An early 20th century King of Sweden is said to have comforted his premier, who was agitated because his son had joined a group of socialist students, by saying, “My dear Prime Minister, if a young man is not a socialist before the age of twenty, he has no heart. If he is still a socialist after twenty, he has no head.”
But the people of Sweden were soon to lose their collective heads. From 1932, democratic socialist governments have remained almost continuously in power, with only a few short stints in the opposition. The Social Democrats have for all purposes completely abolished poverty in Sweden, creating the most intensive and extensive welfare state in history.
Now, this article is not about the Swedish Social Democrats. It is about the political party that has most convincingly laid claim to promoting Social Democracy in Pakistan. I refer, of course, to the Pakistan People’s Party.
Initially formed in July 1967 at the residence of JA Rahim at Hill Park, PECHS, Karachi, it was officially launched at the Pak Tea House, Lahore, on November 26, 1967. The PPP is thus nearly 50 years old. Plenty of time to have grown a cynical pro-establishment ‘head’ in place of a youthful socialist ‘heart’.
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. The successes of Mr Bhutto in power included fathering of a durable national constitution, thereby placing himself alongside such illustrious democratic figures as Thomas Jefferson, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Jawaharlal Nehru and Tunku Abdur Rahman.
She seemed a fairy princess, defying the evil sorcerer
In 1986, against the suffocating darkness of the Zia regime, a bright ray of light shone out. 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. She seemed a fairy princess, defying the evil sorcerer. Suddenly, Zia died and Benazir led her party into the elections that followed.
There is an often overlooked point about the selection of PPP candidates going into this election that bears note. Fearing that the establishment would shamelessly stack the cards against them, the First Couple of the PPP awarded party tickets to “sure winners” in the various constituencies. This inevitably brought on board a crowd of opportunists and former Zia supporters.
The PPP emerged as the largest single parliamentary group; but this compared poorly with its earlier performances. Clearly, the party had lost much of its former vote bank in the heavily populated GT Road belt of Punjab and picked up in the rural 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 when Benazir made her first set of ‘deals’ with the establishment and was grudgingly accepted as Prime Minister. Whether it was the constraints imposed by her ‘deals’ or inadequate executive competence or the alleged corruption, her government accomplished very little in its two abbreviated terms in office. She proceeded into exile again.
Now, it is not the purpose of this brief essay to argue in favour of left-wing populist values, only to note that these represented the portion of the political spectrum to which the PPP historically belonged. Under Benazir’s leadership, the PPP had assumed an overall more conservative stance, left of centre rather than clearly left. The point I am asserting is that the PPP’s roots were deeply embedded in a democratic socialist soil. Its heart, so to speak, was on the left.
We in this country are desperately short of heroes of any gender. Bibi Shaheed 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’ with the dictator-of-the-day, she returned to Pakistan. And, amid extraordinary popular acclamation, was murdered.
We were now bemused to observe this massive political entity, which embodied the aspirations of tens of millions of its supporters, ‘willed’ – like a bungalow, or a piece of jewellery, or a herd of cattle – to its present co-chairman, who would soon nominate himself as President and whose son has now been permitted limited access to this political plaything.
I will not comment here on the merits or otherwise (there were many of both) of the regime of President Zardari. Let it only be said that, for whatever reason, he and the Party ‘willed’ to him, have lost the support of their former voters: workers, peasants, youth, and intellectuals. Worse, they are perceived as having abandoned their voters’ aspirations and yearnings altogether for a cynical concentration on acquiring patronage and pelf.
Without that support, they are today mere sitting-duck targets for an establishment which has never in fact accepted their right to govern.
This party has for long now today drifted rudderless in ideological darkness. Dominated by a handful of ultra-loyalists, an elite clutch of Smart Set cosmopolitans, and a mass of country squires on whom even the ‘feudal’ label sits incongruously, this has ceased to be a party of the democratic left. It is nostalgia and an absence of alternatives that keep desperate liberals like Raza Rabbani, Aitzaz Ahsan, Sherry Rahman, and others, clinging to this derelict political hulk.