(This was written in 2013 and shared privately with a number of Progressive individuals from around Pakistan, but is being shared publicly now)
The Missing Center Left Alternate?
Prof Ijaz Khan
University of Peshawar
Politically Human Society is divided in two broad groups – Left and Right. Both are sub divided into a number of variations, combinations and intensities. If one draws on a compass a D and divide it into two parts from the Center into left and right, one can understand the division better. The Right starts with Conservative nearer the center to Reactionary on the extreme right point of the D. Similarly, start with Progressive / Social Democrat nearer the Center to Radical on the extreme left point of the D.
The Right positions stretch from preserving the status quo or conserving the existing to the extreme reactionary position of destroying the current, undoing all changes and going back to a real or (mostly) imagined glorious past, referred to as reactionaries. Those on left of center wants to push for reforms, changes and wants to move forward to those on the extreme who wants to destroy the existing (revolutionaries) and build a totally new system, which will resolve all the problems of today.
The Left Right division provides a balance to a given political system; the better the balance, the more stable that system is. Whenever that balance breaks, there is instability and crisis. There is also instability when the substance and meaning of either Left or Right or both undergoes a change. When one or both sides have to re define itself the balance breaks. Currently, the international crisis can be explained by reference to the breakdown of the balance with the collapse of Soviet Union and its ideology. That collapse was more due to its incompatibility with changes required in Human Governance as a result of scientific and economic developments.
The Left Right division is not static. It changes and varies with time and space. The substance and identity of people, classes and ideas may change from Left to Right and Right to Left over time and space. Individualism, Nationalism, Liberal Economics and Politics were progressive and thus Left in 17th and 16th Century Europe as it challenged the established, Monarchical, Feudal and Religious Establishment of that time and space. Nationalism provided the basis and justification for the modern Nation State and the Modern State System with known borders, sovereignty and citizenship and the ideas of loyalty and disloyalty to the State rather than religion, tribe, feudal clan or any other sub or super State demands on Human loyalty. Philosophically, we noticed the ascendancy of positivism, resulting in leaps in scientific research and discoveries. Economic and political liberalism opened doors for individual initiative, research, scientific discoveries along with manifold increase in Capital, thus a leap forward for Human Society, rather Europe and its North American extensions. When Capitalism became global through Imperialism, it became conservative, Right World Establishment and Marxism became the Left challenge in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Nationalism gradually became Right in Europe in 19th and 20th century and remains so in 21st century, as it became too closely identified with racism, a vehicle for protecting or achieving dominance for specific states / Nations of Europe, However, in the post colonial states of Asia, Africa and South America, Nationalism, became a rallying point for Anti Imperialism, Democracy and Secularism and thus a Left program. Thus we note an alliance between Nationalists and Marxists in 1950s.
In Asia and Africa Nationalism arrived through the western educated elite played a progressive and thus Left of Center role as it internally started leading society towards modernity and externally it lead the anti imperialist/ anti colonial struggle. Communists in Europe considered Nationalism a fascist ideology, but gradually started looking at Nationalists in the non European World as allies. We saw the emergence of National Democratic Programs and Parties in the Afro Asian region after the 1950s. Pakistan saw the creation of National Awami Party (NAP) in late 50s, with Communists and Nationalists in its fold. However, NAP could not stay as the Pakistan level platform for a Center Left alternate for long. It got divided on various ideological both domestic and international as well as personal basis and as a result of State high handedness over the years.
In 1967 Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto came with another Center Left Party, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), bringing within its fold the urban progressive intelligentsia, a number of activists from the various divisions of NAP, the disenchanted youth, the modernist sections of society along with elements of traditional feudal class (which is very good at knowing which way the tide is going and knows how to become a part of it). PPP played its role as a left of center progressive party with ZAB and Benazir Bhutto. One can disagree and be critical of many of its policies and politics both in and outside government, but it remained a platform for a large number of Center Left workers and a symbol of Center Left Alternate. However, with BB gone and Asif Ali Zardari at the helm of affairs, the delicate balance that ZAB and BB had maintained between the feudal and progressive elements within its fold, gradually tilted in favor of earlier. Its government (2008-2013) did deliver in many areas to the progressive cause but failed to stay in touch with people and on Governance. It also could not make much progress on front of controlling the Right Dominated State Structure and mindset.
