Pakistan’s political parties have experienced some of the most stunning ideological overlaps and about-turns. So much so, that though many of them are still labelled according to their original orientation, such labelling has caused confusion and even complaining among the younger enthusiasts of politics.

Times change and so do political parties. The ideological basics may remain the same but whatever that is above these basics is always highly mutable, allowing a party to survive and remain compatible with the ever-changing international and national politics, economics and sociology. The ideological basis merely serves and fuels a party’s populist rhetoric while policy-making banks almost entirely on the mutable aspects of the parties.

Take the example of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Formed in 1967 as a socialist party, it won its first major election in 1970 on a largely populist and leftist manifesto. Though the PPP’s move from being a socialist party into a social democratic one is attributed to Benazir Bhutto, the truth is, by the time the party entered the fray to contest the 1977 election, its manifesto had almost entirely eschewed its initial socialist bearings.

For example, at a time when the right-wing opposition to the first PPP regime was successfully flexing its muscle using the ‘Islamic card’ (Nizam-i-Mustafa), the PPP accordingly replaced the word ‘Musawat’ (social equality) that it had used in its 1970 manifesto with ‘Musawat-i-Muhammadi’ (i.e. the equitable system of the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam).

The party continued to move away from its origins under Benazir until it became a left-leaning liberal party that today has a powerful conservative wing along with a prominent progressive-secular wing and a shrinking left-wing. Perhaps along with the Congress Party of India, the PPP today is one of the largest Machiavellian political parties in the region with a robust populist appeal among the masses.

Other Pakistani parties have also evolved the same way. Take the example of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI). Emerging from the Deobandi Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Hind, the JUI till about the early 1970s was considered to be the foremost progressive party among the country’s political-religious groups. Electorally influential in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and parts of Balochistan, the JUI ran a concentrated scholarly and political campaign against what it denounced as ‘Mawdudiyat’ (i.e. the Islamic political system propagated in the writings of the Jamat-i-Islami chief, Abul Ala Mawdudi).

The JUI in return was accused by the JI of being pseudo-Islamic and in league with the PPP for spreading socialism. The JUI supported the PPP’s socialist programme during the 1970 elections, and it also became a coalition partner of the leftist-secular National Awami Party (NAP) government in the then NWFP and Balochistan. Though the JUI turned against the PPP regime in 1977, it did not join the JI when the latter supported Ziaul Haq’s military take-over.

Till 1985 the JUI’s largest faction headed by Fazlur Rehman played an active role in the PPP-led protest campaigns against Zia, until the gradual rise of the ‘Salafi’ and Deobandi thought in the country during the peak of the Pakistan-backed anti-Soviet mujahideen insurgency in Afghanistan. In 1996 when Pakistan supported the installation of the Taliban regime in Kabul, the JUI became this violent, enigmatic Salafi group’s leading mainstream backers in Pakistan. It steadily departed from its already withering progressive-Islamic outlook and became one of the country’s staunchest ‘fundamentalist’ political parties with prominent establishmentarian overtones. Here is where it stands today.

On the other hand, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) that emerged as an off-shoot of the PML formed by Ziaul Haq in 1985 retained its Ziaist roots and establishmentarian tenor until it was ousted from power in a military coup in 1999. By the late 1990s it began to shed its establishmentarian skin and moved aggressively towards a more populist platform. It has evolved into a vigorously populist political party that, though, still conservative in orientation, is now staunchly democratic (and thus) finding itself pitched against the military establishment.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has had an interesting history as well. Formed in 1984 from within a mohajir nationalist student party (the APMSO), the MQM rose to prominence during the deadly ethnic riots in Karachi in 1986. Though ethnic and militant in orientation, the MQM was overwhelmingly secular. The irony was that the APMSO was formed by some disgruntled pro-JI students, but they had accused the JI of exploiting the mohajir majority of Karachi in the name of Islam.

During the state’s brutal operations against the MQM (allegedly against its militancy) in the 1990s, the importance of religion remerged among sections of Karachi’s mohajir communities. But instead of a politicised Islam taking hold of the MQM’s orientation, the trend saw the emergence of the radical Barelvi-dominated Sunni Tehreek (ST) that soon boasted a number of former MQM activists.

By the new millennium, the MQM had become consciously secular and liberal, even though the tag of also being highly militant remained around its neck. A decade later, the MQM is going through yet another metamorphosis.

In the event of the attempts being made at using anti-West populism by (the albeit electorally weak) parties like the JI and ST in Karachi, the MQM has begun to cautiously open certain valves of its structure to allow the entry of some animated anti-West and Islamist rhetoric into its body. Just how much can this impact the party’s inherent secular orientation remains to be seen.

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