October 15, 2017


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Many in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League—Nawaz (PML-N) and some media persons have recently alluded that a “1977 type of a conspiracy” is being hatched to dislodge an elected government and pave way for martial law. By this they refer to the protest movement which was launched in April 1977 against the Z.A. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) regime that led to the July 1977 military takeover.

That movement, galvanised by a nine-party alliance, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), is rather scantly documented. Unlike the more thoroughly documented movement against Ayub Khan’s dictatorship in 1968, the one in 1977 has only rarely been studied in as much detail as the 1968 uprising. This may be due to the fact that the 1968 movement — largely orchestrated by left-wing and left-leaning political parties, labour unions and student organisations — eventually paved the way for the country to hold its first-ever general election in 1970 based on adult franchise. However, one of the consequences of this historic election was also the acrimonious departure (after a civil war) of the former East Pakistan which became Bangladesh in December 1971.

The 1977 movement was comparatively different from the events that took place in 1968. Firstly, the former was not against a dictatorship but an elected government. Secondly, its outcome saw the return of martial law, the execution of a deposed prime minister and a reactionary military regime that lasted for 11 years. The social and political impact of this regime (led by Gen Ziaul Haq) was such that the state and polity of Pakistan are still trying to come to terms with it. L.D. Hayes in his book The Islamic State in the Post-Modern World wrote that Zia’s dictatorship “retarded Pakistan’s political and social evolution.”

How similar is the PML-N’s situation to the PPP’s in 1977?

Was the 1977 PNA movement, now being referenced by some commentators and politicians, similar at all to what is transpiring today in the context of an elected regime claiming that it is facing a “similar conspiracy”?

The PNA was formed in December 1976 when the Bhutto regime announced early elections, almost 10 months before they were originally scheduled to take place. It was announced they would be held in January 1977. In his book The Mirage of Power, Dr Mubashir Hasan — a senior minister in the Bhutto regime and one of the founding members of the PPP — wrote that Bhutto was confident of winning again and that he wanted an even larger majority in the parliament so he could — through a constitutional amendment — change Pakistan’s parliamentary system of democracy into a presidential one.

An adviser in the Bhutto government, Rafi Raza wrote in his book Z.A. Bhutto and Pakistan 1967–1977 that Bhutto was surprised to see the formation of the PNA because, at the time, opposition parties in the parliament were suspicious of each other. The PNA — an electoral outfit comprising nine anti-PPP parties — also included the country’s three leading religious parties: the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam (JUI) and the Jamiat-i-Ulema Pakistan (JUP).

Even though the PNA also had in its fold veteran leftists such as Wali Khan and Begum Nasim Wali and staunch liberal democrats such as Asghar Khan, through its election slogan Nizam-i-Mustafa, the alliance promised the imposition of “Islamic economy and democracy” and (later in the election campaign), the imposition of Shariah laws.

Just days before the election, Bhutto hinted that the PNA was a creation of “bloodsucking industrialists.” Political economist Dr S. Akbar Zaidi writes in his book Issues in Political Economy that, compared to the economic situation after the 1971 civil war in East Pakistan, the Bhutto regime had somewhat revived the economy despite a post-1973 rise in international oil prices and the flight of capital initiated by industrialists who had made their fortunes during Ayub’s regime.

Zaidi, however, agrees that the economy was a lot more robust in the 1960s during the Ayub regime but points out that the benefits of this growth did not trickle down. Instead, Zaidi adds, Ayub’s policies created oligarchic monopolies. But there have also been many economists who have blamed Bhutto’s ‘socialist policies’ for badly disrupting the country’s economic evolution.

Jumping forward, we saw the economy nosedive at the fag-end of Pervez Musharraf’s regime (1999-2008). It stumbled further down the spiral during the Zardari government (2008-2013) when the country was ravaged by extremist terrorism, a civil-military tussle and governmental incompetence. Compared to what it was when the PML-N regime took over in 2013, the economy has slowly recovered and incidents of terrorism declined —mainly due to a wide-scale military operation from 2014. Just as Bhutto had done in the 1970s, Nawaz Sharif too believed that the PML-N government had helped stabilise a ravaged economy.

The PNA movement is most comprehensively analysed by Dr Khalid B. Sayeed in his excellent 1981 book Politics in Pakistan: The Nature and Direction of Change. Dr Sayeed writes that after the PNA refused to accept the 1977 election result and began a violent protest movement, its foot soldiers were largely urban middle- and lower-middle-class youth, traders and shopkeepers. During the 1977 movement, Bhutto had accused disgruntled industrialists of funding the movement and then went on to blame sections of the military after some officers refused to take action against a mob in Lahore.

Whereas the PNA had accused Bhutto of muddying the economy and using strong-arm tactics against opponents, the PML-N regime is being accused of corruption. But, in both cases, the urban middle- and lower-middle-class youth were/are instrumental. Recently, the PML-N regime was also accused of “trying to alter the constitution’s Islamic character.” During the PNA movement, the PNA had begun to question Bhutto’s faith, terming him “anti-Islam” and a “drunkard”.

According to Dr Mubashir, Bhutto had lost his urban middle-class constituency who felt “alienated” by his economic manoeuvres and had begun to strengthen his urban proletariat and rural peasant constituencies. The PML-N is now trying to do the same. This is not due to the party losing its traditional bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie vote bank in Punjab, but rather due to a chunk of this particular vote bank going to the centre-right Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and, to a lesser extent, to radical new religious outfits. Although after the mid-1970s Bhutto lost his urban progressive/liberal support, the PML-N has surprisingly gained much of the PPP’s progressive/liberal vote in Punjab.

As this brief analysis might suggest, there are indeed some similarities between the 1977 movement and what seems to be transpiring today. But as a Sindhi friend of mine recently quipped: “In 1977, it was Punjab’s and Karachi’s bourgeoisie/petty-bourgeoisie agitating against a Sindhi, this time [in the context of PML-N and PTI], it is Punjab’s middle- and lower-middle-classes tussling among themselves.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 15th, 2017