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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/The poverty of Pakistan’s politics (PPP)

The poverty of Pakistan’s politics (PPP)

Atiya Khan

Platypus Review 18 | December 2009


LIFE IN CONTEMPORARY PAKISTAN is marked by a sense of despair and helplessness. A report commis­sioned by the British Council based on research con­ducted by the Nielsen Company recently found that only a third of the Pakistanis surveyed thought democracy was the best system for the country, a ratio roughly equal to that preferring sharia. The findings amounted to what David Martin, director of the British Council in Pakistan, called “an indictment of the failures of democracy over many years."[1] Add to this the weak economy, mounting unemployment rates, the ongoing war in neighboring Afghanistan, the looming threat of the spread of the Taliban, and the massive displacement of population resulting from the military’s ham-fisted “war” against the militants. In the face of all this, combined with the legacy of deteriorating schools, overburdened and out­dated infrastructure, and the permanent war with India over Kashmir, the common Pakistani woman is caught between corrupt “democracy” and Islamist “justice.” She has learned the true meaning of the neoliberal creed “there is no alternative”: All alternatives are equally intolerable.


May Day rally of 200 union workers in 2009 in the city of Hyderabad, Sindh. Led by former General Secretary of the Communist Party of India, Jam Saqi, this was one of 42 such rallies held across the country. Their banner reads, "Workers of the World Unite! Red Salute to the Martyrs of Chicago! Pakistan Trade Union Defense Campaign"

Liberal Concessions to the Right

As worrisome as Pakistan’s descent into chaos is the apathy it has been met with from the liberal Left. Earlier this month, in an issue of the chief organ of left-liber­alism in the U.S., The Nation, the Pakistani-American historian Manan Ahmed deprecates the very idea of in­ternational alarm over the crisis playing out in Pakistan. According to Ahmed, whenever the Pakistani electorate is given the opportunity to vote, it “[keeps] conservative Islamic parties to less than 10 percent of the seats in any election.” And, revealing something more of the national­ism underlying his argument, Ahmed denies that, even in the absence of elections, there is any “path by which The Taliban… [could] overwhelm a nation of nearly 180 million, a standing army of more than 600,000, vibrant mega-cities and an established civilian infrastructure.”[2] But the lacunae of such liberalism are now so wide one must forcibly shut one’s eyes to not see through them.

After all, if electoral politics is the sole measure of the restoration of secular democracy, then how might we explain the rise of the Taliban in the past two decades, the ambivalence that Pakistani citizens seem to have toward democratically elected governments, and, in some cases, their unswerving loyalty for the exponents of sharia? Ahmed is unable to reconcile this problem, being wholly unable to see anything but the humanitar­ian crisis caused by American unmanned drone missile strikes in the country’s lawless, or rather Talibanized, “tribal” belt along the border with Afghanistan. Moreover, his explanation of the current crisis in Pakistan is, as we shall see, completely at odds with the fact that it was Benazir Bhutto who, during her first premiership in 1988, was complicit in nurturing the mujahideen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Paradoxically, the project of Islamization initiated by Zia ul-Haq was fulfilled by Benazir who, in an ironic twist, became a victim of the Taliban in 2007. Ahmed cannot, it seems, bring himself to mention the catastrophic destruction unleashed by the Taliban, particularly in the northern areas of Pakistan, and the continuous suicide bomb explosions in all the country’s “vibrant” major cities. More shockingly, Ahmed was ap­parently not pressed by the editors of the standard-bearer of the American liberal Left to so much as touch on the atrocities the Taliban committed in Swat and Waziristan: the public flogging of men and women after summary “trials” in which semi-educated fanatics dispense justice according to medieval law; the decimation of schools, printing presses, radio, and TV stations; and, of course, the brutal murder of those who attempted to oppose the Taliban’s political values or their authority. As anyone who has the stomach for the news coming out of Pakistan this year knows, the desecrated corpses of these dissenters were piled on the roadside or hung from lampposts to ensure that the message of terror was legible even to the most wretchedly poor and illiterate person. But none of this concerns Ahmed. Rather, he denies the Taliban pose any threat, instead claiming that “the Taliban operating in the north and southwestern regions were and are still an amorphous, ill-defined lot, ideologically and politi­cally diverse—from jihadists to secular subnationalists to tribalists.”[3]