NAP travelled through National Democratic Party (NDP) to finally ANP in 1986. ANP was formed in the backdrop of Afghan Revolution, bringing together most of the former NAP and more from all over Pakistan. However, it could not sustain for long and by early 1990s, it became confined to the former NDP. It very soon became limited to Pakhtuns only. The Baloch leftists and Nationalists separated from NAP in late 1970s were organized in a number of Parties, especially in National Party and Balochistan National Party, while others including new heirs of the old Nationalists giving up on Pakistani State and started armed struggle for independent Balochistan. In Sindh they got divided and sub divided into a number of smaller groups. In Pakhtunkhwa, most Nationalists remained with ANP, but many remained away from political parties, if not from Politics. In Punjab some got closer or joined PPP and others remained scattered. Labour Party became a weak but left of center voice coming out of Punjab. Currently Labour Party joined by some individuals and smaller groups have been transformed into Pakistan Workers Party. A large number of left activists started participating in advocacy groups and NGOs. Starting in 1990s, though the Moscow Beijing divide had sub sided, much more divisions within the Communists emerged.
Most progressive, left of center activists and intellectuals had started looking towards PPP as the left balance to the rising extreme religious Right and the military. That remained a strong case till the life of Benazir Bhutto. Most continued looking at PPP as left of Center Democratic platform even after Benazir Bhutto’s tragic murder. After the 2008 elections ANP and PPP allied to form government. ANP with PPP support led the government in NWFP (now renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). This alliance remained quite strong and both parties cooperated in some progressive legislation and actions as well as the 18th amendment to the Constitution. They achieved provincial autonomy and renaming of NWFP as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The governments of PPP and ANP as a result of 2008 elections were an uneasy compromise between the Establishment and these left of Center parties. Compromise is not necessarily a negative term, especially in parliamentary politics. It is more so and admittedly a little different when you talk of compromise with Establishment in Pakistan. Compromise means different things at different time and space. Even, the present author has compromised by not mentioning many facts due to a variety of reasons. Compromise is a necessary part of living in a given political society. We continuously bargain, trying to get the maximum and ending with accepting as much as we can at a particular time, planning and thinking of getting more at next opportunity. What we get in the compromise is the result of our capability and situation, which may strengthen or weaken our bargaining power.
The Establishment in 2008 had to compromise due to the failure of and unpopularity of the outgoing governments of Gen. Musharaf/ PMLQ and MMA and relative popularity of PPP and ANP, towards which people were looking as alternative. PMLN was also not seen as alternative as it was, even if opposed to Gen. Musharaf on the Center Right of the Political divide. PPP and ANP also understood the realities of power in Pakistan and knew their public support even if more than others, was not enough to take power ignoring the Establishment and pursuing policies which will lead to a fundamental change in Pakistan’s dominant mind set giving directions to its domestic and foreign policies, especially Afghan Policy, Counter Terrorism Policy and relations with USA and India.
The purpose and justification of such compromises is to gain space for furthering your perceptions and for the Center Left, in Pakistani context, it was to alter the power relations in favor of people as much as possible, taking the state and society further on pluralist democratic road, a program of social justice, provincial autonomy and peaceful foreign policy. In 2008 it meant furthering provincial autonomy, ensuring economic welfare, promoting modern education undoing the Zia era and earlier syllabi distortions, a clear policy and action against terrorism in Pakistan, changing Pakistan’s perceptions of India as an enemy and a policy of friendship towards Afghanistan. Fundamental to that was and remains giving up of Jihadis as tools of policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The PPP-ANP left of center alliance government did try and succeed partially; especially the 18th amendment is an achievement they can be proud of. However, on other counts it did not show much progress due to a variety of reasons; its own conceptual confusion, organizational weaknesses, indecisiveness, miscalculations, and also the personal shortcomings of leadership at various levels. The forces of the Center Right and Establishment were able to play up its weaknesses to fatal effect. We saw the results of elections 2013 wiping out ANP and confining PPP to rural Sindh.
