COMMENT: The backward bloc —Saroop Ijaz - Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Source :\03\02\story_2-3-2011_pg3_4

Most of the political parties in Pakistan lack clearly evolved political ideology and are formed with a unifocal objective of accumulation of political power. The consequence of this vagueness is that it is always possible for these parties to accommodate members of all shades of opinions in their groups

“In France’s July Revolution of 1830, after three days of riots, the Statesman Talleyrand, now elderly, sat by his Paris window, listening to the pealing bells that signalled the riots were over. Turning to an assistant, he said, ‘Ah the bells! We’re winning.’ ‘Who’s “we”, mon prince?’ the assistant asked. Gesturing for the man to keep quiet Talleyrand replied, ‘Not a word! I will tell you who we are tomorrow’” (Robert Greene, The Forty-Eight Laws of Power).

The PML-N has decided to part ways with the PPP in Punjab by removing the PPP ministers from the provincial cabinet. The decision comes after nearly three years of the PML-N threatening to do so. The decision has evoked a mixed response; on the one hand it is being lauded as a move, which asserts the independence of the PML-N, hence dispelling their reputation as ‘friendly opposition’. While on the other hand, fears are being expressed that the move might pave the way for a return to the factionalism and hostilities which characterised the national and provincial politics in the 1980s and 90s. The impetus for this decision was provided by a significant number of renegade parliamentarians of the PML-Q forming the forward bloc who have openly changed their allegiances and are now the frontline soldiers of PML-N. This is reminiscent of the ‘Changa Manga’ episodes of 1990s; hence at some level we have already travelled back to our less than glorious past. The long-term implications of the move are far from clear at this point. However, it does highlight the question of what prompts and allows our politicians to periodically change political allegiances with causal ease and impunity.

Politicians are intrinsically fickle universally and are thus prone to changing loyalties and parties. Defections and floor crossing are inherent corollaries of any democratic system of governance. The term ‘floor crossing’ originated in the British House of Commons where the seating arrangement is such that the ruling party and the opposition members sit facing each other. Floor crossing or changing the floor of the house, thus, meant that a legislator moved over from the side of government to the slit of the opposition or vice versa. However, the shifting loyalties in Pakistan can be distinguished from those in most of the world. Here the change in the parliamentary seats does not ordinarily signify a shift in political ideology. The PML-Q forward bloc is a case in point. The members of the forward bloc have not expressed that they felt compelled to switch because of a corresponding shift in their ideology and hence they felt that PML-N’s ideology was more in line with their own. The reason that the question of the ideological shift has not been addressed at all is that no one including the PML-N and PML-Q leadership has any definitive idea of what the party ideologies are. This should be a cause for greater alarm than the episode of a few dozen members defecting from one party to another. The reasons cited by the forward bloc members are the differences with the top leadership of PML-Q and the recent recognition of the virtues of the PML-N’s leadership.

The absence of a clear political ideology and constitutional ethos encourages defection. Most of the political parties in Pakistan lack clearly evolved political ideology and are formed with a unifocal objective of accumulation of political power. The consequence of this vagueness is that it is always possible for these parties to accommodate members of all shades of opinions in their groups. The formation of the PML-Q in 2002 highlighted this ideological deficit, allowing members to move from one party to another without having to explain their motivations. The Muslim League has historically been devoid of ideological commitments. A glaring example is the case of the Unionist leader Khizr Hayat Tiwana who throughout remained opposed to the Muslim League, just to ally with the Muslim League proverbially on the eve of the partition. Khushwant Singh recollecting the “Last days in Lahore” remembers the overnight shift in the perception of Khizr Hayat Tiwana. The Unionist government of Khizr Hayat Tiwana with Hindus and Sikhs in his cabinet was strongly opposed to a separate Muslim state. Muslim League leaders often publicly displayed their rage directed at him. A popular slogan at the Muslim League processions was: “Taazi Khabar, Mar Gaya Khizr” (The latest news is that Khizr is dead). However, by joining the Muslim League at the last moment he became the hero of Muslim League sloganeers: “Taazi Khabar Aayee Hai/Khizr Hamara Bhai Hai” (The latest news now is that Khizr is our brother). Khizr was allowed to join with no questions asked.

It will be unfair to implicate the Muslim League variants alone in this culture of ideological vacuum in our political space. The PTIs, MQMs and the likes also avoid expressing their political ideologies in unambiguous terms. Ideology in Pakistan has become a dirty word. The only political parties that use the word definitively have been either the religious right or historically the Left (or the left of centre) i.e. PPP and the ANP. In the absence of any expressed political ideology, it is very tenuous to hold people answerable for the shifts in their political adherence. Another consequence of not formulating and articulating political ideologies is the extraordinary reliance on individual personalities, thus perpetuating the cult of personality, which has haunted us for decades now. The taboo surrounding the expression and ownership of political ideologies needs to be broken to ensure politicians and political parties are held accountable for changes in affiliations.

The term ‘forward bloc’ used to describe the PML-Q dissidents is ironic (though they themselves prefer the term ‘Unification Bloc’). The term possibly has its origins in the forward bloc of the Indian National Congress formed in 1939 by Subash Chandra Bose. Bose also published a newspaper by the name Forward Bloc. Although the methods of the All India Forward Bloc are open to question, yet it did represent a clear break from many of Congress’s ideological principles, and hence was forward in that sense. There is nothing forward about the PML-Q’s unification bloc. It re-enacts a vile practice endemic to our political culture causing a reversal in political evolution. It is, in the very literal sense, the ‘backward bloc’.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and can be reached at

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