Contrary to Ahmed’s view, Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai explains that the Pakistani Taliban “[are] what they are. They are Taliban in the sense that they share the same ideology as the Taliban in Afghani­stan, and see them as their allies.”[4] As the well-known history of its origins goes, the Taliban first sprung to life from a witch’s brew of Chinese opportunism, the panic that gripped Washington after the fall of the Shah, oil sheikh “philanthropy,” and the reactionary political imperatives that have guided the Pakistani military since the country’s inception. Simply put, the communist coup in Afghanistan in 1978 prompted the neoliberal regimes in the Muslim world and the United States to intervene. Supported by CIA and Saudi money, but orchestrated by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), the worst of the reactionary Afghan landlords, together with the more religion- and patriarchy-warped peasants whose al­legiance they could command, were armed and indoctri­nated with a caustic brand of fascistic Islam. At the same time, entire regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan shifted over to a war economy driven by opium, guns, and mer­cenary payments. Generations of young men dislocated in Afghan refugee camps were absorbed into madrassas closely aligned to one or another of Pakistan’s Islamist parties and sponsored by Islamist money flowing out of the Gulf. Far from amorphous, the Pakistani Taliban is linked ideologically and organizationally to the same elements that the ISI fostered in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, the Taliban never recognized there to be any border separating those in the Pakistani madrassa from those doing the fighting in Afghanistan; rather, they saw themselves as all members of a single religious and political movement. As Yusufzai rightly saw and reported in 2007, the name “Taliban” itself does not refer to a loosely connected constellation of groups, but denotes a political program based on a pseudo-archaic and highly authoritarian system of government.

Another expression of the confusion regarding the Taliban is articulated by Faisal Devji in the pages of The Guardian, who lumps them together with the Naxalites or Maoist rebels in India, the supposed analogy between these movements of the radical Left and the radical right being that both have attempted to “take over certain areas and attack government forces there to provide an alterna­tive but non-governmental form of order.”[5] The Taliban, in Devji’s view, is just another corporate group jockeying for power, no different from the army, the religious par­ties, the private companies, or the NGOs, and so should the government treat them. It may “bring these groups into the political arena, as India did with Nepal’s Maoists, ensuring their investment in the state by forcing them to take it over.”[6] But this comparison between the right and Left, however debased the latter’s leftism may be, is in­vidious; it blurs an essential political difference that sets these groups apart from one another. Unlike the Taliban, the Naxalites are driven by a secular outlook, involved in a political struggle that seeks to secure social justice for a super-exploited peasantry. In fact, the Maoist rebels har­ken back to a rich history of the Indian Left responsible for the large-scale unionization of workers that took place under the auspices of the Left in the 1950s and 1960s. It is in line with this tradition that the Maoist rebels continue to struggle against the “saffron” right and religious ro­manticism. One may criticize them for the poverty of their strategic vision and their consequent incapacity to suc­ceed in substantially improving the Indian peasants’ life circumstances in the long term, and this, of course, points to the larger problem of the political inertia in which the international Left is mired. However, the Maoist victory in Nepal is certainly not the catastrophe for the Nepalese people that the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan has been, or their coming to power in Pakistan would be. For Devji to suggest otherwise is obfuscatory, to say the least, or naïve at best.

The Collapse of the Left in Pakistan

Unlike in India, where the late Stalinist Left still retains considerable strength, in Pakistan the Left as well as its attendant labor movement had collapsed by the mid-1970s. Yet, if one is to be able to make sense of the present-day crisis of Pakistan, it is essential to recover the history of this collapse in which the Pakistani Left mutated into the new international right. The failure of the Left-labor coalition in Pakistan is a complex story intimately linked to the decline of the international Left in the 20th century.

At its inception as an independent country in 1947, Pakistan inherited trained trade unionists, veterans with valuable experience in the labor struggles that had formed the backbone of the wider anti-imperialist struggle against the British Raj. The Pakistani labor movement thus quickly developed significant influence after independence, so that by the 1950s trade unionism flourished in the railway, shipping, hydroelectric power, post and telegraph, cement, and mining sectors. Trade unions expanded by an estimated 650 percent in the half decade after the creation of Pakistan. Under the steward­ship of members of the All India Trade Union Congress who migrated westward, the All Pakistan Trade Union Federation (APTUF) was founded in 1948, which was affiliated to the Prague-based World Federation of Trade Unions. Other unions that took shape in that era were the Lahore-based Pakistan Federation of Labor, and the Seamen’s Union in Karachi, which was a direct offshoot of the Calcutta Seamen’s Union. In 1951, 209 unions had organized a total of 393,137 workers, but the unions were themselves split based on Cold War rivalries.[7]

Pakistani trade unions fell into distinct camps: On one side, the antecedents of the Indian Federation of Labor formed the Pakistan Federation of Labor, which adhered to a reformist program; on the other side, the APTUF lined up with the Moscow-affiliated Red International of Trade Unions. The latter, the APTUF, functioned as an umbrella organization for the important railway workers’ union in East Pakistan and for the stevedores’ union in Karachi in the West. However, by the end of 1951 com­munist influence in the trade unions started to wane, as the state-sanctioned All Pakistan Confederation of Labor (APCOL)—which aligned itself with the American Federa­tion of Labor (AFL), a self-professedly anti-Communist union—became the de facto representative of the working class in Pakistan.

