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The Failure of Pakistan: A Concise History of the Left

The Platypus Historians Group

Platypus Review 2 | February 2008

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The present-day crisis in Pakistan resists adequate historicisation in pithy news headlines. Yet its concrete expressions include the autocratic state-of-emergency imposed by General Musharraf; the violent rise of Islamic fundamentalism, first in the anarchic north-west, but increasingly also in the cities; the over-dependence on economic as well as military assistance from the U.S.; the massive expansion of the army into civilian sectors, especially commerce; and the ever growing socioeconomic disparities—in short: the failure of Pakistan. And while, at first blush, it appears that Pakistan was riven from the start by contradictions, it is anachronistic to think that the “choice” politically was always between theocratic Islamism or secular despotism. For what this view effaces is that there was once a vital left in Pakistan. The aim in the brief political history that follows is to argue that the contemporary meltdown in Pakistan is the stark consequence of the cumulative (self-) defeats of the left.

Pakistan inherited a left under the ruinous impress of Stalinism. Committed to the theory of revolution in stages, the Comintern under Stalin entreated communists in India to support the creation of Pakistan in 1947, in effect prolonging the policy of the “Popular Front.” The incipient Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) floundered in West Pakistan: its attempts to organize workers under the rubric of the All Pakistan Trade Union Federation were undercut by the state favored All Pakistan Confederation of Labor which had lined up with the American Federation of Labor; its ranks were further thinned after its hand in plotting a coup d’état, the thwarted Rawalpindi conspiracy, was revealed in 1951. Meanwhile in East Pakistan, the CPP tried a different tack—galvanizing the peasantry. The militant, CPP-backed All Pakistan Kisan Sabha, was able to exact modest land reforms—the main effect of which was to drive out Hindu landlords—that were implemented in East Bengal in 1950. However, the resolve to arm the peasantry on the model of the Chinese Revolution marked another volte-face in policy, one that was now in step with the “ultra-left” blueprint outlined in the first report of the newly formed Cominform. During 1948-58 there were no parliamentary elections in Pakistan; when regional elections were held in East Pakistan in 1954 as a first step toward enfranchisement, the main party in the west, the Muslim League, was routed by a coalition of Bengali nationalists, the United Front, which had succor from the CPP. For its role the CPP was banned in late 1954. On the international front, as India allied itself with U.S.S.R, Pakistan steered toward an anti-Soviet alliance in the Baghdad Pact of 1955. To skirt the authorities a leftist umbrella group, the National Awami Party (NAP), was founded in 1957. NAP was expected to be a member of the coalition that was touted to win the national elections scheduled for early 1959 when, in October 1958, General Ayub Khan wrested the reins of the state.

For a decade General Ayub stewarded Pakistan on a state-centric course of development. During 1955-65, the first “Five-Year” schemes led to increases in the GNP, the rate of industrialization, and total capital imports, but also underlined the limits to the developmentalist model. On the one hand, the influx of capital from the U.S. allowed Pakistan to find its role in the world-market. However, in its effort to build a national economy the state mandated a series of impediments on capitalization; in addition, the state siphoned off surpluses to fund projects that favored West Pakistan while permitting high unemployment rates and landlessness to fester in the East, which further alienated the incongruous halves. The left fueled this sense of difference in counter-intuitive ways after the Sino-Soviet split in 1964. Once “Red” China made overtures toward General Ayub, the Maoists in NAP, based primarily in East Bengal, made strange bedfellows with the military dictatorship. Stalinists, who had reservations about the role of the “peasantry,” found themselves opposing the regime by emphasizing the relative backwardness of the East. After another disastrous war with India in 1965, the rust on General Ayub’s armor started to show.

Like their French and Latin American counterparts, the student-led demonstrations set into motion in 1968 had a modest start but quickly spread to all the main cities—Karachi, Lahore, Dacca, Peshawar, Multan, Hyderabad, and Jehlum. The call to mass strike from the student left in December was heeded by workers, trade unionists and segments of the peasantry. Five months of activity on the left had a momentary success: General Ayub was forced to resign in March 1969. Nevertheless, when faced with the task of proclaiming control of the state no leftist party was on board, the left had failed to think beyond the collapse of the regime.

It was in this context that a new social-democratic party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), surfaced in West Pakistan under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, an ex-minister in the Ayub cabinet, while an older Bengali nationalist party, the Awami League, was revitalized in East Pakistan. Both were bolstered by the incorporation of leftists who brought with them trained cadres as well as an attractive ideological program. Pressured further by the growing labor unrest of 1968-69, the interim head-of-state, General Yahya Khan, was made to hold parliamentary elections in 1970. The outcome of these elections led to the secession of East Pakistan. For much of the seventies, especially after the world-wide economic collapse in 1972-73 that reached Pakistan on the heels of the Bangladesh War, the nation limped on in spite of the PPP’s slogans: “Food, Clothes, and Shelter” and “'Islam is our faith; democracy is our polity; socialism is our economic creed: All power to the people!” Bhutto tried to salvage the beleaguered state apparatus, including the military, but was unable to stem the exodus of unskilled workers and the middle class.

Developments in Pakistan in the eighties shadowed events globally. The decimation of the left in the seventies had culminated with the election of Thatcher in the U.K. and Regan in the U.S., both of whom raised the shrill Cold-War rhetoric in the wake of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. General Zia ul-Haq, who had overthrown Bhutto in 1977, tendered Pakistan as an Islamic bulwark in the proxy war. Thus while the C.I.A. trained the mujhideen in the mountains, General Zia set about promulgating fire-brand Islamism; there was the introduction of Shar’ia courts, interest-free banks, mandatory prayer in schools, blasphemy was outlawed: in other words the mullahs were allowed to run amok. After General Zia’s mysterious helicopter crash in 1988, what can only be characterized as neoliberal cronyism set-in in the nineties, that is, in the absence of a left or middle-class, the army, blessed by the clerics, asserted itself as a dominant capitalist. The lack of a progressive left in Pakistan continues to be felt in the politically opaque milieu after 9/11.

From within Pakistan the news is abject. There were food shortages reported in the markets in Lahore. Eid al-Adha celebrations in rural Sherpao were undone by a suicide attack at the local mosque. Karachi remains terrorized in the run-up to elections by the gang violence of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement loyal to the prevailing regime. In the capital, Islamabad, the last challenges to the presidency of General Musharraf were smoothed over by a new bench on the Supreme Court. The truth is that there is little to be hopeful about politically; the entire field of actors—Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, the embattled judiciary led by the ex-chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, or the panoply of Islamists (this includes the Taliban-like Jamaat-i-Islami as well as the softer Islamism of the Tablighi Jamaat and the Tarikh-i-Insaaf, led by the ex-cricketer Imran Khan)—is marked by its opportunism. The perfidy of Bhutto and Sharif is well-known, as is the threat by groups such as the Jamaat-i-Islami; the sole liberal light appears to be the group of attorneys protesting in the streets (backed up by a small number of human-rights activists). But theirs is a battle, while commendable, that offers little to build on; their demands mean a return to the corrupt status-quo of what was, replete with its tolerance for Shar’ia. The absence of the left only heightens the sense that it would take a revolution to secure even modest reforms in Pakistan. Yet there is a certain resignation or possibly even a kind of libidinal satisfaction amongst Pakistanis in the knowledge that the election of whomever follows General Musharraf will only substitute one form of incompetence with another. |P

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