South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2014 by I. A. Rehman ::

Populist rhetoric has been used to sustain the Islamabad dharnas long enough to justify an inquiry into its impact on the country’s politics.

This is the second time in Pakistan’s history that populist politics is being offered as the panacea for all ills, the first one being the populism of the PPP 47 years ago. A comparison between the two populist waves should be quite rewarding.

The PPP’s populism had quite a few extraordinary features. It had its roots in great turmoil at home and abroad. The people had taken to the streets not only to seek Ayub Khan’s ouster from power but to replace the system of controlled democracy imposed by the dictator with a representative government. They had risen in revolt against exploitation by the 22 privileged families.

The movement had also received a boost from the Vietnamese people’s heroic resistance to a superpower that had broken all records of aerial bombardment. The anti-imperialist wave that was sweeping the globe had not bypassed Pakistan. No discussion on the people’s plight was possible without reference to the country’s dependence on the controllers of the world capital.

The present wave of populism is manifestly different from the earlier phenomenon.

The people had acquired ideas of freedom from Cold War shackles, the right to self-rule and social justice before they were picked up by political parties. One has to take a look at the political parties’ election manifestos of 1970 to realise the extent to which all parties, including conservative religious groups, were trying to woo the electorate from left-of-centre planks.

The founders of the PPP tried to harness public yearning for an egalitarian order by spelling out, in their foundation papers, the nature and scale of the change they wanted, or they thought the people wanted. It was in this milieu that matchless slogans, such as roti, kapra aur makan — food, clothing, and shelter — and jera wahway ohi khaway, (the land belongs to the tiller) gained currency.

This populist upsurge produced significant changes in social behaviour, especially among the underprivileged. The common man found his voice. The worker had learnt to talk to the employer during the anti-Ayub movement, now the tenant began to challenge the landlord.

Since the PPP’s populist demands were derived from the people’s experiences they helped the party secure an electoral victory beyond its expectations, thanks to its success in winning over activists from older parties who had been struggling for socio-economic change for many years.

Even this robust populism fizzled out. How this came about is not the subject of this piece. It is, however, necessary to point out that populism fails because it assumes the possibility of change as a push-button operation, without the support of social forces that understand the dynamics of change and are also capable of throwing up qualified cadres. These change-makers must be strong enough to defeat the forces of the status quo.

The present wave of populism is manifestly different from the earlier phenomenon. It comprises two different tracks. While Dr Tahirul Qadri has from the very beginning called for a change of the system of governance, Imran Khan’s objective at the start of his march was only the removal of the prime minister, followed by an independent probe into his allegations of rigging during the 2013 election. This process could lead to a fresh election but that was not an explicit part of the agenda.

Both the challengers have been relying on populist rhetoric with a view to strengthening their claim to power. Piqued by the criticism that his assault on the Sharifs represented a split in the Punjab elite, Imran Khan began recognising other federating units. As hopes of a quick victory faded away both Qadri and Imran Khan began discovering the plight of the underprivileged. When they talk of corruption and favouritism in administration or denial of education and employment to the youth or the failing economy of the agricultural community they touch on matters the people wish to see resolved without delay.

This populism without limits amounts to preparing a huge wish list that neither of the two challengers has tried to present in the form of a credible programme of action — and one fails to notice among the dignitaries that assemble on the containers for the daily drill the human material needed to translate dreams of a social revolution into reality.

While the dharna wish list is quite impressive the omissions are not only significant they also betray the principals behind the agitation. There is sympathy for peasants but land reform cannot be mentioned; labour is offered friendship but little is said about its right to collective bargaining; police are warned against committing excesses but there is no indication of a new plan for reform; and militant religiosity and the imbalance in civil-military relations are matters still outside the agenda for national uplift. The weaknesses of the present flush of populism hardly need elaboration.

Populist movements have a poor record of success and the cost of their failure can be heavy. Indira Gandhi’s populism, that earned Tariq Ali a citation in the Oxford dictionary, degenerated into arbitrary rule and an assault on the people’s basic freedoms. Similar will often be the result of populist campaigns for the simple reason that the expectations they arouse cannot be realised by pushing a button here or waving a staff there.

This is not to deny the contribution populism can make to the movement of ideas. The Democratic Party of the United States needed a man of Franklin Roosevelt’s will and calibre to profit from the manifesto of the Populist Party of America many years after that organisation had expired. His New Deal proved, perhaps for all times, that there can be situations when the lords of rightist politics can find in an opening to the left the only route to national revival. After all, the best of populism is often a pale reflection of left ideals minus the scientific foundations.

One wonders whether Pakistan’s present–day populists have the capacity to learn from the fate of their predecessors at home and abroad.