Bilawal Bhutto is set to become the future chairman of one of Pakistan’s largest political parties.
At the moment however, in spite of his recent surge into prominence, one is not quite sure exactly how much say he has in formulating and influencing the party’s overall outlook and strategy.
But he seems to have planned his rise and the party’s rejuvenation keeping in mind its history and the way it has evolved since the day it was formed by his grandfather forty-six years ago.
He is making sure that his elevation towards the PPP’s top post is more than just being about a Bhutto casually walking into the role of a party boss courtesy his surname.
When he followed up his commendable chest-thumping stand against religious extremism with an ambitious and elaborate plan to use cultural activities to challenge the growing extremist mind-set that has continued to plague various sections of the Pakistani society, this was his way of revitalising the party’s historical legacy of also being a progressive social/cultural entity.
The PPP has gone through various stages of ideological and political evolution, some being strikingly controversial. But the party’s history and roots have also had a vibrant social and cultural side, perhaps more than any other Pakistani political party.
When the first Chairman of the PPP, Z A. Bhutto, took over the reins of power in Pakistan in 1972, he presided over a country disillusioned by the defeat of the Pakistan Army (at the hands of its Indian counterparts) in the former East Pakistan.
Society stood quivering from a collective case of low self-esteem and widespread melancholy.
[quote]One of the Bhutto regime’s most important contributions to Pakistan was its cultural policies[/quote]
Thus, one of the Bhutto regime’s most important contributions to Pakistan was its cultural policies that helped revive the people’s dwindling esteem and energy, eventually giving them a new-found self-belief.
Inventively borrowing bits of cultural ideas from various socialist regimes of the time, especially from Mao’s China, the Bhutto regime used commercial cinema, state-owned media and government-funded ‘folk melas’ to hit home narratives and images that were conceived to help construct a new Pakistani mind-set i.e. of a society that was multicultural, pluralistic but steeped in the esoteric traditions of Sufism.
Though Bhutto’s political legacy is controversial, his regime’s cultural legacy is ripe with examples of the leaps made in various forms of art that (for the first time in Pakistan) were able to culturally engage the ‘common man’.
Bilawal supports political and military action against the more hard-core bastions of religious extremism and sectarianism.
But he has repeatedly echoed the concerns of those civil rights workers, intellectuals and sociologists who insist that the Pakistani state’s main war should be a social and cultural one against a mind-set that is creating space for those using violence to impose their highly reactionary brand of the faith.
Bilawal launched one such attack on this mind-set by launching the Sindh Festival this year.
Using the popular perception that Sindhi culture was historically pluralistic, tolerant and deeply rooted in the traditions of Sufism, Bilawal used this perception and its many artistic, literary, and social expressions (and fusions) to explain what (he thought) could be used as a cultural model (across Pakistan) to overwhelm the extremist mind-set that has been ravaging the country for so many years now.
But unlike famous Sindhi nationalist and scholar, GM Syed (1904-1995), Bilawal is not just talking about an inherent and ‘indigenous secularism,’ that is part of the Sindhi culture.
Syed’s indigenous secularism meant a society that was spiritually close to God but politically materialistic (and thus) whose economic, political and social interests were best served by keeping its religious beliefs within the confines of the mosque and/or the Sufi shrine.
He thought this was vital because religious orthodoxy when used as a political and social tool becomes a weapon in the hands of forces that try to seize and neutralize a pluralistic society (like Sindh) by imposing a cosmetic homogeneity through monolithic concepts of society, culture and faith.
For example, to Syed and his contemporaries in Sindh’s intellectual circles, the Islam that was being advocated by the Pakistani state was alien to the Islam that has been practiced by the Sindhi Muslims of the region for over a thousand years. Syed’s indigenous secularism was also suspicious of Western capitalism, but not in an intransigent way. He suggested addressing the onslaught of soulless modern materialism on a social level with the help of Sindh’s traditional disposition towards its inherent pluralistic and esoteric psyche.
But today Sindh is changing. The Sindhi-speaking middle-class has expanded in the last three decades. Syed is still revered in the province, but he is not as relevant as he was till about the early 1980s. But the PPP still is.
Apart from still being popular among Sindhi peasants and working-classes, the PPP offers the emerging Sindhi-speaking middle and lower middle-classes opportunities to attempt fulfilling their upwardly mobile ambitions.
Sindhis still see the PPP as the only nationwide party that is not only close to their ethnic roots, but is their best mode to keep in touch with the economics, sociology and politics tied to federal-level politics.
Voting for the PPP (by the Sindhis) is now more of a pragmatic move than an ideological one.
But the emergence of a larger Sindhi-speaking middle-class has also triggered social strife in the province. The youth among this section of the Sindhi-speakers see the PPP as a dinosaur associated with the politics of their parents.
But there is no effective alternative. The PPP has continued to neutralise the Sindhi nationalists who have little or nothing substantial to offer anymore to the new Sindhi-speaking youth in terms of this youth’s more universal ideas of upward mobility.
Other parties, such as the PMLN and the PTI, are still largely seen in Sindh as squarely peddling the interests of Punjabi businessmen and the Punjabi bourgeoisie.
But even though religious parties have remained to be weak in the province, certain social and economic fissures caused by the rapid emergence of Sindhi-speaking middle-classes have also given rise to a very non-Sindhi phenomenon of religious radicalization.
This is still a new phenomenon among Sindhi speakers. But one can relate it to the way Punjab’s middle and trader classes became overtly conservative from the late 1970s onwards due to their growing exposure and engagement with conservative oil-rich Arab societies in the Middle East, and due to the economic benefits that they enjoyed during General Ziaul Haq’s right-wing dictatorship in the 1980s.
Of course, the Sindhis (from any class) did not enjoy economic benefits from Zia. But a series of PPP provincial regimes in Sindh ever since the 1970s have helped shape the Sindhi middle-classes, and made them become more influential in impacting the electoral and economic dynamics of Sindh.
Conscious of this, Bilawal’s Sindh Festival was planned as a two-pronged strategy. First to furnish Bilawal’s idea of a progressive Pakistan, and secondly to address the trend of urbanization in Sindh from going the way urbanization went in the Punjab.
The cultural activities that were on display during the Sindh Festival suggest an understanding (or need) on Bilawal’s part of an urbanization trend that should produce progressive (white and blue collared) workforce and an economic, political and religious culture based on a healthy respect for diversity, instead of a culture based on economics tied to the politics of religion and sects.
Of course, many aspects of Bilawal’s thinking have a lot to do with youthful optimism and (for want of a better word) well-intentioned social engineering.
But he was quick to realize that the PPP’s rejuvenation and his own political elevation could only be convincingly cemented if the party’s next step is steeped in an ideology that though futuristic, is still rooted in the party’s past of being a large, all-encompassing progressive entity.