LAMENTING the shenanigans of politicians is a favourite pastime of our chattering classes. The mainstream media and intelligentsia chime in regularly too, while the ‘respectable’ institutions of the state — the military and judiciary — never tire of reminding us of their ‘non-political’ credentials.
Those of us who believe that the maligning of politicians and politics at large is part of the problem rather than a precursor to the solution have always been in the minority, given the way ‘public opinion’ is forged in this country.
It is hard to swim against the tide at the best of times, but arguably the biggest impediment to challenging the anti-politics attitudes that are commonplace within the urban public sphere is presented by mainstream politicians themselves.
The ongoing fiasco involving the ruling party and the chief minister in Balochistan is a case in point.
It is hard to convince others, let alone oneself, of the inherent wisdom of allowing the political process to play out without interruption in the face of quite ridiculous tugs-of-war such as that currently unfolding between the Raisanis and the Umranis of the world.
The chattering classes feel vindicated, and diehard democrats sick to the stomach.
Even the Asghar Khan case has proven to be a noose around the neck of politicians insofar as they have been subject to at least as much censure as the generals for being so ready and willing to make a mockery of the electoral process.
It cannot be denied that many of Pakistan’s mainstream politicians have, at one time or the other, been willing accomplices of the military establishment.
But to emphasise these failings ad nauseam, I think, actually deflects from the crux of the matter which is that political parties do not exercise any autonomy vis-à-vis the kingmakers operating the permanent state apparatuses.
In other words, ours is a country in which political parties function not as coherent organisational entities that have any kind of meaningful institutional history, but simply as agglomerations of individuals or parochial groupings that seek to secure access to the state.
Indeed one is hard-pressed to come up with a long list of career politicians who have been attached to only one political party throughout the course of their political lives.
Ideologues of religio-political parties are, to an extent, exceptions to this rule, but they have enjoyed a deep consensual relationship with the state for so long that they are even more complicit in the demeaning of politics than the average politician attached to mainstream parties.
Ethno-nationalist parties also fall into a different category, because of their relatively confrontational posture towards the state since the latter’s inception. However, these parties have suffered significant fragmentation over the past few decades, and, for some ethno-nationalists if not all, principled ideological positions have increasingly been sacrificed at the altar of expediency.
The sad state of our political parties has deep historical roots in the sense that the British Raj institutionalised a mode of politics that left no space for political organisations with a mind or life of their own, and in fact criminalised such organizations.
In post-partition Pakistan the state has maintained the same posture, and, from 1977 onwards, buttressed this ‘colonial’ mode of politics by co-opting the modernising social forces that may have, under different circumstances, played a much more progressive historical role.
The question, as ever, is what can now be done to redress the existing situation. In the first instance, the pressures exerted by objective processes of change will themselves force some rethinking on the part of mainstream politicians about their conduct.
It is, for instance, increasingly untenable for any claimant to power to condone or welcome involvement of the military in the political realm. Rhetorical flourishes of course should not necessarily be taken at face value but shifts in political discourse do translate, even if after some time, to changes in political practice.
Second, and very importantly, mainstream politicians who rely on their familiarity with a very cynical patronage-dominated culture of politics must be challenged by those who wish to propagate a politics of change.
We must, in short, bring ideology back in. Since the end of the Cold War, even on the left of the political spectrum, ideology has been viewed in suspicious terms. And while it is imperative to move on from the dogmas of the 20th-century left politics, we cannot abandon our commitment to abiding ideas or principles that should inform politics.
Importantly a politics of change, built on the back of a coherent political party, can only emerge if the political process is allowed to continue uninterrupted, notwithstanding the antics of mainstream politicians.
Too many political workers have spent too much of their lifetime simply struggling for the restoration of the democratic process, and too little time actually deepening democracy and making it responsive to the needs of working people.
There are, of course, mainstream political parties such as the PPP and ANP which pride themselves on being ‘ideological’ entities with a hard core of committed political workers.
It is true that these parties have retained some of their ‘ideological’ colour over a reasonably long period of time, and also that their jiyalas continue to proudly wear their party hats and boast about its sacrifices.
But the reality is that these organic segments of the party have been largely marginalised by the political contractors in the upper echelons. This is why there are more than a few jiyalas outside the pale of the party in its current manifestation; many of these otherwise diehard workers do not oppose the party in public but do more than complain about the nature and direction of politics amongst themselves.
What all of these political workers are clear about is that politics, whether principled or not, is impossible without a political party.
If only our armchair critics could start making basic distinctions such as those between politicians and political parties, or those between patronage and ideology, we might actually be able to move beyond episodes such as those that are currently paralysing what was already a dysfunctional democratic government in Balochistan.
The German sociologist Max Weber wrote a century ago about ‘politics as vocation’. He emphasised the fact that modern politics requires knowledge, commitment and creativity. Even if such characteristics are in short supply at the present juncture, we must strive to cultivate them within the polity, lest we end up at a dead (khaki) end, yet again.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.