In the period between 1950 and 1955, Pakistan vacil­lated between democratic and authoritarian leadership and, in the confusion, Pakistani labor surged forward. The rise of industrial and agrarian unrest in East Pakistan compelled the state to adopt a two-pronged policy grant­ing workers the right to organize and at the same time enacting legislation to control trade union activity. From the standpoint of trade unionists, the 1952 Pakistan Essential Services (Maintenance) Act, whose undeniable objective was to circumscribe their activities, was an expression of the collusion between industrialists and the state bureaucracy against the growth of industrial­ized labor. The statute was broadly applied to include the transportation, energy, communications, and educa­tional sectors.[8] From 1950 to 1955, the Government of Pakistan further limited trade union activity by imposing the condition that union officials had to be workers in one of the factories in which the union was active. The year 1954 was marked by further erosions of trade union rights, including a ban on the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) and Pakistan’s entry into the U.S.-led anti-Communist alliance that was the South East Asia Treaty Organization. Pakistani trade unions were increas­ingly drawn together with their counterparts stateside. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) established offices in Karachi and Lahore, ex­tended financial and material assistance to the APCOL, and offered scholarships to Pakistani workers to study trade unionism in the United States. This was followed by a series of splits in the APCOL in the 1960s leading to the emergence of five federations: the Pakistan National Federation of Trade Unions which was granted affili­ation with the ICFTU; the West Pakistan Federation of Trade Unions, later renamed the All-Pakistan Federa­tion of Trade Unions in 1971; the West Pakistan Workers Federation and Karachi Workers Central Committee; and the Mazdoor Rabta Committee (Workers’ Coordination Committee) in Karachi. This last group, which included students and trade union leaders who, after the ban on the CPP, were seeking to start afresh, were instrumental in organizing the strike at the Karachi Port Trust in 1967 that contributed to the downfall of the military dictator General Ayub Khan.[9]

But in 1958, before his downfall, General Ayub Khan declared martial law, after repealing the new Constitu­tion, which necessitated reigning in the workers’ move­ment. General Khan acted swiftly to enact the Industrial Disputes Ordinance, an executive order that restricted labor agitation by giving leverage to state interests in labor disputes. But it was the formation of the Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation in 1962, which priva­tized Pakistan’s factories, that most directly contributed to a radicalization of labor in the 1960s. While the labor movement was in the course of negotiating its demands, leftist parties were also motivated to advance their politi­cal programs. After the disintegration of the CPP the Left was reconstituted under the National Awami Party (NAP) in 1957. This marked a shift in the ideology of the Left as it drew closer to a political framework based on nationalism. In a sense, the formation of the NAP was a symptom of the failures of the Left after World War II, a Left that had accommodated itself to the Stalinist slogan, “socialism in one country.” The Sino-Soviet split of 1964 had a further series of repercussions: As India lined itself up closer to Moscow, Peking made over­tures toward General Ayub, to disastrous effect for the Left. The NAP was factionalized, as the group in East Pakistan refused to oppose Ayub based on instructions from China, whereas NAP centers in Baluchistan and the Frontier Province struggled for regional autonomy, objecting to the hegemony of the central government in West Pakistan.

Despite the ideological limitations and theoretical confusion on the Left, the labor movement continued gathering momentum, pushing for further reforms be­tween 1969 and 1972. Rapid industrial development under the anti-labor statutes enacted by Ayub Khan, which restricted unionization while depressing wages, sparked a wave of strikes in Karachi, Lahore, and other industrial centers that drew in railway workers, doctors and hospi­tal employees, farmers, water works and electrical work­ers—all of them demanding restoration of the right to unionize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike. After failed negotiations with the trade union leaders as well as the increasingly vociferous demands of the student movement, Ayub Khan announced his resig­nation in March 1969, appointing another Pakistani Army General, Yahya Khan, as interim head of state to reach an agreement with labor leaders. Though the government was able to retain some of its power, such as its “right” to ban and call off strikes, the labor movement was able to exact some of its salient demands.

