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Smokers' Corner: The dubious left

October 30, 2011

A few days ago I received a couple of emails from some readers asking me why (in this column) am I only concentrating on proving wrong Pakistan's history as written by rightist forces and the 'establishment'. They asked whether the leftists or the progressives have been the only ones conscious about the country's correct line of historical discourse.

Not at all. There is almost as much myth-making involved in certain sections of the so-called Left as there is on the right. The only difference is that it was the rightists' narrative about Pakistan's ideological composition that made it into the textbooks and populist media. Nevertheless, if one was to tackle historical revisionism and myth-building among those on the Left then there is no better place to start than amongst some former luminaries of the country's largest political force, Pakistan People’s Party.

On the day when Z A Bhutto's ailing widow, Nusrat Bhutto passed away (23 October), former PPP ideologue, Dr Mubashir Hasan, was one of the first people to get a call from the electronic media outlets. What followed was a glaring example of the kind of revisionism and myth-making taking place in the populist media about the PPP's 'leftist past.' Hasan, who distanced himself from the PPP after Bhutto's 'judicial murder' by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship, has been a staunch critic of the party under Asif Ali Zardari.

In fact Dr Hasan has become a sage character for all the recent batch of PPP's disgruntled renegades and also-rans, accusing the party's current leadership of hijacking the PPP's original socialist and anti-US spirit and turning it into something that is a lot closer to the establishment's liking. The populist media, so distraught about the PPP's 'lost Left', has been toeing a similar line, in spite of the (rather ironic) fact that the media is largely made up of elements who have clearly right-wing leanings in their understanding of politics and culture.

It is disappointing to note that veteran politicians and intellectuals like Dr Hasan would freely omit facts in their discourse just to score a point or two against the PPP, now under Zardari. For example, while talking to a popular news channel on the day of Begum Bhutto's death, Hasan lamented the fact that the PPP had become a party of feudal lords. First of all, though he now behaves as if he was a Benazir sympathiser, this was exactly what he had said about the PPP under Benazir as well. This goes as far back as the late 1980s when Benazir began purging the party, getting rid of old warhorses.

Secondly, Dr Hassan, who now so touchingly laments his old party's disconnect with socialism, was in fact an opponent of the PPP's radical-Left wing that was headed by Meraj Muhammad Khan. According to a detailed study of the PPP's ideological evolution (in a 1975 paper authored by Khalid B Syed), when the PPP's radical 'Maoist' wing suggested that plans for widespread land and agrarian reforms be added to the party's manifesto (just before the 1970 elections), it was the party's 'centrist wing' led by Dr Hasan and Hanif Ramay who advised party chief, Z A Bhutto, not to do this because he would lose the political clout of Sindh's feudal lords and Punjab's landed elite.

This episode is also mentioned in a February, 1970 edition of the Urdu daily, Imroz.

Also, when Bhutto purged the party's radical wing (between 1973-75), men like Dr Hasan remained in their posts as high profile ministers in Bhutto's cabinet. The way some former PPP members today define the party is at best audacious. It was never a revolutionary socialist party as such. As author Philip Jones rightly mentions (PPP: Rise to Power), the party was conceived (by Bhutto and J A Rahim) as a populist democratic party in the mould of social democratic parties of the Cold War era, or a flexible democratic platform for progressives of all shades.

The party's early anti-Americanism is also exaggerated by the disgruntled. Francis Pike writes (Empires at War), that Bhutto did try to wean Pakistan away from US influence by trying to weave a grand alliance of Muslim countries. But in the process he unwittingly opened the floodgates from which Islamist forces came rushing in to take their place in Pakistan's mainstream political arena. To ward off the sudden challenge these forces now pitched against Bhutto using populist rhetoric of political Islam, Bhutto did not hesitate to push his regime's policies way towards the right, so much so that the party's manifesto for the 1977 election didn't even mention the word socialism!

Pike is also correct to point out that the teargas that the Bhutto regime was using against protesters during the 1977 anti-Bhutto movement was being imported from the US. It was only when the US stopped supplying the regime with teargas that Bhutto began accusing it of ‘funding the protests’.

Benazir too always treated the PPP as a social democratic party. On her return from exile in 1986 when millions arrived to support her bold challenge against the pro-US dictatorship of Ziaul Haq, Dawn reported how during a mammoth rally in Lahore when some PPP radicals began torching a US flag, Benazir asked them to stop. And let's not even get into how those media men who scorn at today's 'establishmentarian PPP' and lament the loss of Benazir were the loudest in their condemnation of her being a 'US stooge' when she returned in 2007 to challenge Musharraf's regime.

The truth is the PPP today is quite like what it has always been, i.e. a roller-coaster political soap opera involving bickering comrades, populist, joyous eruptions and heartbreaks. In other words, it is still very much a party that continues to reflect the emotional and intellectual disposition of its founder, Z A Bhutto: spontaneous, reckless and intriguingly, but at the same time highly pragmatic and somewhat Machiavellian.