Old Bhutto, and older Gandhi

May 19, 2020

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The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

DR Mubashir Hasan’s admirers in India and Pakistan paid him their respects last week at an event hosted on Zoom, a handy social media platform. It was recalled among Dr Hasan’s successes and failures that Z.A. Bhutto had ignored his advice to fight right-wing rivals with the core strength of his party’s pro-people ideology. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari appears to have learnt little from his grandfather’s disastrous political denouement.

Same holds true for the Gandhi family in India whose Congress party has lost its sheen by abandoning its essential pro-people worldview. When one day Jyotiraditya Scindia, a young colleague, walked out on them to join the Bharatiya Janata Party, Rahul Gandhi was speechless. Scindia was one person who could walk into his house any time of the day, he mumbled. That’s precisely the problem. The question is how many more Scindias might be lurking within the sanctum sanctorum.

The incident indicated two possibilities. There is no ideological filter to assess a Congress leader from any other. There is also the possibility that the party has no core ideology left anyway.

Bilawal’s quandary may not be dissimilar. He wants Imran Khan to perform on the current health emergency or vacate. And since nobody, barring New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden, has succeeded in any measure to stare back at the disease, it can be assumed that the young opposition leader wants Imran Khan to go anyhow. That would be in line with his pre-Covid-19 calls for the prime minister’s removal.

The virus itself has given the clearest hint for the way forward.

In November last year, the PPP had supported a right-wing clergy-led campaign to unseat Imran who they described as Pakistan’s Gorbachev.

It’s the prerogative of the opposition in democracies to keep the treasury on a short leash. But these are no ordinary times, and misplaced enthusiasm could be construed as posturing. Let’s assume that Imran in a fit of good humour obliges his young opponent and retreats to his sprawling mansion in Banigala. What then? Would Bilawal or any other opposition leader have a game plan to take on the swarming pandemic, leave alone defeat it?

Let’s make the question clearer. Would Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari be prepared to abandon the bankrupt religious contractors with whose help alone under the given circumstances he can see himself effecting a change of guard? Or does he find himself in the unenviable situation of the Congress chief ministers who began selling cow urine to compete with the Bharatiya Janata Party on its cynical anti-intellectual turf?

The project looks utterly self-defeating from any liberal corner that Bilawal may claim to represent.

Is there any other way? There is, perhaps. Call it going back to the basics. The virus itself has given the clearest hint for the way forward. The cure in the form of a vaccine could take time to arrive, and no one knows when, if at all, that would happen. In this sense, even the New Zealand leader may not have the complete answer to the challenge the world confronts. How long can she guard New Zealand’s sanitised immigration checkpoints before the devious virus slips in? Bilawal might consider joining hands with a civilised world beyond the coronavirus challenge.

One of the agreeable fallouts of the current health crisis is the clearer skies and cleaner air to savour, unthinkable previously. With the very limited lifting of the lockdown in Delhi one can already see the pollution readings shooting up. Most scientists of global repute believe that the planet faces two major threats — from climate change and nuclear conflict. There are sound reasons for both India and Pakistan to lead the way in Asia to counter both the threats, worthier than flirting with the mullahs and the Scindias.

Just see the unending deluge of Indians trudging home to their villages, riding on the roof of trucks, getting crushed on railway tracks during a moment’s respite in the arduous journey. What model of economic development comes to mind? The image of rotis scattered near the rail tracks or near the overturned trucks on which they were going home. Bread. That’s what Bhutto had promised. He had also offered to give Pakistani people shelter, a home. Has the PPP fulfilled the promise? Their Indian counterparts were returning to the only shelters they now seem to trust with their lives, shelters to make them feel welcomed: their villages.

It is of course an unintended fallacy that one has to be a migrant worker in India to experience exploitation, humiliation, isolation and easy death. More than 300,000 farmers have died in penury, by suicide, since India started its so-called free market reforms in the 1990s. While bringing a degree of prosperity to the new middle class, the policy shored up rampant usury in the villages and worsened the squalor for peasants who moved to the cities as urban proletariat.

Mahatma Gandhi was called a crazy Luddite for seeing India as a cluster of self-sufficient village communities. Nehru opted for heavy industries in a mission to urbanise the exploited former colony. Majrooh Sultanpuri no great admirer of Nehru’s joining the British Commonwealth, was with him on the Soviet industrial model. “Ahle dil ugaen gey khet mei maho anjum. Ab gohar subuk hoga ek jau ke daane se,” Majrooh wrote, echoing Soviet publicity posters. (When the people will harvest not grain but a glistening moon and twinkling stars; when the shine of the grain will humble the glow of the sun.) But the people swarming India’s roads would have gone with Majaaz Lucknavi in the back benches. “What will the people eat then, comrade?” Majaaz had wondered loudly.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2020