Almost 50 years ago, for the first time in my life, I joined other students from Government College Lahore in a protest march against the ‘government’. What we were protesting against was, if I remember correctly, something called the ‘University Ordinance’. A few months later, my friends and I started going around with the symbol of the ‘lantern’ pinned to our lapels in support of Fatimah Jinnah’s candidacy for president. Our youthful enthusiasm made up for our lack of intellectual comprehension of the issues involved.
During the next six years, my politics matured a bit and culminated in support for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). So, for all practical purposes, my politics now settled into a comfortable liberal-left niche. Many of my friends veered farther left and were often seen with Mao’s ‘little’ red book clutched in their hands discussing, with excessive seriousness, extremely important Marxist concepts. For me, life was much too much fun to become involved in such ‘serious’ stuff.
Within a year after the 1970 elections, I was in the US for advanced medical training. Living and working in a New York City suburb during that time solidified my ‘liberal’ tendencies so that even today I refer to myself as a ‘make love not war’ liberal. Over the next three decades, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) fell apart, socialism as the prevailing counterweight to capitalism ‘withered on the vine’ and even Maoist China accepted capitalist economic doctrines.
I still remember a discussion with a lefty-liberal friend in the early nineties. Interestingly, this discussion happened during a ‘black tie’ hospital dinner in a ‘posh’ New Jersey golf club. Both of us sort of bemoaned the end of socialism. At the end of the discussion I said to my friend, “We are now the ‘left’”. What I meant was that, with the collapse of socialism, the liberal ‘left’ had indeed become the only left, left behind.
Even though I lived and worked in the US, my interest in Pakistani politics persisted. Yes, I cried the night that ZAB was ‘martyred’ not knowing that less than 30 years later I would be sitting in Lahore crying for his martyred daughter. Fate and exigencies of life brought me back to Pakistan while Pervez Musharraf still ruled the roost and ‘enlightened moderation’ was the officially sanctioned social and political ‘doctrine’ of the day. Even if devoid of any intellectual heft, it did provide some space for a relatively free media to develop.
Unfortunately, under the ‘moderate’ Musharraf and then under the supposedly ‘centre-left’ PPP government of Zardari and his ‘secular and centre-left’ coalition partners, religious extremism as well as ‘rapacious’ capitalism flourished, culminating eventually in the ascendancy of the ‘hard right’, pro-Taliban Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The people of Pakistan, being quite politically ‘savvy’, decided in the 2013 elections that if they were going to get a free market capitalist system and the policy of accepting the Taliban anyway, they might as well go for the ‘real thing’.
The PPP of ZAB has now become a ‘rump’ party representing at best the interests of feudal Sindhis. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has emerged as a populist movement representing the interests of the ‘non-trader’ conservative middle-class. Of course, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is still there with its still ill-defined national agenda. So, who then speaks for or represents the interests of the poor and the disadvantaged? Nobody.
That, of course, brings me to the question: what happened to the liberal left? When I first arrived in Pakistan a decade ago, a good friend explained to me that the word ‘liberal’ in Pakistan is used for people who speak English, consume ‘forbidden’ libations and consort with persons of the opposite sex whom they are not married to. Having lived in the US where such people were in abundance and definitely not ‘liberals’ by any ‘stretch of the imagination’, I was quite dismissive of this definition, but now I am starting to wonder.
My interaction with the so-called liberals in Pakistan has forced me to accept the fact that indeed most of them are of the social and cultural variety. Some of the former ‘socialists’ now refer to themselves as ‘progressives’ and do subscribe to classical liberal-left ideas, but for all practical purposes the old ‘left’ is now entirely decrepit and devoid of any political influence beyond an occasional op-ed newspaper article and NGO-funded seminar appearances.
The need for a coherent old-fashioned leftist movement is now greater than ever. Support for things like a ‘social safety net’, free healthcare, subsidised housing, food support, free education, trade unionism, rights of farmers, better jobs, income redistribution, government subsidies for the working classes, and all the other issues that were once the bailiwick of leftist movements is badly needed again. I am not a socialist and I do not believe that private enterprise should be forbidden but I do believe that ‘free markets’ need to be constrained and privatisation of all public entities should not be pursued as a matter of policy but only as a last resort.
One of the things I did learn about politics while in the US is that new parties rarely survive. Yes, all established parties were once new but still, once established, a party acquires a branded identity and, with time, a strong support base. The ideal situation in Pakistan will be if the centre-left parties become a part of the PPP and the centre-right parties join the PML-N after the N is removed from its name. Once that happens, the PPP can go back to its egalitarian roots while the PML stays as a party of the right. Sadly, that can only happen if party leaderships are willing to cast off the ‘family owned’ imprimatur and become democratic.
And yes, I am willing to stop calling myself a liberal and start calling myself a leftist.
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