It was in this context that a new party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), emerged in West Pakistan in 1967, while an old one, the Awami League, was able to revitalize itself in East Pakistan. Both these organiza­tions were strengthened by the incorporation of a vast number of leftists who were either disillusioned by the NAP or inspired by the quasi-populist rhetoric of the PPP under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. These leftists brought with them trained cadres in addition to an attractive ideologi­cal program to win over the allegiance of the masses. The PPP, therefore, was formed as a menagerie of leftist groups from the National Awami Party, ex-members of the Muslim League, students, and the landlords of Sindh and Punjab. Bhutto had the foresight to exploit the radical stratum of the party in the run-up to elections to secure a mass base. The rhetoric of socialism, combined with slogans capturing anti-imperial and anti-feudal sentiments, embraced the zeitgeist of the 1960s New Left. However, once the PPP wrested control of the state, its left flank was faced with the choice of either accepting the commands of the state or else self-liquidating. When the outcome of the 1970 election resulted in an overall majority for the Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan, entitling the Awami League to form the central govern­ment, Bhutto was unable to reconcile himself to a junior partnership in a coalition at the center. With the support of the United States, Bhutto sent in the army, precipitat­ing the Bangladesh War. Had it laid any real foundations in the years preceding the upheaval, the Left might have transformed the situation to its favor, but in 1972, when Bhutto’s nationalization policy brought the confronta­tion with the labor movement to a head, some 200,000 workers called a strike in Karachi that brought the city to a standstill. During this the Left was paralyzed: The left faction within the PPP feared that if the strikes continued this would jeopardize the possibility of long term benefits, while the China-aligned leftists were reluctant to support further strikes since the labor movement excluded the peasantry from its struggle.

From Defeat to Delusion

For much of the seventies, especially after the worldwide economic collapse of 1972–73 that reached Pakistan on the heels of the Bangladesh War, Bhutto tried to assuage the beleaguered state apparatus, including the military, but was unable to stem the exodus of workers and the middle class. The decimation of the Left and of labor had culminated on the international level in the neoliberal Thatcher-Reagan regimes that, in turn, strengthened conservative forces within Pakistan just as the Soviets marched on Afghanistan. General Zia ul-Haq, who had overthrown Bhutto in 1977, tendered Pakistan as an Islamic bulwark in the proxy war. Thus, with Zia at the helm of the state in Pakistan, along with the victory of Khomeni’s Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the char­acter of democracy in Pakistan was left to be validated by either the military establishment or by religious clerics. The brief interludes of civilian rule in Pakistan since then, such as the election of Benazir Bhutto in 1988 and then later in 1993, or Nawaz Sharif’s election in 1990 and subsequently in 1997, amounted to little more than neo­liberal cronyism. In the absence of an international Left, one struggles to imagine how they could have amounted to anything else.

It is ironic that a hundred years ago, when the workers of Bombay led strikes protesting the trial of their leader, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lenin remarked, “in India… the proletariat has already developed to conscious politi­cal mass struggle.”[10] If the possibility, albeit somewhat obtuse, of a socialist revolution had existed in 1908 India, then one wonders why the Left in the 1960s was unable to capitalize in its historical moment. Ahmed and Devji are the clearest symptoms today of this history of failure; their unwillingness to deal with the rise of Islamization of Pakistan over the last 30 years represents an impover­ished imagination of internationalism, an international­ism that collapsed alongside the rest of the Left in the course of the 1970s–80s. Their attempt to search for a solution that minimizes the alarm over the Talibanization of Pakistan, their struggle to analyze the current situation in Pakistan within the framework of international norms, is bound to remain inadequate as it hypostatizes the situation of the present-day crisis. The problem with the liberal Left today, as illustrated in the pages of The Nation and The Guardian, is its inability to digest the legacy of the Stalinized Left and its problematic overcoming through the crypto-fascism of Talibanism. The real issue that the liberal Left seeks to evade is its own complicity in the death of the Left in the 1970s, a death hastened by the ideologies of conservative nationalism and cultural­ism. In the end, the liberal Left can do no more than to applaud Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif for restoring democratic values, when in fact such democratic regimes completed the agenda set by the Taliban in Afghanistan to find an ally across the Kyber Pass. The liberal Left is but the acute manifestation of the atrophy that continues in the increasingly depoliticized post-9/11 milieu and in the absence of a vibrant international Left. |P

[1]. Quoted in Sabrina Tavernise, “Surveys of Pakistan’s Young Predicts ‘Disaster’ If Their Needs Aren’t Addressed,” New York Times, November 22, 2009, World section.

[2]. Manan Ahmed, “Paranoia over Pakistan,” The Nation, November 9, 2009.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Cited in Graham Usher, “The Pakistan Taliban,” MERIP Online, February 13, 2007.

[5]. Faisal Devji, “Pakistan, the Privatised State,” The Guardian, October 16, 2009.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Christopher Candland, Labor Democratization and Development in India and Pakistan (London & New York: Routledge, 2007), 36.

[8]. Ibid., 38.

[9]. Ibid., 39–40.

[10]. Vladimir Lenin, “Inflammable Material in World Politics,” Proletary 33 (July 23, 1908).

Correction Dec. 22, 2009: This piece originally misspelled Manan Ahmed's name.