COMMENT: Politics sans principles —Shahab Usto - Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Source :\05\03\story_3-5-2011_pg3_2

The PPP is pursuing a no-holds-barred policy. Its chief architect, President Zardari, is driven more by his survival instinct, ignoring the normative imperatives. Thus, unhindered by ideological, partisan or personal biases, he has increased his multilateral reach to meet the contingencies of this brittle coalition politics

We come from a generation that grew up in an age of ideology, which was overladen with anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian class struggles. Thousands of political workers, intellectuals, academics and ideologues suffered pains and privations in the cause of ‘ideology’. But the central feature of this age was a stoic indifference to personal loss or gain. Being on the right side of history was the ultimate asset of these selfless people.

But then two historic developments brought about a shift in the character of politics, at home and abroad.

First, the ‘world became flat’, to borrow from Thomas Friedman, through a fast-track internationalisation of business, trade, finance and communication. The emphasis shifted from humanisation to commoditisation. Not only goods and services but political ideas and economic theories also became commodities, with neo-liberal economists becoming the new global gurus.

The two key representatives of the then West, British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan, became the instant votaries of this neo-liberal philosophy, propounded by the Chicago school’s prima donna, Milton Friedman. He advised fixing the economy from the supply-side rather than the demand-side. He favoured a minimalist government and absolutely free markets. “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand,” he would say, showing his abhorrence for state regulated economies.

Second, the collapse of the Soviet Union not only changed the political face of Europe and Central Asia, but also sapped the ideological foundations of left-wing politics. Since then, ‘revolutionary’ politics has faded away, splintered, or taken a ‘petit bourgeois’ path in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Unfortunately, the Pakistani Left had been never allowed to take root by a repressive state. Therefore, much of it remained much of the time ‘underground’ or overly engaged in the ‘dogmatic’ squabbles rooted in the Moscow-Peking or the Stalin-Trotsky differences. Yet, the Pakistani Left’s most lasting contribution to national politics is its defence of ideological politics, its inveterate trust in the redemption of the working classes through Marxist-Leninist (and Maoist) principles.

It was this faith that gave perseverance to the hundreds of persecuted left-wing activists to work as unknown soldiers. Very few people actually knew the scale of their sacrifices due to the strict state censorship. To cite an example, Nazir Abassi, a communist by vocation and a dedicated revolutionary, was picked up by the intelligence agencies in the 1980s and tortured to death. But the circumstances of his death remain unknown to this day and his tormentors have been never brought to book.

It was the keen eye of a meteoric upper-class politician, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which saw a huge political opportunity in the failure of the Left to exploit the gaping class disparities and the resulting mass discontent. Coining a three-word catechism — roti, kapra, makan (bread, clothing and shelter) — and relentlessly flogging the ‘22 baron families’ and a discredited President Ayub, Bhutto within no time struck a deep chord with the masses. A large section of the Left also flocked to his party, finding it close to their ‘revolutionary’ vehicle.

At the end, Bhutto may have failed the Left and his own ideals. But there is no doubt that he left politics deeply imbued with an anti-dictatorial, and to an extent anti-imperialist spirit. In fact, his ‘murder’ as a result of an unfair trial and his valorous conduct in facing the gallows have since turned him into a political martyr who refuses to recede from the political horizon.

To carry on such a loaded (socialistic) legacy was not an easy job for his daughter, Benazir Bhutto. Particularly when, as a prime minister, she came to contend with a phalanx of redoubtable forces — the powerful establishment, a rabidly anti-Bhutto Nawaz Sharif occupying the powerful ramparts of Punjab, a fickle and rumbustious coalition partner, MQM, and her own lack of governance experience. Moreover, socialism was on the retreat globally. China, India, East Asia and Latin America were all catching the fever of a free-market economy.

So she re-engineered Bhuttoism, retaining its trinitarian slogan — roti, kapra, makan — and dropping its father’s socialist baggage. In any case, she would never have succeeded in redistributing the wealth and financial resources hoarded by a new rising class of the state-nurtured business-industrial elite represented by the likes of the Chaudhries of Gujrat and the Sharifs of Lahore.

But then she was not the only one caught in an ideological dilemma. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was also selling Nehru-Indira’s socialist image to the poor, and yet allowing the rich to benefit from his liberal economic policies, a task that was actualised after his assassination by his successor, Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, with the help of a new finance minister, Manmohan Singh, an ex-World Bank functionary. Indeed, India is now presented as the ‘paragon’ of neo-liberalism.

A left-winger may be not, but Benazir surely remained wedded to democratic and progressive values until the moment she was felled by her assassins amidst a teeming crowd of her followers. It was her commitment that made her 1) come out in support of the besieged chief justice, ignoring the supposedly US-brokered ‘deal’ with General Musharraf; 2) denounce General Musharraf’s ‘emergency-plus’ despite being in his crosshairs (as reported by Ron Suskind); and 3) condemn terrorism and sectarianism in no uncertain terms at a time when the obscurantists were baying for her blood.

But alas, her political legatee, the current PPP leadership, seems to think otherwise.

The PPP is pursuing a no-holds-barred policy. Its chief architect, President Zardari, is driven more by his survival instinct, ignoring the normative imperatives. Thus, unhindered by ideological, partisan or personal biases, he has increased his multilateral reach to meet the contingencies of this brittle coalition politics. No wonder he has shown remarkable dexterity and prescience in keeping himself one step ahead of his foes. The PPP-PML-Q alliance is the recent manifestation of his political finesse.

Anticipating the Nawaz League’s mounting pressure in the wake of his fallout with the MQM and JUI, he mended fences with the Chaudhries of Gujarat, exploiting the latter’s rivalries with the Sharifs, and also playing upon his party leadership’s vulnerabilities. Not surprisingly, a Nawaz League stalwart has advised his party to appoint a PhD to understand President Zardari’s politics.

The PPP-led coalition is all set to complete its term. But one question will loom large: even if the PPP sheds its traditional anti-establishment image to forge ahead with the PML-Q, a conglomerate of the traditionally pro-establishment politicians. Can it stop the changing winds from setting the PML-Q’s sails to yet another port of call? No, it cannot. Ask Nawaz Sharif, as BB is no more.

The writer is a lawyer and academic. He can be reached at

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