To complete the story of the Center Left, one must note that some Pakhtun Nationalists (Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, PMAP), Most Baloch progressive and nationalists and Sindhi Nationalists stayed away from this major center left PPP – ANP alliance. Most of them, for different reasons found themselves closer to the center right PMLN. They justified their preference due to the character of PMLN as more of an urban bourgeois party thus anti feudal and also due to the personal experiences of its leadership, ready to and being mainly Punjabi, capable to play a democratizing role of bringing the military under civilian control. Its avowed stance on improving relations with India and some hints at giving up the policy of religious extremists as tools of state policy was believed will lead to a more tolerant and democratic Pakistan. An important reason that drove these Center Left Nationalists towards PMLN was failure of PPP and ANP to accommodate them. To be more precise, PPP drove away most and ANP could not accommodate them.
The fact is the center left alternate in Pakistan is mostly in disarray and factionalized. It has failed to provide an alternate to the Establishment dominated by a Center Right mindset. The failure is not due to lack of public support for it or any dearth of intellectual or activist support. It has failed more due to its miscalculation of working in a society where feudal relations are collapsing and unable to come up with appropriate strategy or tactics. PPP continued with the populist leadership of the Bhuttos. Along with progressive, democratic cadre it had a strong feudal / rural base. Benazir Bhutto gave it a modernist democratic look, but after her, the feudal in the party got a strong upper hand, even if it retained the progressives in it fold.
The progressive nationalists of the original NAP now divided into a very large number of smaller groups, parties and individuals also looked towards one or other feudal to provide leadership and connection with the people / electorate. Most of them had rural base and their nationalism rather than taking the various tribal and feudal divisions of their ethno linguistic groups towards a modern, progressive and democratic national identity, got identified with forces of social conservation, and in certain cases even of cultural reaction. The society within which they were supposed to be forces of progressive change and the external environment within which they were to find a respectable space for their national identities, continuously changed without them.
To be fair there were and are individuals within the fold of these parties and outside them who had a better comprehension of the changes taking place; the correct role for them in those changes and also understood how to. However, they also could not bring the required changes in the political culture and behavior of these parties. ANP amongst them showed better results in 2008, more because of failure of others, popular desire for peace, and progressive change. Most Pakhtuns of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa saw that in ANP and along with reasons mentioned earlier explains the 2008 electoral results. However, ANP rather than expanding on that mandate, contracted due to reasons discussed above and elsewhere (by this author and many others).
The main causes of the Center Left’s weakness have been argued by a number of analysts to be lack of resources; material, human and intellectual to face the challenge of rising extremist religious challenge, the dominant Center Right mind set controlled State Machinery (Military being the most powerful and lethal within that). The choices for the Center Left are not many. They can be reduced to two; a reformed/ re christened PPP or a New NAP educated and structured for the changed internal and external environment and social and economic developments.
The Center Left platform in the context of the state of Pakistan in its current geo strategic situation and domestic socio economic and political developments and the consequent evolution of economic, social, and political thought must have certain characteristics organizationally and a clearly defined broader pro people approach to various issues. It must be more than an alliance but the party must have room for the diversity within the lager left framework. The program and structure must be such that accommodates from the radical left to those very close to centrist positions. The program must be geared towards the ethno linguistic diversity of Pakistan’s people and its federal character. That ethno linguistic diversity and federal character needs be reflected in its organizational structure as well.
Very important is the issue of leadership. Pakistani society generally the more progressive, educated urban segments within it have moved forward enough, not to accept one individual or family as the ultimate leader. The structure must provide for a mechanism to ensure collective leadership and regular party elections. Leadership must rotate among individuals as well as ethno linguistic and regional divisions of Pakistan. The party must have a galaxy of leaders at central and lower levels, at times disagreeing with each other on specific issues and policies. The party has to develop a democratic culture of internal debate and dissent resolved through dialogue and debate and if need be through majority opinion, rather than breaking away of groups and individuals not agreeing with the majority. It would restraint democratic attitude by both those dissenting and the majority opinion.
That party must be backed by an independent think tank that debates and educates the party cadre, leadership and the broader society on various left of center approaches to various issues, both long term and immediate policy related.
