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Opinion

May 16, 2018

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Democracy: left, right and centre

I have always cherished the discussions that my classmates and I had during our university days on politics being an art of statecraft. The idealism of our student days was a blessing indeed and all we did was discuss world politics at length.

Deeply engrossed in political debates, we used to think that the world was too small to accommodate our wisdom and knowledge. This is, perhaps, how a young person with aspirations thinks in his/her heydays of knowledge acquisition.

Our discussions dealt with the art of statecraft adopted by rulers ranging from Chandragupta Maurya to Otto Von Bismarck, with intermittent references to Machiavelli. We assessed Ibn-e- Khaldun, Karl Marx and even Abu A’la Maududi with a critical eye. Our discussions knew no bounds, representing a diversity of thoughts without venturing into an all-out conflict.

Of course, it wasn’t all hunky-dory. But there was space for discussion. Those were the initial days of Pervez Musharraf’s military coup. We were astonished by how an elected prime minister could be sacked without even a modicum of public outrage. It was the beginning of another dictatorial regime in Pakistan that did not attract much hue and cry and all of us had an axe to grind in this new setup. Our liberals threw their weight behind Musharraf because of his one memorable picture with a German shepherd on the front page of an English language daily.

Our liberal ideals proved to be ephemeral – as always – and they got carried away by this symbolism more than the essence of the political rule. The failure of democratic transition in Pakistan is not only about what religious zealots have done with this country. It is also about the short-lived political ideals of our liberals. The disdain among liberals for the ‘rustic’ ways of Nawaz Sharif and their affection for an urbane party pal and a Westernised dictator said it all.

Despite all its liberal leanings, the university campus had few students who supported this coup because many of us looked for a deeper debate on statecraft. Not contaminated by the compromises involved in practical life, and the fear of the unknown, we spoke our hearts out to condemn the coup.

We started to explore why our democracy had been so fragile that it took only two hours for parliament to be stormed and a sitting prime minister to be arrested. We had also witnessed the dissolution of consecutive parliamentary democracies in Pakistan without the fear of popular uprisings. The judicial murder of Z A Bhutto – one of the most popular political leaders in the history of Pakistan – didn’t shake the country with mass movements.

The people of Pakistan possibly didn’t see any tangible dividends of democracy then. All they saw was an era of prosperity under dictatorial regimes. A growing economy, the rapid pace of industrialisation in the 1960s, and the painful experience of 1971 in a political battle of two elected civilian rulers couldn’t be erased from public memory till the rise of General Zia in 1977.

Supported by the Western powers as a typical cold-war proxy, Pakistan was bombarded with dollars. The flow of free money benefited all those power aspirants – whose children were to have access to this new money – rather than a tumultuous struggle for democracy. Those civilians who could matter politically were cajoled into the world of dollar-backed prosperity. This was a time when a brand of pliable political leaders was created to provide public legitimacy to military rule.

That was perhaps the best era of political consciousness for liberals who were threatened by the rising wave of extremism in Pakistan. Liberals and progressive political forces joined hands in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in the country. For progressives, it was the beginning of a long struggle, not only for the restoration of democracy but also for the institutionalisation of democratic processes. For liberals, it was a battle for the restoration of a particular lifestyle, irrespective of who guaranteed it.

Liberals despised religious parties for their anachronism and outmoded social outlooks. Most of these liberals were also fond of the Westernised lifestyle under the dictatorial regime of General Ayub Khan and the early days of Z A Bhutto’s civilian rule. In this part of the world, liberalism has been more of a lifestyle than a political, cultural and economic movement. Unlike liberals, progressive and socialist groups faced state oppression and incarcerations in Pakistan for their anti-dictatorial, long-term and institutional approach towards an inclusive democracy.

In Pakistan, liberals and socialists are lumped together as one ideological group. But in reality, they have always held two distinct political thoughts. They converged only during political struggles for democracy with varying political objectives – as they did during the MRD in the 1980s. During the regime of General Musharraf, liberals stood by a dictatorship while socialists continued their struggle for democracy.

In our contemporary political landscape, liberals supported the PTI for its lifestyle promises rather than its commitment to a democratic transition of Pakistan. Public concerts, a frivolous party culture and the bashing of Nawaz and his coterie attracted the transient political ideals of our liberals. Socialists opposed the PTI ideology as an anti-democratic political vanguard of the status quo and a political impediment to a democratic transition in Pakistan. Liberals found the PTI to be the political saviour of a lifestyle, irrespective of its right-wing political tendencies and inclination towards religious groups.

Some socialist groups even contested the elections of 2013 under the banner of the Awami Workers Party (AWP), and are aspiring to participate in the general elections of 2018 as well. Divided between the AWP and the PPP, socialist tendencies in Pakistan are driven by a social democratic tradition.

There is also a marked difference in attitudes between liberals and socialists about emerging movements from Fata or previous ones from places like Okara. Socialists have supported movements for political right of expression and to challenge oppression. Liberals, on the contrary, have shown a disdain for such sporadic movements as they do not share the values of elitist liberals.

This pseudo-liberalism in Pakistan has been an elitist way of life that doesn’t find resonance with popular movements of the working and lower middle classes. Civil society movements in Pakistan have been influenced by this pseudo-liberal ideology, which is at peace with the status quo. For these liberals, radical sociopolitical transformation is an unsettling and obscure idea that is too dangerous to their lifestyle.

What we used to discuss at our university campus was idealistic, but it seems to work in Pakistan till today. Therefore, universities are special zones that face the wrath of power today. Two examples – among many students and teachers – that highlight the situation today are those of Professor Ammar Ali Jan at Punjab University and Dr Riaz Ahmed at Karachi University who have faced this wrath as proponents of an inclusive and democratic Pakistan.

In the current transition to democracy, we can see at least one deviation in the traditional picture. Nawaz Sharif is now one of the strongest dissenting voices in the country. Imran Khan, on the contrary, seems to rely on the establishment more than the popular support for an electoral victory. Bilawal Bhutto, strewn between popular aspirations and his father’s opportunistic and status-quo pragmatism, is incapable of making any convincing political pronouncements. In a nutshell, we appear to be marching towards a wishy-washy political future. It will be a test of nerves for those who continue to speak for a democratic Pakistan.

 The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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