What Are The Prospects For A Revived Pakistani Left?
Zulifiqar Ai Bhutto was the left’s best chance for getting into popular politics in Pakistani society—a society whose conservative streak has been well entrenched since the very emergence of the country on the map of the world. Bhutto espoused socialist ideas and yet at the same time he was acceptable to the religiously conservative elements of society. His public association with nationalist causes like Kashmir and anti-India sentiments made him a star in central Punjab and acceptable to the country’s powerful establishment. Many of the old workers of PPP in the city of Rawalpindi remember how they were familiarized with Marxist and socialist concepts in the study groups that were held regularly under the auspices of local PPP chapters.
Bhutto started to co-opt the feudals in Punjab and Sindh after coming to power, which he thought essential to consolidate his hold on power. He also started to sideline the socialist and outrightly Marxist elements in his party’s rank and file. And some of them were even treated brutally.
Some of the reforms introduced by Bhutto were, in fact, peasant-friendly and helped in the uplift of downtrodden masses in the rural areas of Punjab. Such reforms satisfied the quasi-socialist or quasi-Marxist elements among left-oriented intellectuals, who had a very romanticized understanding of Marxists principles. I mean that these intellectuals saw Bhutto’s peasant-oriented reforms and the trade unionism that the PPP supported as impressive, and I contrast these intellectuals with the hardcore classical Marxists who held on to a theory that described industrial workers as the only true representatives and heroes of revolution.
Recent months and years have seen the revival of left-oriented groups in Pakistani society, which are espousing popular causes such as revival of student unions or the emancipation and empowerment of women to attract the public imagination by their political activism.
The left is specifically trying to make inroads into the youth and students. In this context, just like other political groups, the left seems to be familiar with the fact that roughly 120 million Pakistanis are under the age of 30, making up 64 percent of the country’s population, according to a 2017 report by the United Nations Development Programme Pakistan. So the left-oriented groups staged many protest rallies in different parts of the country with a focus on mobilizing young people.
The revival of the Left’s politics at the popular level is not a possibility in the foreseeable future. We can say this just by looking at the basic characteristics of the major popular political parties in the country.
The major political parties are all in some kind of symbiotic relationship with country’s powerful establishment, which allows them to attract a sizeable number of electables to their ranks, apart from possessing a certain vote-bank in the heartland of Pakistan’s power politics. The groups of the left are too insignificant politically to enter into any kind of symbiotic relationship with country’s powerful establishment. There are some high-profile personalities in the political left whose stature could allow them to take a walk in the corridors of power, but even this has no real large-scale political relevance.
The groups of the left which have recently mobilized are using the same techniques to attract attention that have been the hallmark of major political parties that attracted youth to their ranks in the recent past. PTI used entertainment, music, dance, fiery entertaining speeches and sloganeering to attract masses to their rallies. It also used social media tools to spread its message. And the same strategy seems to have been adopted by the groups of the left. The major difference between the PTI and the groups of the left is that the former entered into an interdependent relationship with the powerful establishment before it was allowed (or facilitated) to become a major political party in Pakistan’s heartland – after which it started to stake its claims to the power politics of the country. Not so, for the Left.
All of Pakistan’s major political parties are professedly right-wing groups who are committed to the advocacy of the role of religion in public policy-making. The only left-of-centre party with a semblance of popular support is the PPP, although it is in complete ideological disarray. It feels no qualms in hosting major industrialists in its ranks and yet continues to claim socialist leaning with the occasional pro-labour legislation. Its religiously conservative policies don’t escape the eyes of many sharp analysts.
Pakhtun Tahufuz Movement (PTM) appears to be the only group with a veneer of left-oriented politics and yet it can rival the major popular groups in the country. The number of supporters PTM is attracting to its rallies in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa clearly indicates that if it takes a decision to context forthcoming elections, it would seriously dent the standing of major political parties, especially in KP. But then PTM’s left-oriented status is not without doubts. Firstly, it is representing very conservative elements in our society and this will reflect on its policies on social, political and economic realm when it would enter the parliament and participate in the debates. Secondly, apart from a few professed Marxists the PTM’s ranks are not necessarily filled with leftists.
There is a vacuum in Pakistan’s political system waiting to be filled in by some robust political party oriented towards the left, as Pakistani politics – traditionally and historically – has always had a space for some non-religious political groups. Non-religious political groups have occasionally played a decisive role in the political direction that our society took in the past. But for this project to succeed our leftist friends have to do a lot of organizational work at the grossroot level. The idea of attracting popular attention has its limits in politics—it would not necessarily win votes or political support. People might very well take you simply as entertainers.
The statist political projects of building stooges as political leaders have made Pakistani politics into a closed pond, where a lack of new thinking is causing ripples in the dirty water of the pond. It is rotten down to the core.
We need fresh thinking more than ever now.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.