For PPP to provide the Center Left alternate it has to undergo certain basic changes to build on some good points it already has. PPP had a more democratic culture in the sense that diverse opinion was tolerated in it to a larger extent than most other parties. That existed even when it had the charismatic and controlling leadership of Bhuttos. That culture should increase and develop rather than decreasing, which has unfortunately has happened. PPP also has to become more open to ethno linguistic diversity of Pakistan. It has to shed the characteristic of Pakistani Nationalist party. It also has become more open to collective leadership and welcoming to new leaders outside its fold at the moment. Such a change is easier said than done. Though, most Left of Center opinion still look up to it as the party that can, rather do provide the Center Left alternate at Pakistan level, however, that is dwindling. During the current elections, it lost quite a number of dedicated progressive cadres to both PTI and PMLN in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. It also lost support of quite a sizeable progressive opinion in Sindh too, despite better elections results there. PPP has to re invent itself to attract these back to its fold in addition to those that have stayed away from it mostly from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but also in Sindh.
The urge to change in PPP is present, however, given its political culture of a party of center (in the sense of federating units vs. center), and loyalty to the charismatic leadership of Bhuttos, in addition to the stronger feudal ethos of its leadership (getting even stronger in the recent post Benazir era), it will be very challenging for the needed transformation.
The other alternate of re inventing NAP will have its own set of challenges and advantages, but is possible. A new party that comprises of the various progressive nationalists from all the different ethno linguistic identities of Pakistan or at least most of them can be relatively easier to conform to the above view of the Pakistan level Center Left alternative. This will have a galaxy of leadership from day one. It will only be possible if it has space for variations in opinion and provides for collective leadership. However, most of the current leaders may feel threatened by such a party. They have to overcome this fear as being a party with federal pluralist character and culture it will mean strengthening them and will help in overcoming the deficiencies of resources, human, material as well as intellectual.
The final question is who will initiate this process and how will these groups/ parties/ individuals overcome the mutual suspicion and lack of trust? Behind the creation of NAP in 1950s was a very well organized Communist Party of Pakistan. That is no more the case. A group of independent individuals and some well respected political activists from different parties can form the organizing nucleus. Or a Pakistan level group / organization of intelligentsia can be formed and supported by all these disparate divisions which will gradually provide the mechanism for creating the Center Left Alternate.
Another way can be, one or more existing parties may try to transform in such a manner. Those who take such an initiative must face the daunting challenge to change their party political culture so drastically and to gain the trust of those outside it, but is worth the try and perhaps the better strategy for them to survive. There are a number of Center Left individuals and smaller parties/groups that look up to ANP, but finds it too limited Pakhtuns and so do not find space in it.
Another base for similar (re) birth of a Center Left can be the creation of a Think Tank comprising of intelligentsia rather than active political persons. This forum can initiate studies, debates about the various issues from a Center Left Perspective, consciously avoiding partisan politics; however, it must also actively engage separately and collectively encouraging a dialogue. This can gradually lead to a Pakistan level political expression of the Center Left. There is no need to decide at this stage what shape that outcome will be.
The problem of Pakistan is the missing Centre Left challenge to the establishment. That explains partly the attractiveness of the extreme Right or A–political parties like PTI to most of the young and not so young. PMLN’s changed attitude towards the State, Policy Making and religious extremism is welcome but is more of breakdown between the extreme Right, an outdated Center Right State structure unable to cope with increasing challenges of globalization and control the extreme Right on one side and relatively urbanized capitalist and industrialist class that want to conserve the status quo from challenges from the extreme right and accept change or rather adjust to the changing global context.
The State of Pakistan can be led out of its current predicament by a forward looking Center Left alternate. This state, for good or worse in unable to work anymore with its archaic out dated structure, administrative culture and decision making process. The Center Right being the force of status quo may or may not provide a temporary relief from the challenge of extreme right, but its role is not that of bringing fundamental progressive change and thus not the long term answer to this state and society’s predicament. Unless we have a Center Left State level alternate with a clear pluralistic and social democratic humanist program the crisis of State and Society will continue, becoming more fatal and existential with each passing day.