Political fragmentation

The rapid expansion of electronic media followed by the equally impressive growth of social media during the last two decades in Pakistan has opened up immense possibilities for the people to connect and we have witnessed massive rise in connectivity among individuals, social and political groups and communities across the country ( and beyond). The irony, however, is that democratic movement in Pakistan today stands far more fragmented than it used to be in the era of state controlled and comparatively limited radio, TV and print media.

For example, total state control over media was established after imposition of martial law by General Ayub Khan in 1958, but those draconian restrictions could not forestall the emergence of the biggest anti-dictatorship mass uprising in the country’s history in 1968, throwing up mainstream democratic platform with elaborate demands for people’s rights and provincial autonomy. Similarly Movement for Restoration of Democracy ( MRD) represented popular aspirations during democratic resistance against the military dictatorship of General Zia in 1980s with a very clear consensus on common minimum program amongst democratic forces. The Lawyer’s Movement against General Musharraf’s despotic rule has so far been the last mass movement enjoying broad popular support and it had emerged in the context of Charter of Democracy signed in 2006. But today, when the derailment of the democratic project is almost in its final stage and the democratic future of the country is more uncertain than ever, we don’t see convergence among political parties and civil society elements to put up some meaningful resistance to the creeping coup and to come out with a united democratic platform. There are deep and dangerous divisions along social, ethnic, communal and sectarian lines forestalling the emergence of a united people’s movement.

There are multiple reasons for this state of affairs. The most important factor seems to be the decline of organized political parties, both on the left and on the right of political spectrum, during the last few decades. Landed gentry that dominated the sociopolitical scene throughout the 20th century has substantially declined for historical reasons and has by now lost the capacity of properly responding to the fresh sociopolitical challenges, but it is still prominent on the political scene due to the many ruptures in democratic development. Political elite originating from landed gentry has some fatal addictions like dependence on bureaucracy, dynastic politics and patronage culture that have lowered its credibility to dangerous level.

Interestingly, the aforementioned disease isn’t confined to typical feudal families. Some of the business and bureaucratic class elements are also prone to this disease. The much delayed response of most of political parties to the challenges produced by the constantly intensifying urbanization is a case in point. Most of the political parties failed to realize the need for providing space to the new urban middle classes coming from different professions and this failure has led to a major disconnect. Decline of traditional left that used to connect the democratic question and national question with the class question is also a setback. The rise of the new jihadist outfits enjoying blanket state patronage and access to vast resources are pushing back the traditional religious parties.

Political engineering of the deep state for weakening the democratic movements and democratic system has also substantially contributed in creating the current distortions of our political culture. The practice of rigging elections for achieving positive results that had started by General Zia’s martial law has now been developed into a fine art. Intelligence agencies controlled by the security establishment have developed the capacity for rigging elections on industrial basis. General Musharraf has on record given details of his contacts with political parties on the number of seats that he was to deliver to them in 2002 general elections. The intelligence agencies have also perfected the art of producing test tube politicians and political parties, along with creating a support base for such artificial entities by manipulating the controlled media and by instructing the so called winning horses to join them. The deep state also doesn’t hesitate from unleashing “demolition squads” against individual political leaders and parties that dare challenge its intervention in politics and its control over the state system. These manipulative practices of the deep state are effective in the short term for bringing its collaborators into power but are extremely harmful for the state building and nation building project in the long term.

The most glaring example of this tragic fact was the oppressive decade of the despotic rule of General Ayub that led to the dismemberment of the country in 1971. But no lesson was learnt from that debacle. In 1970s, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as popular leader posed a challenge to the re ascendency and domination of the military rule. The security establishment overthrew him by galvanizing opposition against him and ultimately executed him in a controversial judicial process that was clearly manipulated. For weakening the future prospects of Bhutto’s party, the security establishment resorted to political engineering of divide and rule which helped it in short term but created serious problems for the country in the long term. For weakening Bhutto’s influence in urban Sindh, the deep state encouraged the creation of MQM on the basis of Muhajir identity. There were social contradictions in urban Sindh at that time but they were resolvable within a larger Sindhi identity, had it not been for the manipulations of the deep state. Similarly, Punjabi nationalism was used to eliminate PPP from Punjab. It has been quite effective but what will be the consequences of this process in the long term is the real question. Similarly, the use of religious extremism and sectarian divisions for weakening political parties might work in the short term but the emergence of sectarianism and terrorism is a challenge to the very existence of the country in the long term.

A new generation of political leaders will have to not only take over  their parties but they will also have to challenge the dead wood within their own parties for redefining theory and practice of political parties and also  challenge the disastrous political engineering of the deep state.

Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs

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