“These people who are commonly known as leaders view politics and religion as that crippled, lame and injured man, displaying whom our beggars normally beg for money. These so-called leaders go about carrying the carcasses of politics and religion on their shoulders, and to simple-minded people who are in the habit of accepting every word uttered to them in high-sounding vocabulary, they bandy about that they will breathe new life into this carcass. Leaders pour vitriol against capital and capitalists only so they can accumulate it for themselves. Aren’t they worse than capitalists? They are robber barons and mountebanks. Now the time has come for the people to reveal their faithlessness in them. There is a need for the youth in tattered shirts to rise and to embrace determination and passion in their broad chests; they should throw out these so-called leaders from the pedestal which they have ascended without our permission.” — Saadat Hasan Manto, Save India from Its Leaders
These words were written presciently more than seventy years ago by Saadat Hasan Manto, one of Pakistan’s greatest writers and social critics, whose 101st birthday ironically falls today, the day when Pakistan has its first election successfully held by an elected government completing its tenure. While Manto wrote these words in 1942, five years before a communal bloodbath was to tear apart the Indian subcontinent, they ring every bit true even today.
It is likely that many of the youth in tattered shirts — as well as those with designer clothes and accessories — will be queuing up to vote for Imran Khan, the cricketer who helped Pakistan win cricket’s most prestigious trophy, the World Cup, in 1992 and, following construction of one of the few world-class hospitals for cancer treatment in Lahore, turned to politics and founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Justice Movement), which has succeeded in capturing the imagination of the youth and the urban middle class for the first time in the country’s history since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto catapulted the incumbent Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to power in 1971 following the independence of Bangladesh. However, whether this popularity also translates into an ability to form a government at the centre remains the major question. Imran Khan’s dramatic fall from a makeshift platform last week, just two days before election campaigning officially closed, might have brought to his cause a few thousand more supporters, especially in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab, where traditionally Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) has held sway.
So how did it come to this? The PPP had a historic opportunity to reform the country following the overthrow of the former dictator Pervez Musharraf, and subsequent elections in 2008. Whatever little goodwill and sympathy the PPP had enjoyed following the tragic assassination of its leader Benazir Bhutto has evaporated in its subsequent five years of governance. Yet the seeds of its electoral comeuppance in 2013 were already laid in Bhutto’s unfortunate compromise with Musharraf, brokered by the United States, paving her return to the country. Those compromises (as the recently returned and now jailed ex-dictator is finding out) as well as the country’s economic problems and worsening plight of the poor — the party’s supposed power base — have not endeared it to its few remaining supporters. Meanwhile the country is back at the door of the International Monetary Fund, and Asif Zardari and his cronies continue to make millions.
A contrast between what has happened in South America since the beginning of this century and what has occurred in the Arab world recently following the overthrow of dictators there is instructive in getting a sense of Pakistan’s predicament. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, the removal of dictators by popular uprisings from below was followed by a tortuous process of remaking the constitution, followed by elections. However, there were no social movements with a social and political program powerful enough to capitalize on the successful uprisings, so the better-organized and better-funded (with Wahhabi cash) Islamist parties have now come to power in Cairo and Tunis and there resulted a Saudi-engineered outcome in Sana’a. While these parties lack imagination in terms of politics and culture, they haven’t wasted much time in begging the IMF for tutelage, in continuity with the past.
In Pakistan, too, Imran Khan might get a major share of the popular vote, but, as in the case of the Arab world, he is no Chavez, and his party is not a social movement with a coherent socio-economic program to address Pakistan’s ancient problems via land reforms, desperately-needed interventions in health, education, employment, and poverty alleviation, and protection of minorities. He has also been very ambiguous about his cosy relationship with the Taliban and has refused to support the rights of long-discriminated minorities like the Ahmadis.
Both Pakistan and the Arab world need to learn from South America, which is the only part of the world giving hope in these troubled times. Despite the recent death of Hugo Chavez, the region has redefined its relationship with its people and with centuries of US interference as a result of Chavez’s election victory in Venezuela in 1999, which has helped other socialist mavericks get elected and re-elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina over the last decade, supported by social movements composed of peasant groups, trade unionists, leftist political parties, and indigenous and resource rights activists.
Whoever wins in today’s elections in Pakistan thus has an urgent task of re-organizing the country from top to bottom. It might be possible for Khan to share power with Sharif (who is second only to Zardari in terms of corruption), benefitting from the fact that secular parties like the PPP, Awami National Party (which dominates the northern areas and Balochistan), and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (which dominates Karachi and urban Sindh) have been routinely targeted by terrorists, thus reducing their campaigning to mere social media posturing.
A few years after Benazir Bhutto came to power in 1988, following the demise of Pakistan’s worst military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, the country’s most revolutionary poet, Habib Jalib, commemorated her compromises with the military and with Washington in the following words:
“The plight of the poor is still the same
Only the ministers are making it good
Every Bilawal (Benazir Bhutto’s son and PPP chairman) of the nation is indebted
And the Benazirs are barefooted.”
As Zardari contemplates the post-elections fate of his party from his lonely perch in Islamabad, he must surely know that neither invoking his son Bilawal — who is making it good in his self-exile in Dubai at of this writing — nor the spirit of his late wife Benazir would be enough to rescue the ideologically bereft and morally bankrupt mediocrity he has presided over in the last five years.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, literary critic, translator, and political activist (of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party). He has been trained in Political Economy at the University of Leeds in UK, and in Middle Eastern History and Anthropology at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, USA. He is presently working on two books, on the crisis of bourgeois democracy in Pakistan and a popular history of the Arab Spring in Yemen. He can be reached at <email@example.com>.