiki belt, the 1988 elections showed an exact reversal. Clearly, the PPP had lost its former vote bank in the heavily populated GT Road belt of Punjab and picked up in the feudal south and west. Thus, the “sure winners” had failed to win and the party had been driven out of its former strongholds into the rural hinterland.

This was also the time Benazir made her first set of ‘deals’ with the establishment and was accepted as prime minister. Whether it was the constraints imposed by her ‘deal’ or inadequate executive competence or alleged corruption, her government accomplished very little in its two abbreviated terms in office. She proceeded into exile again.

But we in this country are desperately short of heroes of any gender. Bibi possessed both charisma and personal courage in extraordinary measure and, exiled again, she very quickly regained her status as the ‘People’s Princess’. After making what this writer considered an entirely gratuitous set of ‘deals’ that included the notorious NRO, she returned to Pakistan. To extraordinary popular acclamation. To bombs. And bullets. And death.

Her assassination was an event of fearful magnitude. The people mourned immensely. It was a savage grief, a violent commemoration. Fire and smoke devoured the peace in our cities, an enormous suttee in reverse. The nation, in general, and her party in particular, have been rendered bereft of credible leadership.

To return to our starting point, the moderate right is programmatically clear and is divided at present only because of personality issues between Nawaz Sharif and others who claim the Muslim League label. But the PPP drifts rudderless in ideological darkness. Dominated by a handful of cronies loyal to the party leader and an elite clutch of smart set cosmopolitans, buoyed up on a know-nothing mass of country squires whose ‘feudal’ label sits incongruously, this has ceased to be a party of the democratic left. It is nostalgia and an absence of alternatives that keeps liberals like Raza Rabbani, Aitzaz Ahsan, Sherry Rehman, Kamal Azfar, etc, clinging to this derelict political hulk.

The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet

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