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A PPP worker paints the party's symbol, the arrow, during an election campaign. - Photo by Reuters

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A PPP worker paints the party's symbol, the arrow, during an election campaign. - Photo by Reuters

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is Pakistan’s largest political party. It is also perhaps Pakistan’s only party, which can be discussed in a context similar to that of major political parties which have evolved in democratic countries in the 20th century and beyond.

Thus, in spite of democracy still being a flawed and young creature in Pakistan, PPP’s evolution can actually be compared to that of major social democratic parties in Europe and India.

Adding a bit of red

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The party was formed on November 30, 1967. Headed by a young, energetic and highly-educated former foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (a Sindhi), the party was conceived to bring about a socialist-democratic revolution in Pakistan after the military dictatorship of Field Martial Ayub Khan was overthrown.

Bhutto had been Khan’s foreign minister but had a falling out with the dictator after the latter agreed to a ceasefire with India during the 1965 Indo-Pak war.

Galvanised by the rise of the student-left in Pakistan and the popular sentiment across West Pakistan against the ceasefire (especially in the Punjab), Bhutto, after being eased out of the Ayub regime, showed an interest in joining the National Awami Party (NAP).

At the time, NAP was Pakistan’s largest leftist party. It was a consensual collection of communists, socialists, socialist-democrats, and, more so, Sindhi, Baloch, Pashtun and Bengali nationalists.

With his self-worth boosted by the enthusiastic response his stand against Ayub received from the students in West Pakistan, Bhutto decided not to join the NAP after it failed to give him the kind of a position he thought he now deserved.

Facing isolation and a possible ouster from the political process, Bhutto was too much of a political animal to miss out on the forthcoming commotion against the Ayub dictatorship.

While on a trip to Europe, Bhutto held a number of meetings with a former bureaucrat and an accomplished Marxist theoretician J A. Rahim.

Both decided to form a left-wing democratic party.

The party was launched at a convention in Lahore. It was a vibrant affair attended by a number of progressive intellectuals, leftist student leaders, labour and trade union activists and journalists. It also benefited from the split in NAP between pro-China and pro-Moscow factions.

The PPP convention in Lahore November, 1967, which officially launched the party and laid out the party’s manifesto.

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The PPP convention in Lahore November, 1967, which officially launched the party and laid out the party’s manifesto.

At the convention, Z. A. Bhutto read out the party’s manifesto (that he had written with J A. Rahim) and put it up for debate in front of the participants. Socialism and Pakistani nationalism were at the centre of the manifesto.

Almost immediately, three tendencies of the party’s overall ideology emerged.

Intellectuals like Dr Mubashir Hassan, Shaikh M. Rashid, Tufail Abbas and student leader Miraj Muhammad Khan expressed a more radical understanding of the manifesto.

They also brought with them certain radical Maoist tendencies into the party’s character because as communists, they had sided with China during the ideological Sino-Soviet conflict of the 1960s.

The left-wing National Student Federation’s Miraj Muhammad Khan (left) with Z A. Bhutto (centre) and NSF’s Rasheed Hassan Khan at a NSF event in Karachi, 1967. Miraj joined the PPP as a founding member.  – Photo courtesy Apna Kal

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The left-wing National Student Federation’s Miraj Muhammad Khan (left) with Z A. Bhutto (centre) and NSF’s Rasheed Hassan Khan at a NSF event in Karachi, 1967. Miraj joined the PPP as a founding member. – Photo courtesy Apna Kal

Intellectuals like Hanif Ramay traded a middle-ground. They insisted that the party’s leftism needed to be fused with ‘progressive aspects of Islam’ so that the PPP doesn’t come out looking like an atheistic/communist party.

Ramay was part of the Islamic Socialism Group, a literary organisation formed by intellectuals inspired by the ‘Arab Socialism’ of Egyptian leader, Gammal Nasser, Algeria’s National Liberation Front, and Indonesian leader Sukarno’s attempts to express populist socialist theory and Indonesian nationalism through Islamic symbolism.

Ramay’s group prevailed in convincing Rahim and Bhutto to explain the party’s central ideology as a democratic expression of ‘Islamic Socialism’ which, in Urdu, was translated as ‘Musawat-e-Muhammadi’ (the political and economic system of equality and justice introduced by Islam’s prophet).

Hanif Ramay, a founding member of the PPP was also one of the leading theoreticians of ‘Islamic Socialism’ in Pakistan. It was Ramay who first advised Bhutto to use the expression ‘Islamic Welfare State.’

