Does our Left have what it takes to enchant a disillusioned populace?
Jerome K Jerome, in his humorous essay, A Man Who Was a Hospital, describes with charming wit, a lay person’s attempt to make sense of his situation. After reading about a liver disease, the author suspects that he is suffering from the same ailment. The suspicion drives him to read up some more on the disease. After reading all the possible symptoms, he believes that he is suffering from the disease. This compels him to read further. While reading about this disease, he accidentally stumbles upon a couple of other diseases. Soon, he develops the apprehension that he is suffering from all those as well. He ends up reading about diseases alphabetically, inferring that he is suffering from most of the diseases. Alarmed at first, he soon comes to thinks of himself as a valuable asset for medical professionals and students.
In the same vein apparently, Pakistan has been described a great place – a laboratory, some have said – for students of almost any discipline to conduct their research. It has been entangled with crises ranging from socio-cultural and religio-political to administrative and economic.
Pakistan’s leadership challenge is just one of those crises. Some academics hold that the Quaid’s early demise set the tone for this doom. Others claim that Liaquat Ali Khan’s murder created a leadership vacuum. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s unfortunate hanging subsequently is also said to have caused a leadership crisis that could never be resolved. If anything, the crisis has deepened.
After ZAB, none of the mainstream political leaders, including the likes of Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, have come up with plausible solutions. The people have become disenchanted with the current leadership, and are now forced to look for alternative leadership.
Does the Left have the potential to rise to the challenge? The short answer is no. The Left does not have the potential to provide an alternative leadership, at least in the near future. Here is why:
To begin with, the Left ails from an ideological crisis. Pakistan is a part of South Asia on one hand and linked with the Muslim world on the other. In both, South Asia and the Muslim World, the Left has had severe setbacks. Pakistan, for instance, has been entangled in a strong and impactful legacy of Zia-ul Haq’s religious-narrative dictatorship, which has severely dented the Left. Thirty-year rule of the Left came to an end in West Bengal through an election. Iran has been dominated by a religious group for the last four and a half decades. Taliban have returned to Kabul. Buddhist fundamentalists have been dominating Sri Lanka. Similarly, in the Muslim world, socialist forces were defeated by a combination of religious organisations and Arab nationalists. Even the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic has disintegrated. The rise of religious extremism and the defeat of socialist ideas have created an ideological crisis for the Left.
There are plenty of small groups of the Left working in the country. Unfortunately, these groups lack both ideological clarity and coherence. A majority of them also lack democratic norms and values. Many, instead of supporting their own Left groups, prefer frequently to side with rightists, and sometimes with capitalists and/ or imperialists. Dictatorial regimes also receive support from some of the leftists. This ideological ambiguity may be blamed on several causes. Elite background of many of the creators and/ or leaders of these groups is one of the major reasons. Since they hail from various elite groups (landed, religious, military, bureaucratic, professional and industrial), these leaders of the Left are sometimes alleged to have created or joined leftist groups only to capture key positions either to serve their and their families’ interests, on the one hand and to stop/ avoid a powerful movement against the same elite groups, on the other.
A large scale organisational structure of the Left does not exist in the country unlike the past (in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s). There are no large scale peasant organisations though some small-scale peasant organisations such as Anjuman Muzareen Punjab and the Hari Welfare Association are active. Similarly, there are no large-scale labour unions and workers’ associations. While there are some active labour unions, such as the All Pakistan WAPDA Hydro Electric Workers Union (WAPDA), it is alleged that these are supported by pro-establishment elements to counter leftist groups. Similarly, student unions have been banned in educational institutions. Likewise, social movements do not exist in the country. These streams complement one another to foster a pool of the Left.
The Left failed to reinvent itself ideologically, practically and organisationally. There are both internal and external reasons for this. Personality cults and lack of unity are prominent among internal problems. As a result, smaller groups, instead of large scale movements, were formed. Among the external causes, the fight with the establishment is the most important. The establishment obviously does not want the Left to flourish. It has been busy encouraging right-wing groups and parties one after the other to capture the space that might have been captured by the Left. Some of the Left groups and parties have been banned. Their activists and leaders have been arrested on suspect grounds.
The Left today does not have the potential to capitalise on the crises Pakistan is confronted with. This could partly be due to the division among the leftists and partly, due to ideological crisis or leadership gap within the Left. The Left also does not have a hold on literature production and dissemination. It does not organise literary festivals that were once deemed its most impactful weapon. Both the production and dissemination of literature and the organisation of literary festivals are dominated by those hailing from the elite. This capture of the resources of production and dissemination of knowledge by the elite retards if not hinders the progress of the Left.
For these reasons, the Left cannot provide an alternative leadership in the near future. However, this does not mean that the Left cannot not emerge to provide an alternative leadership. Progressive ideas may emerge abruptly and gain popular traction. The movement of the Left against electricity bills in Kashmir and the rise of Ali Wazir in a region previously dominated by religious extremism are examples of this. There is reason to be cautiously optimistic.
The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University. He is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad, and a research fellow at PIDE, Islamabad. He can be reached at email@example.com. His X handle: @MazharGondal87