Wanted: a strong liberal voice

By Ghazi Salahuddin

Is there room, in today’s Pakistan, for a strong liberal voice in our mainstream politics? On the face of it, the answer would be in the negative. But what else can rescue this country from the dark forces of religious militancy and fanaticism?

I am aware of the depth of depression that prevails among those who may be identified as secularists and progressives. And they may be small in number, if you look at it in a democratic context. On the other hand, Islamists of varying hues and intensity seem very much in command.

It is a measure of our political sense of direction that the government is engaged in talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, raising the stature of the terrorist network to that of a legitimate interlocutor. What is really troubling is that the ones who are representing us in these negotiations are not entirely distinguishable from those who speak for the TTP.

There are, of course, other players in this game. We have sectarian terrorists and non-state actors initially enrolled by the security establishment for some special assignments. We have legions of fanatics who can be mobilised readily to demonstrate their street power. Remember the immediate aftermath of the murder of Salmaan Taseer?

So, how can you raise your banner of social and political enlightenment in this wild and violent arena? One would, then, understand why a sense of defeat lingers in many scattered groups of liberal activists and aspirants for progressive social change. A formidable challenge in this respect is the environment of fear, dictated by the religious militants. It is patently hazardous to publicly endorse a secularist point of view or to condemn the role of religion in politics. The latest example of this is the attack in Lahore on social critic and TV anchor Raza Rumi in which his driver was killed.

Now, my peg for raising this theme is the observance of the 35th death anniversary of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on Friday. It prompted thoughts not only on the meteoric career of a charismatic politician and the winds of change he raised but also on the present state of his Pakistan People’s Party. This time, the fourth of April coincided with some very dramatic action that is taking place on our political stage.

This week, in fact, was dominated by the former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf. Negotiations with the TTP also deserve top billing, but that is a long running show. A historic moment it is deemed when the retired chief of the army staff came to the special court to be indicted for committing treason. There have been some pronounced intimations of how the military establishment is at odds with the elected government of Nawaz Sharif on this issue and the big question now is whether Pervez Musharraf will somehow be able to go abroad.

Without going further on the otherwise very crucial developments that also relate to the tentative evolution of civilian supremacy over the military, I think that it is an appropriate mirror for us that reflects some aspects of Bhutto’s encounter with a ruthless military ruler. It is now universally acknowledged that Bhutto’s execution was a judicial murder. That is how the higher judiciary could be manipulated by the rulers and there have been other cases that have changed the course of our history.

Remembering Bhutto this week, thus, underlined the drastic change of scene in Pakistan. It is, in fact, another country. Therefore, how relevant is Bhutto for us and what is his legacy that his party must own? Any attempt to answer this question would call for a review of Bhutto’s politics and the role he played in those very turbulent times.

Essentially, Bhutto is the only truly charismatic leader to appear on Pakistan’s horizon after Independence. He brought about a change in our politics that was revolutionary in character. He was, to borrow the title of a book on Lawrence of Arabia, the prince of our disorders. His slogan of ‘roti, kapra aur makan’ galvanized the masses and all rules of the political game changed.

It was his charisma that Benazir inherited and it is obvious that after her tragic assassination in December 2007, the Bhutto charisma is alive if not well. This is so in spite of the intervention that is personified by Asif Ali Zardari. That brings us to what Bilawal Bhutto Zardari can do with his political inheritance. He clearly seeks to revive the fury and the passions that his grandfather had ignited in a different time. However, we will have to wait and see what he is capable of in the present scenario. In the first place, he must contend with the derelictions of the party that he aspires to lead.

To return to the question I have posed at the outset, it would be well to recall that the PPP was conceived and founded as a party that was left of centre. Its populist appeal had socialistic underpinnings. It was a party of the poor and the underprivileged. What is remarkable is that at least in the beginning, this social democratic stance was victorious. All budding politicians in Pakistan secretly want to be Bhutto and create a similar upheaval – tsunami? – in national affairs.

Be that as it may, Pakistan appears to be in dire need of a leader who is capable of winning hearts and minds on a popular level. With this following of a charismatic nature, he would be in a position to launch a liberal and progressive movement. When you listen to Bilawal, you feel that he is articulating some relevant themes. His assault on religious militants is very intense and forthright. That he is young should be a great asset in a country that is, demographically, dominated by youth.

But he carries the baggage of a party that has betrayed the promise of social change in a society that remains primitive in many ways. His task becomes more formidable in the presence of religious militants who openly advocate violence in the pursuit of their monstrous mission. Politics, to be sure, is not what it was in the late sixties.

It is this dire situation that calls for radical measures. All centres of power in this country must, in their own vested interest, strive to save Pakistan from the evil forces of militancy, intolerance and fanaticism. We have seen that induction of religion in politics has been disastrous and divisive. The liberal cause may be in retreat but it is the only hope for Pakistan’s survival.

This article was published in The News

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