Can the Left Still Be Relevant?
The ideological lines are blurred among all major mainstream political parties in Pakistan. They only differ slightly from each other in political rhetoric and slogans. The causes which were once celebrated as the mainstay for alternative discourse to the capitalist concept of state are now part of newspeak of the media and almost all the centrist major political parties pay lip-service to those causes. But crucial issues like rights of the labourer, minimum wage, employees’ benefits, security against dismissal from employment, right of ownership of the land which is farmed by peasants, and land reforms , the right to form collective bargaining bodies are policy planks missing from political rhetoric and agendas of the political parties.
One cannot count the symbolic mention of these issues in parties’ election manifestos as equivalent to active political campaigning. Provision of free healthcare and education is enshrined in the constitution as the responsibility of the state but the dismal nature of both healthcare and education in the country speak volumes for the government’s prioritization of these sectors.
So what will happen to the issues of the common man, the labourer, the under-privileged? Can the left in Pakistan arise and re-invent itself to present an alternative model of governance? Unfortunately, this remains a far-off possibility for which there are multi-pronged reasons and causes. Due to lack of strong institutions and strong organizational structures of political parties, personal charisma is the arbiter of which way the public imagination will be pulled. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was one such charismatic leader of the left who presented an alternative vision for the state. But many on the left would see the turn events took during last years of his rule as betrayal of the leftist ideals and principles.
The fall of the left and the absence of leftist discourse in the mainstream is also due to the divide within the left itself in Pakistan. Infighting amongst the various factions is perhaps the foremost reason for the loss of influence. Rather than forming a combined front and fighting for a common cause, various leftist parties consider it valid to fight over theoretical niceties and to create controversies over the deconstruction of various socialist texts. This leaves them unconnected to the public pulse and their energies are consumed in futile academic and theoretical discussions and squabbles. Parochialism and dogmatism also contribute to the current state of left politics. Young minds as well as those of the leaders are unable to see beyond the fixed meanings of the classical texts and instead of vibrancy, which is the hallmark of any leftist narrative, the belief in fixed dogmas has made the left unresponsive to the changing currents in society.
For instance, the left seems disconnected from the struggle of ethnic and linguistic minorities. Such struggles would seem to blend naturally with the larger leftist ideals but so far, the left has not found any resonance within this narrative. In fact, unlike the socialist intellectuals of the early years, the left as it stands today has also been unable to engage effectively with the liberal section of opinion makers.
The issues which give birth to leftist politics are alive and well in Pakistan. The means to spread awareness are aplenty in the form of social media, and there are no barriers to organization. But can the movement re-define itself and make itself relevant to the socio-political realities of Pakistan?
Hurmat Ali Shah is a freelance journalist, interested in politics, society and culture. He is pursuing his PhD in South Korea.