Apr 262008

It is because of perceived democratic and pro-poor values, and the sacrifices the martyred father and daughter have made to preserve them, that the PPP has emerged so strongly in the assemblies and amongst the hungry, justice-seeking people at large

There is a perhaps apocryphal story that an early 20th century Prime Minister of Sweden revealed in great agitation to the King he served that his son had joined a group of socialist students. “My dear Prime Minister,” the King is reported to have told him, “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.”

Sweden was to lose its own head, as it were, in 1932 when, after violence was unleashed on the workers of the Adelan steel works, a general strike toppled the government of the time and brought the Social Democratic Party into office. This longest lasting of democratic socialist regimes remained almost continuously in power right up to 2006, with only two short stints (1976-1981 and 1992-1994) in the opposition. During these years, the Social Democrats have for all purposes completely abolished poverty in Sweden, creating the most intensive and extensive welfare state in history — a welfare state more all encompassing than anything outside the former Soviet Union.

More, the Swedish welfare state was achieved peacefully and within the framework of a perfectly functioning democratic system, without the Soviet history of violent revolutionary upheavals or the totalitarian dictatorship of the Communist Party.

Now, this article is not about the comparative merits of the alternate routes to socialism proposed either by Karl Kautsky, Vladimir Lenin or, for that matter, Leon Trotsky. It is about the political party that has laid claim to promoting democratic socialism in Pakistan. I refer, of course, to the Pakistan People’s Party.

Initially formed at the residence of Mr J A Rahim at Hill Park, PECHS, Karachi in July 1967, it was officially launched at a convention at the Pak Tea House, Lahore, on November 26, 1967. The PPP is thus over 40 years old. Plenty of time to have grown a cynical pro-establishment ‘head’ in place of a youthful socialist ‘heart’!

There are those who contend that in fact the PPP has always been a something of an establishment ploy. In this view, a temporarily out-of-work politician, the late Mr Bhutto, cynically mouthed demagogic left-wing slogans for the sole purpose of deceiving the masses. We’ve all heard this again and again, haven’t we? And there are many who consider this line of thinking quite credible.

But, pause for a moment’s thought. What do we know about the inner urgings or ‘secret intentions’ of any statesman, whether Mr Bhutto or anyone else in history?

We only know their objective actions. And the objective actions of Mr Bhutto in power include 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.

As regards his socialist credentials, we have the hard evidence of the massive wave of nationalisations carried out by his government. Now, many may well bitterly criticise those nationalisations — some contending they destroyed the backbone of the economy and others that they were not thoroughgoing enough — but the fact is that to speak of socialism-without-nationalisation is something of an oxymoron.

But, ah, as members of our urban professional elite have never tired of arguing, the PPP is actually a feudal party and Mr Bhutto and other major party representatives were feudals who hated ‘capitalism’.

It also does not take long to demolish this set of contentions. That Mr Bhutto came from a land-owning family is not in doubt. The fact is that close to seventy percent of the population of Pakistan has rural roots, in one way or another. Inevitably, so will a similar proportion of the parliamentarians who purport to represent that population. That this will inevitably include a large number of persons with landed backgrounds goes without saying and the PPP, as a mass-based national Party with a substantial rural presence, has no monopoly over feudal ascription.

In fact, it was the government of the ‘feudal’ Mr Bhutto that carried out not one but two waves of land reforms, forcing the landed classes to seek all kinds of subterfuges (including establishing ‘hunting reserves’ and ‘forests’, ‘gifting’ away lands to friends but retaining powers of attorney, showing false transactions, etc.) in order to cling to some portion of their holdings for at least this generation. It was the usurper administration of the middle class, urban professional General Ziaul Haq who repealed the land reform laws and reversed their effects!

At the end of the day, feudal is as feudal does and a privileged background does not rule out espousing and working for populist beliefs. The First International of Karl Marx included as one of its most prominent members the déclassé Russian aristocrat Count Nikolai Bakunin. Leon Trotsky, one of the principal leaders of the Communist Revolution in Russia, was the son of a millionaire. Chou en-Lai of China was from a Mandarin family. In 1846, a parliament of thorough-going feudals, of the kind who own ancestral manors and retain private armies, abolished the Corn Laws in Britain and thereby annulled the last vestiges of feudal privilege in that country. And the list goes on.

In the years since Mr Bhutto, the PPP has assumed an overall more conservative stance, left of centre rather than clearly left. This too is part of a historic pendulum swing away from the romantic leftism of the 1960s, which has also been manifested by other liberal and socialist parties around the world, from the American Democratic Party through the German SDP to the Chinese Communist Party. The point that I am asserting is that the PPP’s roots are deeply embedded in the same kind of democratic socialist soil as many of these. Its ‘heart’, so to speak, is socialist.

It is not the purpose of this brief essay to argue in favour of or against the validity of left-wing populist values, only to assert that these represent the portion of the political spectrum to which the PPP historically belongs. It is because of those perceived democratic and pro-poor values, and the sacrifices the martyred father and daughter have made to preserve them, that the PPP has emerged so strongly in the assemblies and amongst the hungry, justice-seeking people at large.

It would be well for Prime Minister Gillani, Mr Zardari and other PPP leaders to bear this clearly in mind. They should additionally bear in mind that, in 1974 and again in 1977, Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto conceded space to the religio-political elements, giving in to them on certain key issues as a result of the pressures they were mounting. The consequences of those concessions are still with us today.

The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet

Daily Times, 26/4/2008

 Posted by at 8:54 am

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