Since its inception, Pakistan has failed to come up with genuine political parties. The only parties which come close to the normative definition of a party are the Jamaat-e-Islami and, to an extent, the Pakistan Peoples Party. While the former is a religious, almost theocratic party, the latter is too dependent on the Bhutto family. All other parties are merely fiefdoms of personalities and passing interests. Now, this scenario is not unique and has happened in other countries, but what is fascinating in the case of Pakistan is the persistence of these mainly ‘hollow’ parties to —in the run-up to the forthcoming election it seems that a tendency to a focus on personality, rather than a party, which theoretically should outlast the ‘leader,’ will not only continue but — take deeper roots.
We need not look further than the development of democracy in the United Kingdom, a country from which we took our principles of parliamentary democracy. While politics in Britain began with a focus on strong leaders, slowly, but surely, the mainstay of democracy in the UK became the political parties. Political parties with a clear philosophy, strong roots and a sound organisation are much more lasting than a leader, who might become the head of government on a wave of euphoria but who might not be able to sustain or translate that into real progress. Hence, even though Margaret Thatcher was the face of the Conservative Party for about two decades, the party did not crumble after the ‘Iron Lady’ left, since, despite her towering personality, the party was stronger still and survived her to return to government in later years.
One of the main reasons why political parties have not been able to develop in Pakistan is our tradition of inheritance. Several historians have made the point repeatedly that had the All Indian Muslim League been a party like the Congress, the political reality in Pakistan could have been different. The mass movements of the Congress which made it reach out to the most remote areas of India and the long popular struggle for independence, forged not only a spirit of nationalism in the people but, also churned out a political party out of the initially elitist Congress. Gandhi’s reorganisation of the party after 1920 meant that the Congress had representative committees from the village level upwards, meaning that the Congress was not just a movement for independence but had, by about the 1930s, a clear plan for governance in India.
The Muslim League was a different story. Until the late 1930s, the Muslim League was more or less a dummy party and hardly had any members. I am sure everyone in Pakistan remembers Allama Iqbal’s speech at the 1930 session of the Muslim League in Allahabad, where he gave his vision for the future of the Muslims of India. Iqbal’s speech had to be delayed since there were hardly 75 members present to fill the quorum. Similarly, one would be shocked to know that in 1927, the total membership of the Muslim League was a mere 1,330, members. No wonder then, the Congress did not take the League seriously!
The Muslim League did become popular when the demand for Pakistan was presented. However, then the League became a ‘movement’ rather than a political party. Since the aim was to achieve ‘Pakistan’, real political differences had to be set aside and all energies focused on the ultimate goal. Even Jinnah himself stated that “We shall have time to quarrel…but first get the Government.” With Pakistan as a focus, and the cry that any Muslim who was not with the Muslim League was a ‘traitor’ and ‘quisling’, deep and significant internal differences were obfuscated but which automatically emerged when the ‘movement’ reached its goal. With a saviour-like belief in Jinnah, people forgot that a country needs more than a charismatic leader and a one point agenda.
For worse, I think, we are stuck with a ‘movement’ mentality in Pakistan, which prevents the emergence of coherent political parties and unites people on the basis of one point slogans and strong leaders which quickly disappoint. After 65 years, I think we need to move on.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2012.