ONCE upon a time, not so long ago, popular politics was the preserve of mass political organisations that could legitimately claim to represent the interests of significant sections of the population. The idea of the mass party was inextricably tied to democratic statecraft.
Some would argue that this very idea is now dead.
Even though Pakistan has always been dominated by an authoritarian and militarised state that has sabotaged democratic politics, mass political parties have existed and thrived. As early as 1948, the Azad Pakistan Party was formed, seeking to forge an alternative political, economic and cultural path to that being shaped by the successors to British rule. The APP would eventually merge into what became arguably Pakistan’s most representative political party, the National Awami Party (NAP).
Until the creation of Bangladesh, NAP was the only political party that had a mass presence in both wings, epitomised by the Bengali leader Maulana Abdul Hameed Bhashani. It had organic links to student organisations, journalists, intellectuals, trade unions, peasant movements and other democratic collectivities. It was certainly led by ‘traditional’ influentials that had captive followers in rural settings, but was nevertheless committed to mass representation. Importantly, NAP’s influence grew through the 1960s even after Ayub’s military regime banned it.
The field of politics has been transformed by digital technology.
The history of mass politics here is incomplete without mention of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Irrespective of how one judges the PPP after it took power in 1972, the dramatic manner in which it rose to prominence after its formation in December 1967, generating a mass following most notably amongst the rural and urban poor of Punjab, is a historical fact.
In more than four decades since Zia’s coup in 1977, neither the PPP nor any other political party formation has meaningfully mobilised a mass of people to acquire governmental power. This is in part due to the machinations of the establishment, but that is not the only explanation.
All over the world, mass parties that prospered in the age of revolutionary internationalism through the 1970s have since floundered. This includes the historic social democratic parties of Europe as much as those that led national liberation movements like the Congress in India.
The related evolution of newer formations that rely more on cynically organised vote banks or what can euphemistically be called parochial mobs is explained by many interrelated factors, of which I will list only a few. First, money and corporate media have transformed the political landscape such that the propagation of content through mass media is a far bigger determinant of political attitudes and outcomes than a few decades ago. Second, the stylised categories of the masses that dominated politics until the neoliberal interregnum, namely workers, peasants, and a broadly anti-imperialist middle class, all of whom coalesced under the banner of the mass party, have been displaced by vague invocations of ‘the people’. Third, the field of politics has been transformed by digital technology with profound implications for both the present and future.
Digitalisation is in fact giving rise to severe cognitive dissonance. It allows for millions of people to articulate themselves politically and highlight the injustices and inequalities that litter our social landscape. Yet it also reinforces the feeling that mainstream political parties are at best unable and at worst unconcerned with what takes place at the grassroots.
The PTI certainly claims the mantle of a popular mass party, like many of its contemporaries globally. It is far more accurate to describe it at as an agglomeration of entrenched ‘electables’ that has nevertheless been able to project itself as a mass organisation on the basis of successful media projection and active digital cadres. It relies on tried and tested signifiers like ‘corruption’ and ‘national security’ even as it benefits from a youth bulge that has been bred on an anti-politics narrative championed by our own establishment and emblematic of neoliberal ‘governance’ around the world.
In short, the vision of rule by a popular and progressive majority has been displaced by institutional and subjective logics that are producing majoritarian tyranny. It may not be possible to reconstitute the mass party of the 20th century, with relatively successful experiments in Latin America, parts of southern Europe and in the form of Corbynism and Sanders in the UK and US having run up against their limits. This is precisely why Pakistanis who want to overturn the establishment-centric system and institute genuine economic and political democracy have to think more deeply about building a meaningful political form rather than limiting themselves to outrage in an online space already dominated by the right.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2020