Socialism in Pakistan

Editorial Desk

The period following World War II saw a number of new countries emerge from the rubble of the colonial empires that the imperial powers found impossible to maintain. These countries found themselves thrown into a rapidly globalizing international political arena.

The era of the Cold War had begun, and both the USSR and the USA actively looked for allies and proxies across the globe. These newly formed countries found a source of monetary and political support as long as they agreed to fall under the communist or the capitalist umbrella, led by the USSR and the USA respectively. The left believes in greater government influence in social issues such as healthcare and education, with provisions based on greater taxation, coupled with greater regulation on businesses. The right focuses on a more market-based approach to such issues with a lower level of government involvement and regulations on business aimed at producing a conducive business environment with fewer checks in place. The left argues that this system leads to economic and social inequality which is why they ask for government interference aimed at greater inclusivity and provision of rights.

Pakistan emerged from the very same circumstances when the British chose to give independence to the Indian subcontinent, partitioning it along the lines of the two-nation theory. Since the basis for the creation of the country was a religious one, an argument could be made that it was inevitable that Pakistani politics would take a turn towards the right wing. What cemented this move to the political right was Liaquat Ali Khan’s diplomatic visit to the USA, rejecting the overture made by the USSR in the same regard.

This move was seen by the Pakistani left as a rejection of socialist or communist principles, and a firm entrenchment in the capitalist camp. The involvement of the left in the Rawalpindi conspiracy proved its discontentment with Liaquat Ali Khan’s regime. The failure of the conspiracy and the conviction and imprisonment of Faiz Ahmad Faiz thus dealt a significant blow to the left while at the same time strengthening the state’s resolve. Ayub Khan’s establishment of martial law proved a further blow to the left and served to further strengthen US-Pakistan relations, in an era when the Cold War still raged on, and Pakistan depended on US support in its conflicts in India.

Bhutto & Socialism

When Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto succeeded Yahya Khan as first President and the Prime Minister of the country, he did so on a platform of socialist principles, his famous slogan being “Roti, Kapra, Makaan”. His alignment with socialist ideals, such as nationalization of private industries, land reform programmes and his pursuit of nuclear weapons significantly damaged relations with the US, and was a move to the forefront of Pakistani politics for the Left.

Since the progression of the left was dependent on Bhutto, his removal from power and subsequent death proved to be an end to the left in Pakistani politics for all intents and purposes. What emerged was the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq which merged Islamic principles with the state and secured US support by directly backing the Mujahedeen against the USSR in Afghanistan. Rapid Islamization, a repressive military regime and a raging conflict with the USSR meant that the left was persecuted and put down by the state and failed to launch itself in a meaningful way into Pakistani politics again. What succeeded Zia was an era marked by a consistent democratic turmoil followed by the Musharraf dictatorship, and finally the emergence of a new political era marked by a democratic process. Zia’s era had a profound effect on the left in Pakistan, and it has struggled to establish itself again in Pakistani politics in a meaningful way.

Pakistani Politics Today

Mainstream Pakistani politics is now characterized by a group of “electables” switching between the three major parties: the PPP, the PML-N, and the PTI. These electables usually have vested capitalist interests and represent either the feudal or business elite of Pakistan and thus have no interest in socialist principles. The middle class and the “peasants” thus find themselves isolated from the corridors of power. The dominant political parties compete in a primarily capitalist arena in which religion, nationalism and the military play dominant roles.

Pakistan’s conflict with India has played a significant role in strengthening the role of the military and establishing a nationalist narrative based on religion within the country. This isolated political system has seemed impervious to the introduction of socialist parties or movements. Politics is characterized by debates on corruption, administration, and development while issues such as healthcare and education have taken a back seat. The PPP once founded on socialist principles has steadily moved towards the centre, while the PML-N and the PTI have various right-wing alliances with religious parties which are often used to form governments when there is a lack of a comprehensive mandate.

The Future of Socialism in Pakistan

In recent times, the emergence of the Okara farms movement and smaller political parties such as the Awami Workers Party signal an emergence of socialist movements in Pakistan. These movements find themselves secluded to the niche spheres in which they operate with the Okara farms movement failing to gain significant media coverage, and the Awami Workers Party failing to achieve significant success in the elections of 2018.

In a media landscape dominated by big business owners, with an aversion to challenging the dominant narratives that populate the country’s socio-economic and political landscapes, the left will have to find significant grass root support before they can aim to enter the corridors of power or challenge the capitalist ethos of the state. At the moment it does not seem likely that the situation will change much, given the decline of socialist movements globally and the insulation of the Pakistani political system. Understanding the nuances that define the Pakistani socio-political system, the left may need to establish a more tailored approach to socialism within Pakistan tackling perceptions of socialism as the antithesis of religion or risk failure in the Pakistani political sphere.

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