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Hanif Ramay, a founding member of the PPP was also one of the leading theoreticians of ‘Islamic Socialism’ in Pakistan. It was Ramay who first advised Bhutto to use the expression ‘Islamic Welfare State.’

The third tendency that emerged within the party was of a more conservative variety. It would go on to constitute the right-wing of the PPP.

This wing included influential spiritual leaders like Makhdum Muhammad Zaman, lawyer Abdul Hafeez Pirzada and ‘progressive’ members of the landed elite (in Sindh and Punjab) like Ghulam Mustafa Khar, Rasul Bakhsh Talpur, Mumtaz Bhutto, and later Maulana Kausar Niazi and Mustafa Jatoi.

This section of the party prescribed a more pragmatic approach towards the military and the ruling elite and advocated a dilution of the party’s radical socialist programme.

So, like any major democratic political party, the PPP too came attached with various ideological wings with their own views of the party’s overall philosophy.

Nevertheless, it were the PPP’s radical (Marxist) wing and moderate leftist Islamic Socialist wing that were the most active from the party’s inception in 1967 until about 1973.

The PPP, at once, come under attack by the Ayub regime on the one hand, and by religious parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) on the other, whose leader, Abul Ala Maududi, dismissed the PPP as being an ‘atheistic party’ formed (with the help of international communist forces) to dismantle Islam in Pakistan.

The PPP’s Marxist and progressive wings countered the propaganda by founding the party’s own newspaper (Musawat) and magazine (Nusrat).

Leading secular and leftist intellectuals, poets and writers contributed to these publications.

After Ayub was forced to resign by a concentrated movement by leftist student groups; trade and labour unions; and parties like PPP and NAP, PPP swept the elections in West Pakistan. East Pakistan went to the Bengali nationalist party, the Awami League (AL). The elections were held under General Yahya Khan in 1970 whom the PPP, NAP and AL accused of funding right-wing parties like JI and various factions of the Muslim League.

In an interesting twist, Maulana Mufti Mhemood’s Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam (JUI) almost formed an electoral alliance with the PPP.

Staunchly opposed to JI and Maududi’s thesis on political Islam, JUI was the only religious party that approved of the PPP’s ‘Islamic Socialist’ philosophy.

The alliance was however ruled out by PPP’s Marxist wing.

Bhutto addressing the nation on PTV after taking over power from the military in 1972.

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Bhutto addressing the nation on PTV after taking over power from the military in 1972.

After East Pakistan separated and became Bangladesh in 1971, PPP came to power on the basis of winning a majority in Sindh and Punjab.

NAP formed coalition provincial governments in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Pakistan was being governed by leftist parties.

PPP introduced a series of economic and social reforms between 1972 and 1974. These included the nationalisation of major industries; partial land reforms; rolling back of powers held by bureaucrats; co-option of certain identity-indicators of the country’s ‘folk culture’ first purposed by Sindhi, Baloch and Pushtun nationalists; rehabilitation of Pakistan’s military (after its defeat in the 1971 Indo-Pak war); and the framing and passing of the country’s first proper constitution.

Bhutto meeting Chinese revolutionary leader, Mao Tse Tung.

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Bhutto meeting Chinese revolutionary leader, Mao Tse Tung.

Fade to green

A series of international and local events in 1973 saw the PPP regime slow down its reformist/socialist manoeuvres.

First was the labour unrest in Karachi. Labour unions had firmly supported the rise of the PPP, but as restrictions on the unions were lifted, there was an increase in their activities.

A number of strikes by labour unions in early 1973 almost halted industrial activity in Karachi. Unwilling to meet their demands (which Bhutto thought were unrealistic and unproductive for a country recovering from a devastating war), Bhutto ordered a major crackdown on the unions.

Unions were the main constituencies of the PPP’s radical left-wing. Incensed by Bhutto’s crackdown, one of the party’s leading radicals, Miraj Muhammad Khan protested and was chucked out from the party. J A. Rahim suffered the same fate in 1975.

Then Bhutto dismissed the NAP government in Balochistan, accusing it of instigating a separatist movement in the province, which triggered an insurgency. Bhutto, then, sent in the military to crush it and installed PPP governments (run by handpicked governors) in Balochistan and KP.

Baloch leader, Akbar Bugti with Bhutto (1974). Bugti had supported Bhutto’s initial military operation against Baloch nationalists and was made governor of Balochistan. Ironically both men were killed by the military. Bhutto in 1979 and Bugti in 2005.

