N November 30, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) completed forty-three years of its life. During this period, it has come a long way from being an anti-establishment party to a pro-establishment one, from an ideological to a pragmatic entity, from a party wedded to socialism to an exponent of neo-liberalism. The party leadership has won accolade for its struggle for democracy and rule of law and has also been charged with massive corruption and betraying the people’s trust.

To some, these changes were necessary for the party to survive and thrive in a hostile environment; to others these will eventually sap the strength and appeal of the party and turn it to another pro-status quo organisation.

The PPP was founded by Z.A. Bhutto to campaign against Pakistan’s first military ruler Ayub Khan in whose cabinet he held the portfolio of foreign minister but fell out on the issue of Kashmir after 1965 war with India. The philosophy which the PPP espoused at the time of its birth was democratic socialism, which meant establishment of an egalitarian society through democratic, constitutional means. Mr Bhutto was fortunate that he did not have to wait too long as Ayub Khan was forced to step down in March 1969 paving the way for Pakistan’s first general elections in December 1970. The PPP won majority of seats in the western wing and formed the government after the separation of the eastern wing in 1971.

The PPP has the credit of forming the first popularly elected government of Pakistan. However, it must be admitted that it was not the PPP but the Awami League that had won the popular mandate to form the government. Initially Mr Bhutto was installed as president but later became prime minister after the passage and promulgation of the 1973 constitution, which remains the party’s most significant contribution to date.

Constitution making has remained a serious problem in Pakistan. It took the country nine years to draw up its first constitution, which was abrogated only after two and half years. The second constitution, the 1962 constitution, was also abrogated in 1969. The 1973 constitution has been suspended and mutilated by military regimes but remains the fundamental law of the land. What is remarkable about the constitution is that it was adopted unanimously by the people’s representatives.

The first PPP government also decided to start Pakistan’s nuclear programme in response to that of India. Irrespective of whether the decision was right or wrong, no one can deny that it was a momentous decision. Another important decision taken by the PPP government was a fundamental shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Disappointed with the US role in 1971 Pak-India war, Mr Bhutto came to conclusion that it was high time Islamabad shunned its dependence on Washington and better look to the Muslim world for support and strength. The hosting of the second OIC conference at Lahore in 1974 created at least a semblance of Muslim unity.

No other decision of the PPP government has stirred greater controversy than the nationalisation programme launched in 1974. As mentioned above, the PPP was wedded to democratic socialism, which envisaged the state as the major player on the economic front. The framing of the 1973 constitution marked the fulfilment of the democratic aspect of the party’s manifesto, now it was time to fulfil the socialist aspect – summed up in the slogan roti, kapra aur makan — by implementing a nationalisation programme under which the state took over a number of basic industries and financial institutions.

It is alleged that the nationlisation programme caused grave damage to the economic gains made during 1960s by the government of President Ayub and resulted in economic inefficiency and mis-allocation of resources. No doubt, economic growth slowed in the wake of nationalisation from 6.8 per cent per annum during 1960s to 4.8 per cent per annum during 1970s. It is also true that most of the nationalised units went into loss, because decisions were not market-based.

However, rapid economic growth is not the only macro-economic objective of a government. The government has also distributional objectives so as to reduce economic disparities. During 1960s rapid economic growth was accompanied by concentration of resources in a few hands—the infamous twenty-two families. Hence, when the PPP assumed power, there was a popular demand for breaking the concentration of economic power. And it was not possible without the state playing a leading economic role.

The fundamental weakness of the PPP government — which persists to date — was the cult of the personality. A party which is committed to democracy ought to strengthen institutions rather than promote the cult of the personality. But in case of the PPP, every institution was made subservient to Chairman Bhutto. The basic, but mistaken, assumption was that if the key institutions were manned by Bhutto-loyalists, he could govern for a long time. It was on the basis of that illusion that the constitution was amended to remove judges considered not loyal to Mr Bhutto. It was on the basis of the same assumption that a junior officer was appointed army chief. The same officer, General Muhammad Ziaul Haq, later toppled the PPP government and had its leader hanged.

The eleven years of the Zia regime (1977-88) constituted the most difficult period for the PPP. It was during this period that the party lost its founder, its new leadership was put behind the bars or forced into exile and its workers victimised. Efforts were made to create dents in the party. But the PPP weathered the storm, the credit for which goes to PPP workers, who are the real asset of the party.

The end of the Zia regime saw a fundamental transformation in the politics of the PPP. Mr Bhutto’s anti-Americanism was replaced with pro-Americanism by his daughter Ms Benazir Bhutto. Socialism was discarded in favour of market economy as the party’s new economic doctrine. Nationalisation has been replaced with privatisation.

Both changes were understandable. Washington’s influence on the establishment in Pakistan had become so pervasive that a party opposed to American interests had little chance of making it to the corridors of power. The end of the 1980s also saw the eclipse of socialism in the world and the triumph of neo-liberalism. In neighabouring India as well, the Congress shunned socialism and adopted market economy.

In 1988 general elections, the PPP emerged as the single largest party but had to make a compromise with the establishment that it would support the then acting president Ghulam Ishaq Khan in presidential elections which were due a couple of months later—before its chairperson Ms Benazir Bhutto was appointed prime minister. It was the same Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who dismissed the PPP government less than two years later on corruption charges.

In 1993, Mr Nawaz Sharif, the erstwhile blue-eyed boy of the establishment, fell out with his mentors and had to pay the price in the form of his dismissal. Nawaz Sharif’s fall from grace once again forced the establishment to look towards the PPP, which itself was desperately trying to get back in the saddle. Elections were held, which the PPP won and formed its third government.

Since November 6, 1996, when the PPP government was sacked until its victory in February 2008 elections, couple of months after the assassination of Ms Bhutto, the party had remained in the opposition. Ms Bhutto herself remained in exile for eight years and returned home only in October 2007 after striking a deal with the Musharraf-led establishment in the shape of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) giving amnesty to the top party leadership from corruption charges. To the good fortune of the present PPP leadership, Mr Musharraf was weakened by the lawyers’ movement and desperately needed the support of a popular political party. A deal with Mr Nawaz Sharif, whom he had ousted from power in October 1999, was out of question. Hence, Ms Bhutto’s PPP was the only choice.

Though the PPP has become pro-establishment and pro-western, it remains the country’s largest and most popular political party having a nationwide appeal. In a multi-ethnic state like Pakistan, political parties are the ultimate instrument of political stability. The country has desperately been in need of political parties which have a nationwide appeal and an across-the-country base to weld various ethnic groups together, just as the Congress Party has done in India. Unfortunately, Pakistan has remained shorn of such parties. After the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971, the PPP emerged as a, and arguably the only, political party enjoying mass support all over the country and has retained these credentials.

hussainhzaidi@gmail.com

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