AS Pakistan turns more and more towards a rightist agenda the most important question now is whether those who stand for a progressive, egalitarian order can protect the interests of disadvantaged sections of society that are likely to suffer the most.
Despite the establishment’s hostility to anything resembling leftist ideas the people of Pakistan had an extended romance with them and it was difficult for even hardcore rightists to ignore their sentiment. This trend reached a peak in 1970 when all rightist/religious parties put leftist demands on their election manifestos. But those elected on the strength of their progressive slogans disappointed the people and a process of their disillusionment began.
Reverses suffered by the socialist camp at the global level, especially the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a wave of religious revivalism in the Muslim countries, accelerated this process. The left-of-centre parties toned down their radical rhetoric but that did not help them and they received a major setback in the 2013 general election.
After that election the political scene has been completely dominated by the rightist forces, despite the PPP’s survival in Sindh as its capacity to promote a pro-people change in that province is extremely limited. The absence of any support or challenge from the left makes the central government more than ever vulnerable to pressures from the extreme right.
What is happening now is a gradual consolidation of the national security paradigm as a result of which the government is under pressure to give everything to the war against terrorism regardless of the compromises it entails with regard to rule of law and social welfare imperatives. At the same time the religious lobby is impatiently trying to further its agenda for making Pakistan into more and more of a religious polity.
Some recent developments throw light on the religious parties’ increased arrogance. They have forced the government to practically forget the need for madressah reform which had been duly included in the national plan to fight terrorism. The first important statement made by the newly-elected deputy chairman of the Senate shows that the madressahs as they exist constitute the constituency he will defend most of all. The Jamaat-i-Islami emir was so incensed at seeing Nawaz Sharif embracing Asif Ali Zardari that he advised him to join the latter’s party. The government again betrayed its lack of will to stand up to the clergy’s pressure by nominating a former JI chief’s daughter on the Council of Islamic Ideology.
The absence of the left makes the government vulnerable to pressures from the extreme right.
The operation to free Karachi of the MQM stranglehold has already aroused hopes in religious parties of regaining their position in the country’s largest metropolis. Only a few are prepared to discount the view that the PPP could be the next target of what is being presented as a campaign to purge politics of undesirable elements. Unfortunately the parties under attack have done more than enough to help their denigrators, but the question whether they are being put on the rack for their bad character or for the progressive inclinations they are suspected of is yet to be answered.
Any continuation of the present trend bodes ill for the state and the disadvantaged segments of the population.
Pakistan’s transformation into a military-dominated religious state will make the pursuit of a balanced policy towards the neighbouring states extremely difficult. Not only will the process of normalisation with India be affected, it may be impossible to avoid strains on relations with Iran and China as well. The attitude towards the militants that are challenging the state could change from confrontation to mutual accommodation.
The effect of the rightward slide on domestic politics is going to be far more destabilising. Even if it is not possible to roll back the 18th Amendment and the last NFC Award, it will not be easy to strengthen institutions and conventions a genuine federation cannot do without. The need to guarantee Balochistan, for instance, the kind of autonomy craved by other provinces, and to some extent already enjoyed by them, may well be ignored. The process of reviving the unitary form of government will exact more sacrifices from the underprivileged provinces than they have had to bear while fighting for recognition as co-equal federating units. Pakistan certainly cannot afford the price of a rollback.
To the extent the state makes compromises with religious hardliners, who are indistinguishable from armed militants, the rights of the religious minorities, minority Muslim sects and women will come under increased pressure. The efforts to remove the minorities’ grievances and grant them equality of status will run into the clergy’s insistence to treat them according to the Sharia. Likewise, the opposition to progress towards establishing gender equality will harden.
The future for the peasantry and the working class is also likely to become progressively darker. The fight for land reform and a fair deal for farm labour will become harder and labour is likely to be told to be content with whatever the profit-hungry employers consider necessary for keeping their enterprises running.
True, efforts to consolidate a national security state under the wrapping of belief will amount to reversing humankind’s march towards freedom, justice and equity and are bound to fail in the long run. But there can be little doubt about the enormous cost that the people will have to pay before they start pushing their oppressors back.
Thus, we are back to the question as to who can prevent the state’s slide into force-backed negation of democracy and basic rights? The task demands united and concerted efforts by whatever progressive elements have survived, especially among women, the agricultural community and the industrial workers, to stop the state’s dangerous drift. What is needed most of all is a cadre, fresh and credible, and capable of using a new idiom to reach the masses and awakening them to the urgency of saving their dreams.
Published in Dawn March 26th , 2015