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Baloch leader, Akbar Bugti with Bhutto (1974). Bugti had supported Bhutto’s initial military operation against Baloch nationalists and was made governor of Balochistan. Ironically both men were killed by the military. Bhutto in 1979 and Bugti in 2005.

1973 was also the year that saw Syria and Egypt go to war with Israel. The aftermath of the war pushed oil-rich Muslim monarchies to slow down oil production and drastically raise the price of oil.

Huge revenues earned from the move benefited Saudi Arabia the most. The profits gave it the leverage to begin playing a more prominent role in the Muslim world. Weary of the influence of the Soviet Union in Muslim countries and of Arab nationalism (which was opposed to monarchism), the Saudi monarchy began funnelling financial aid into Muslim countries.

Bhutto responded to the developments by severely undermining the party’s radical left-wing and giving more space to its conservative wing that advocated firmer relations with oil-rich Arab monarchies.

With Saudi money and influence, the Bhutto regime also began an elaborate intellectual project, in which, leading conservative historians and writers were asked to re-write Pakistani text books so to emphasise the country’s (largely imagined) ‘Arab roots’ and dilute its shared history with the Hindus.

The declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslims in 1974, too, was a de-facto part of the said project.

Saudi monarch, King Faisal, at a dinner thrown in his honour during his visit to Pakistan in 1975.

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Saudi monarch, King Faisal, at a dinner thrown in his honour during his visit to Pakistan in 1975.

While the PPP regime remained largely secular, its move towards the right continued until the 1977 elections. By then, it had all but alienated its leftist support base.

This didn’t mean it became the darling of the religious right. On the contrary, religious parties supported and financed by industrialists and traders stung by Bhutto’s socialist policies, became even more vehemently opposed to the PPP regime.

When the religious right organised itself into a united front for the election (Pakistan National Alliance [PNA]), the PPP all but deleted the word socialism from the party’s manifesto prepared for the 1977 election.

Bhutto with JUI chief Mufti Mehmood.

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Bhutto with JUI chief Mufti Mehmood.

Interestingly, PNA’s Islamist sloganeering and the PPP regime’s post-1974 Islamic project would both be hijacked and implemented in a more exaggerated manner by General Ziaul Haq, who overthrew Bhutto and took over in July 1977.

Seeing red again After General Ziaul Haq, with the backing of some religious parties, toppled the Bhutto regime and imposed what would go on to become one of the most oppressive and reactionary dictatorships in Pakistan, the PPP found itself in disarray.

Not willing to tolerate any chance of Bhutto’s return to power, Zia got him executed through a bogus murder trial.

Bhutto being escorted away by the police during his trial at the Lahore High Court. He was ultimately hanged in 1979.

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Bhutto being escorted away by the police during his trial at the Lahore High Court. He was ultimately hanged in 1979.

The party’s top leadership was either thrown in jail or chased into exile. This reactivated PPP’s radical wing, which was encouraged by Bhutto’s besieged widow, Nusrat Bhutto, who took over as chairperson of the party.

Nusrat Bhutto, bleeding from the forehead after being struck by a cop’s baton at Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium in November 1977. She arrived at the stadium with a  contingent of PPP activists during a Test match between Pakistan and England to protest against the Zia dictatorship. The attack by the police on her sparked a riot in the stadium.

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Nusrat Bhutto, bleeding from the forehead after being struck by a cop’s baton at Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium in November 1977. She arrived at the stadium with a contingent of PPP activists during a Test match between Pakistan and England to protest against the Zia dictatorship. The attack by the police on her sparked a riot in the stadium.

Between 1978 and 1985, PPP witnessed its most radical period.

With no chance of an election in sight and up against a stubborn and violent military dictatorship that was reaping the benefits of international support due to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, PPP’s leadership largely fell into the hands of young radicals and their patrons who had been sidelined after 1973.

Marxists and radical-left democrats within the party’s second and third tiers were at the forefront of leading the agitation against the Zia dictatorship. They were also successful in finally convincing the party’s co-chairperson, Benazir Bhutto to eject the leading lights of PPP’s conservative wing, whom they accused of betraying Bhutto.

This was also the time when the word ‘PPP jiyala’ (diehard, passionate PPP worker) came into prominence.

