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November 12, 2016

Looking at the verdict


November 12, 2016


It has sunk in by now that Donald John Trump, the Republican nominee, has convincingly won the presidential election against Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democrat. This marks the end of the eight-year long Democratic Party rule under President Barack Obama. Trump will assume charge as the 45th president of the United States in January 2017.

The American people have given their verdict. Their majority wants Trump to change their country’s current political, economic and social direction in the way he promised in his campaign.

This means a different foreign policy and terms of engagement where the US is directly or indirectly involved offshore, a clear shift in economic policy paradigm that will ensure the preference in jobs and opportunities for the old settler vis-à-vis the new immigrant, and, a society where liberal views are perhaps heard but certainly not realised and where minorities learn to be subservient to the will of the majority. But are there any lessons for us to learn from what we have witnessed in the US? Well, in my humble view, there are lessons for both liberals and Muslims.

American elections are another testament to the fact that in the world of today progressives and liberals are losing their political space quite swiftly and systematically. In the three countries that capture most space in the imagination of Pakistanis – the US, the UK and India – this right-wing trend has established itself. Globally, liberals and leftists have undeniably made some gains in the socio-cultural sphere (barring Muslim societies perhaps) over the past couple of decades but they are on the receiving end when it comes to real politik.

Britain recently voted to exit from the European Union. Besides, in the last general elections in the UK, the Labour Party had recorded one of its worst electoral performances. Narendra Modi – someone once denied permission to enter the US due to his role in the Gujarat pogrom against Muslims – is now a popular prime minister of India and perhaps the most decorated and welcomed Indian leader in the Arab and Muslim world in addition to Europe and North America.

In Pakistan, we have seen the rise of the right-wing PML-N to decisive political power and another right-wing party, the PTI, posing a potent threat to this very power. Whether the PTI has enough seats in the current parliament to become the main opposition party is inconsequential at the present moment. The three relatively more liberal and inclusive parties in the country, the PPP, ANP and MQM, occupy much less popular space than before as far as the trends go today.

So what are the lessons for liberals and somewhat left-of-centre, even if not fully progressive, parties and individuals, thought leaders and their ardent followers? There are two major ones in my view. One is about the theory and the other is about the conduct. Theoretically speaking, unless there is a clear understanding of how monopoly capitalism works today and then there is an alignment of proposed policy options in accordance with the true needs of the working classes and working people, why should they vote you in?

A hardcore capitalist would do capitalism better than a reluctant liberal or social democrat. People, particularly in the developed countries, understand that well. So if all my initiatives as a liberal and progressive politician or thinker for development and well-being in society still fail to reach the bottom 20 percent even after regulating possibilities of individual growth of the 40 percent falling exactly above them, why should those 40 percent poor – some of who may become a little richer or less poorer in a growing, less regulated free market – continue voting me in?

Therefore, it is time that a position is taken which brings the class question into the mainstream of analysis and policymaking by those claiming progressive positions. When liberals speak of inclusion, it is largely limited to women and transgender, homosexuals and persons with disabilities. When they speak of the marginalised, they normally mean religious or ethnic minorities. Of course, there are degrees of marginalisation and most people are economically disadvantaged as well. And the argument is not against raising these issues or undermining their importance.

But a progressive view of inclusion and mainstreaming would mean bringing in the large number of those able-bodied young and old men in the discourse who are denied the right to education, work or appropriate work, decent living and dignified social status. Besides, their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters are also directly affected by their economic and social status. So, in hindsight, perhaps Bernie Sanders had a better chance than Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump.

We see the same in the UK. The Labour Party became New Labour. There was difference but little as compared to the differences between the two parties in the past when Tony Blair was the prime minister and when David Cameron held office. A lot of time and space is lost and it seems impossible to see Jeremy Corbyn as the prime minister of the UK. However, unless there is a clear position of Labour which is distinct from the Tories, why should the blue-collared British voter and his allies bring Labour back? The same goes with the Indian National Congress during and after Manmohan Singh and the PPP after their macroeconomic policies became indistinguishable from those of the PML-N.

In terms of conduct, the rise of a new educated middle class across the world which dominates the global value system and modern institutions of power like media, academia, military and professional civil society, has an obsession with the idea that all political leadership is in fact bad. It is corrupt and inefficient until proven otherwise. This means that subscribing to pro-people policies or inclusive and pluralistic ideologies does not suffice. In fact, this should be the biggest learning for the PPP and ANP in case of Pakistan if they want to continue with their politics and regain lost glory.

With the emergence of new classes, there is a new sensibility and new demands are put on politicians and political process. Besides, due to our unique political circumstances, increased religious orthodoxy and a musical chair between military and civilian rule, the pendulum is now swinging only between the centre and the right. More effort is needed on part of liberal and progressive parties in Pakistan compared to other countries.

Let us now come to Muslims – living within the US and the West or in countries where they constitute a majority – and see what is there for them to understand. Islamophobia, like any other phobia, cannot be justified by any means. But I think there is no harm in a bit of introspection for Muslims.

Please recall that seven years after 9/11, not only did Americans elect their first African-American president, they knew that though he was Christian the man had some clear Muslim lineage as well. Soon after, President Obama made a historic speech in Cairo in order to reach out to the Muslim world. But eight years since he was first elected, Americans elect someone who represents everything that Obama doesn’t.

Why? Look at the major terrorist attacks in the US over the past decade. See who is involved, in whose name they act, how they operate and where within the US and outside their linkages have been.

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]