SMOKERS’ CORNER: THE BANDWAGON LEFT

Published January 7, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

On October 9, 2009, the day my father passed away, I received a call from an old college friend of his. The friend was Meraj Muhammad Khan. Meraj, who passed away in 2016, was a fiery leftist politician and one of the founding members of ZA Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). 

In 1973, Meraj had a falling out with Bhutto. So, what I was really interested in talking to Meraj about were his years as an anti-PPP activist who, in 1976, decided to support the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). It was an electoral alliance headed by the country’s three largest Islamist parties. Also part of the PNA were some prominent Baloch and Pakhtun nationalists. Various Marxist and progressive figures too had decided to support it. 

PNA’s manifesto was influenced by the theories of the ‘Islamic state’ formulated by Islamist ideologues such as Abul Ala Maududi. I asked Meraj what were the reasons behind some leftists and progressives teaming up with Islamists to oust Bhutto? 

After a long pause, Meraj sighed, “It was a foolish idea.” He said that many leftists were disillusioned with Bhutto and decided to support any group that had the potential to oust him. He then said that the anti-Bhutto leftists/progressives believed they would be able to “catch some of the anti-Bhutto votes” if they stood with the PNA. They didn’t catch many, though. And the rest, as they say, is history — but not a very pleasant one. 

The many electoral candidates and parties trying to feast on PTI’s deflated vote bank by presenting themselves as ‘guardians of democracy’ are not as ‘progressive’ as they might think

The late politician Sherbaz Khan Mazari, in his book A Journey to Disillusionment, wrote that Meraj wept when in 1979 Ziaul Haq sent Bhutto to the gallows. Bhutto was toppled in a military coup in 1977 and then executed. In 2018, two years after Meraj passed away, I found myself talking to a former leftist contemporary of his in Washington DC. He was a young man when he became a ZA Bhutto supporter but, like Meraj, he too joined PNA’s anti-Bhutto movement that erupted after the March 1977 elections. 

I asked him, couldn’t the leftists, through their ‘Marxist’ wisdom, realise that they might have been aiding reactionaries to create conditions for a right-wing coup? The gentleman shrugged his shoulders, and in a resigned tone replied, “Beta (son), we were probably naive and actually thought we were doing democracy a service.”

It was their democratic right to ally with anyone they believed could get them votes. In 2020, the liberal Free Democratic Party in Germany and the centre-right Christian Democrats partnered with the ‘neo-fascist’ Alternative für Deutschland to oust the leftist head of the German state of Thuringia. However, the then chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, condemned the move as “unforgivable”. 

To the progressive German journalist Loren Balhorn, this example of liberals and the moderate-right collaborating with the far-right “serves as a reminder of how fascism comes to power.” Merkel, who was a Christian Democrat herself, and Balhorn were both clearly wary of the fact that such collaborations often bring out the ‘illiberal’ sides of democracy, or what the American sociologist Michael Mann once called “the dark side of democracy.”

The same can be said when mainstream parties in Pakistan strike electoral deals with far-right Islamist outfits. But there have also been incidents in which, aware of the disruptions such collaborations can unleash, liberals and moderates have worked together to keep reactionary forces out, even when these forces won the largest number of seats. For example, across the 1990s in India, various mainstream leftist, liberal and centre-right parties collaborated to keep the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from forming a government in Delhi. 

Recently, when a far-right party led by the populist Geert Wilders won a majority in the Netherlands, The Economist reported that other parties were reluctant to help him form a government. There is nothing undemocratic about the far-rightists contesting elections, nor is there anything undemocratic about other parties partnering to keep them from coming to power. Too many right-wing populists may come in through an electoral process, but they are most likely to undermine and even wreck democracy. 

In Pakistan, ever since the fall of Imran Khan’s populist Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government in 2022, his party’s vote bank has continued to scatter. Khan is likely to remain disqualified and unable to take part in the 2024 elections. Therefore, a race is on by some groups to attract the scattered and the likely-to-be-withheld PTI votes.

The PPP is trying to get a share of these, but not as vehemently as some ‘progressive’ lawyers and activists are. These folk are aspiring to contest the election. They can now be seen enthusiastically applauding PTI’s narrative vis-à-vis the crackdown that the party has been facing after many of its supporters rioted on May 9 and 10. 

Is there anything problematic in what these ‘progressives’ are aiming to do? Theoretically: no. Historically: perhaps. But PTI is not an Islamist party. It is a populist outfit which shaped its ‘ideology’ by borrowing random bits from neoliberalism, ‘socialism’, and Islamism. It is a populist, postmodernist expression of centre-right politics. Its core constituency is the cosmopolitan bourgeoisie (mostly ‘lifestyle liberals’ and white-collar professionals) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, and sections of the petit bourgeoisie.

Khan’s government had operated as the civilian face of the previous military establishment (ME). The regime was an unmitigated disaster. After Khan’s fall, he turned hostile towards the ME, accusing it of ‘planning’ his unceremonious departure. The progressives, some of whom are also eyeing a PTI ticket to contest the coming polls, insist they are doing this to safeguard democracy. 

They also like to believe that they are confronting the ME. This may sound ‘revolutionary’ and all, but the fact is this: they are squarely fishing for available PTI votes if Khan is not on the ballot paper. A friend and an academic recently described them as “the bandwagon left.” 

But are there any similarities between this and what ‘the bandwagon left’ did by allying itself with the PNA in 1977? In that particular case, the bandwagon progressives were looking for lapsed ‘progressive’ votes, but this time they are fishing for the votes of cosmopolitan conservatives and lifestyle liberals.

However, if Khan remains debarred from contesting the elections, it is likely that these votes will not be cast. Therefore, those trying to attract these votes will only be able to garner more followers and ‘likes’ on X instead of the elusive votes that they are after.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 7th, 2024

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