Going through an unprecedented crisis, the world is trying to formulate alternatives revive economies. In the United States, President-elect Barack Obama is expected to bring a contrasting agenda to Bush administration. The only country that is beyond any socio-political agenda is Pakistan.
Most probably the sabre-rattling between India and Pakistan will pass without any real disaster, but the problem of religio-nationalism will not abate in either country. More importantly, in the long run, religious extremism will prove to be a distraction from the real issues that were facing both countries, particularly Pakistan, even before jihadis started targeting the population.
In the meanwhile, the well being of the public and real economic growth has been going from bad to worse. In this regard, the civilian era of the 1990s may fare better than Musharraf’s go-go eight-year-period, but conditions have been much below the desired level regardless of whether or not the military was calling the shots.
During the last two decades, religious extremism has been expanding its space in society because no competing ideology or reform movement has emerged in Pakistan. Selective administrative and economic patchwork has been substituted for an all encompassing enlightened or progressive social programme. This is one of the reasons that no real resistance to theocratic encroachments has been put up by the masses. As a matter of fact, the anti-Bhutto crusade of General Zia-ul Haq has never been reversed and movement towards equity and progress has never been resumed.
After a long struggle, when Benazir Bhutto came back to power in 1988, she not only failed to revive the Bhutto programme, she consciously dropped key components of the PPP manifesto, like land reforms and nationalisation of the selected industrial sector. It is true that her hands were tied because of her compromise with the military, but she could still have kept the PPP reform agenda alive. That did not suit her because she was conscious of her class interests and followed a new capitalist model that is collapsing now in front of our eyes.
Bhutto’s reformist agenda, real or perceived (because he violated it himself), was a rare non-religious programme that had moved the people at such a mammoth scale. Over the course of history, particularly in Punjab, no such movement had affected the people in centuries. The Muslim movements during the British era and after independence were all, in the end, embedded in religious ideology. Therefore, it is not surprising that after the dismantling of the Bhutto reform agenda, only religious movements have reoccupied public space.
Besides Benazir Bhutto, her main rival Nawaz Sharif was a product of the anti-Bhutto Zia crusade. He was/is a religious conservative and his family had suffered due to Bhutto’s nationalisation programme. Therefore, besides seeking revenge, he continued with Zia’s Islamisation zeal. Of course, he took up many progressive economic projects but never came out of the religious shadow till the end of his second stint in power. Land reform or equitable distribution of wealth has never been on his agenda.
In this deadening silence, the lawyers’ movement, triggered and led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, was a welcome break. It was the only secular movement after the 1960s uprising. However, by its very nature, it was limited in scope: it was not expected to address economic and social issues in a comprehensive way. Furthermore, the re-entry of both mainstream political parties, particularly the PPP, has revived the politics of the 1990s in the worst manner possible as far as the socio-economic agenda is concerned. As a matter of fact, this time around, the PPP has come into power with the full support of Sindhi and Southern Punjabi feudalistic elite.
The problem with feudalistic aristocracy is not the land holding and ensuing inequities, but the way it distorts the enlightened vision and creation of a modernistic state. Feudal aristocracy is usually, by its very nature, oblivious of human rights issues and democracy. This is how a declared offender in a vani case and an apologist for the live burial of women in Balochistan are raised to the level of federal ministers. Therefore, land reforms are not only needed for economic equity, but more so for political stability. To modernise the state, land reforms are necessary.
Similarly, Bhutto’s agenda of nationalisation failed because it went too far and the bureaucracy was not prepared or trained to run nationalised industries. But to say that the very programme of nationalisation was wrong is not supported by facts. In the last few months, the archenemy of nationalisation, Shehbaz Sharif, was forced nationalise flour mills on a limited scale. Furthermore, stable economies have emerged only in South and Latin America where nationalisation has been reintroduced in a big way. Therefore, the second most important item on the Bhutto agenda has to be revisited.
Similarly, there are several other aspects of socio-political life that have been forgotten or thrown in cold storage. These issues have to be revived to formulate a new agenda for society. In short, a new reformist agenda is imperative if religious fanaticism is to be tackled and the society is to move forward.
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Reproduced by permission of DT