A policeman flogs a PPP worker in Lahore in front of an audience (1978). – Photo courtesy of Monte Fresco/World Press

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A policeman flogs a PPP worker in Lahore in front of an audience (1978). – Photo courtesy of Monte Fresco/World Press

After facing harassment, jail and house arrest, Benazir went into exile in 1984. But by the time she returned in 1986, she had already ejected a number of leaders belonging to the party’s conservative wing.

Bhutto’s youngest son, Shahnawaz Bhutto, who had formed an urban guerrilla outfit with brother Murtaza was allegedly poisoned to death by Pakistan’s ntelligence agencies in 1985.

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Bhutto’s youngest son, Shahnawaz Bhutto, who had formed an urban guerrilla outfit with brother Murtaza was allegedly poisoned to death by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies in 1985.

On the other hand, her triumphant return also marked the party’s turn towards a newer ideological path.

Not only did she clean up PPP’s old conservative wing, she gradually reigned in the left radicals as well, who had kept the party afloat after Bhutto’s execution.

A British television report on Benazir Bhutto's return from exile in 1986.

By the time of Zia’s gruesome death and PPP’s return to power (through the 1988 election), Benazir had begun to describe the party as a populist expression of left-liberalism.

Any colour you like In the 1990s (after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism), the word socialism was again diluted in the party’s manifestos, replaced with terms like human rights, de-nationalisation, ‘trickle-down economics,’ etc.

But the populism aspect addressed towards the peasant and working-classes remained a constant – now, more than ever, because these became the party’s main constituencies after the Punjab urban bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie that had enthusiastically supported the PPP in the 1970s, turned towards conservative parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League, which was revamped and re-launched by the Zia regime in the mid-1980s.

In the 2000s (during the Musharraf dictatorship), fight against Islamic extremism became one of the central planks of the party’s manifesto. So did Benazir’s concept of ‘reconciliatory politics’ that saw her joining hands with her arch foe Nawaz Sharif, chief of the PML-N, in order to oppose Musharraf.

PML-N was also going through a metamorphosis of sorts.

Benazir and Nawaz after signing the Charter of Democracy (COD).

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Benazir and Nawaz after signing the Charter of Democracy (COD).

After Benazir’s tragic assassination at the hands of Islamic extremists (allegedly facilitated by the Musharraf regime) in 2007, the party leadership fell in the hands of her husband Asif Ali Zaradri, who guided the party to win a majority in the 2008 general elections.

Asif Ali Zardari – non-ideological and Machiavellian?

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Asif Ali Zardari – non-ideological and Machiavellian?

Zardari - non-ideological and Machiavellian in disposition - gleefully and acutely enhanced the concept of pragmatism in the spheres of the party’s thinking and policy-making.

In a two-pronged move, he constituted a new conservative wing in the party led by handpicked pragmatics whose job it was to keep an accommodating relationship with the ever-troublesome military and the ever-demanding coalition partners (of the new PPP-led regime).

On the other hand, to keep the party’s ideological legacy afloat, he chose committed left-democrats like Raza Rabbani to head the left-wing of the party, by now, had largely become left-liberal in essence.

The recent rehabilitation of old party ideologue, Aitzaz Ahsan, is also associated to the bolstering of the PPP’s ideological/left-liberal dimension.

Raza Rabbani & Rehman Malik represent the new Left and Right of the PPP.

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Raza Rabbani and Rehman Malik represent the new Left and Right of the PPP.

Zardari’s endeavours and tactic to choose horses for courses have been successful in guiding his government’s survival through the economic and political mess left behind by the Musharraf dictatorship, as well as through whatever that was thrown at it by the opposition, the military-establishment, the Islamic extremists and the courts.

However, this process also seems to have drained the party and its regime of the energy required to achieve any substantial success in the spheres of economics and the law and order crises that Pakistan continues to face from religious extremists across Pakistan and from violent gangs in Karachi.

While PPP, under Zardari, has largely become a pragmatic entity, there still exists a vocal Marxist presence in the lower tiers of the party, and among the labour/trade unions associated with the PPP and in the party’s youth wings, Peoples Students Federation and Peoples Youth Organization.

Also active within these tiers are pro-PPP Sindhi nationalists, whom Zardari has often used to counter anti-PPP Sindhi nationalists and against what he perceives to be ‘conspiracies of the Punjabi establishment’ against the PPP regime.

In a Darwinian sense, the PPP under Zardari has been a political success - if not an ideological one.

*All images have been provided by the author.


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Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.