Well, one thing’s for certain: the Left is dead. This election was between Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, the film set entirely in sunny Punjab. And their leanings were clear. Mr Sharif’s fans compared him with Ronald Reagan; the PTI chairman often spoke of Mahathir Muhammad (heroes rarely more flawed). Our liberal candidates weren’t at liberty to make pretty analogies, besieged as they were by the Taliban.
The MQM managed to hold its ground in Karachi. What was left of the ANP, however — bombed, bombed and bombed again — was punted aside by the voter. And the PPP, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, was sent reeling back to Sindh. With good reason: while the country burned for five years, “the Left” spent most of its energy rehashing the same old issues.
Though the PPP lives to fight another day, its time in Punjab may be close to over. The election results prove Nawaz Sharif as conservatism’s unlikeliest renaissance man. The PML-N now boasts a voter base as solid as it is under-reported: mildly nationalist, moderately religious, and if not committed to their party, unconvinced by anyone else. Punjab’s breakneck urbanisation has also helped.
But while the PML-N looms large, and Imran Khan fires up the imagination of a fresh generation, the PPP brand is in crisis, pointing to the wider crisis of Pakistan’s Left today. A strong Left is vital for a noisy, inclusive democracy.
The liberal element, at its highest, is meant to be society’s conscience (not the province of coffee-drinking elite). The political Left, meanwhile, is rooted in reducing social inequality. These are ideals worth striving for. But working class issues, the lifeblood of progressive parties everywhere, have faded from discussion. The culprits are many: privatisation, awful labour laws, and the beatings our workers’ unions have taken under both martial law and, ironically, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Which leads us to the party itself. The PPP had no message during the campaign and hasn’t had one for decades now. The -isms the party once coherently spoke of, nationalism, anti-imperialism, the infamous Islamic socialism, are all gone. Populism, the one that made it special, breathes only via the Benazir Income Support Programme. For old jiyalas, the current leadership model — a boy-king and a president-regent — doesn’t wash. A hereditary party though it is, Bilawal isn’t Benazir. Nor was Benazir her father, but the party was fine with exactly who Benazir was. The great Anwer Mooraj wrote in these pages about the elder Bhutto chastising dinner guests for not knowing “the first thing about communism” or Stalin. Bhutto’s less morbid heroes included Cavour, Mazzini and Rousseau, men his son-in-law would be forced to Google today.
While “leadership” is too often the reason given in explaining away Pakistan’s problems, it seems the case for the PPP, and not just including its co-chairmen. It is also the senior cadre that has changed beyond recognition. Because the PPP was also once the party of Malik Meraj Khalid. And Meraj Khalid was all that the Left could have been.
Mr Khalid was synonymous with what liberalism could be at its purest: relentless welfare work, a kindness of spirit and a powerful, fundamental decency. And for those who find goodness a liability in politics, Mr Khalid quietly set the record in 1970 for most votes ever won from Lahore. Today, he is best known for being Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister, and caretaker PMs, by definition, aren’t meant to inspire. Mr Khalid did. His short premiership was defined by an endless compassion for the poor and a near-absurd lack of security. That he flew economy and pushed educational drives for the rural poor is well known. But an incident recounted by Shafqat Mahmood, where Meraj Khalid couldn’t physically sleep, complaining his Governor’s House bed was “too large” and he too small, stays with one forever.
A man of the old guard (more JA Rahim and less Jahangir Badar), it was Meraj Khalid who spoke sadly of his own party having lost its way… in 1974. He was made to step down as law minister as a result, his genuineness at odds with Chairman Bhutto’s prickly vanity. He would later also part ways with Benazir over differences with Asif Zardari, then at his mid-‘90s worst. From modest beginnings, Mr Khalid passed away in modest circumstance, a wonderful distinction among those who achieved half as much eminence.
With Benazir’s assassination four years later, the party would eat itself again. What was left of the Left, if you pardon the phrase, would be steamrolled by Asif Zardari. PPP 3.0 would be its saddest incarnation and Zulfiqar Mirza its poster child. Carried to Sindh’s home ministry by Pakistan’s “only national party”, Mirza, in an unforgettable press conference, reminded Mohajirs how they had sought sanctuary in Sindh. It is to Zulfiqar Mirza’s credit that he provided such a stunning example of what our politics now is: ethnic, ugly, and diseased from within.
It is said there is little historical record of Roman Emperor Antoninus, though he reigned for 23 years. The historian Gibbon thought this a tribute to Antoninus, considering history little more than “a register of the crimes of mankind”. Our own history proves Gibbon right. The lore of the Islamic Republic belongs to Ghoris and Ghaznavis, men seldom Islamic and never republican. More recently, a whole press cycle was dedicated to Zulfiqar Mirza’s insane bile. But Gibbon was writing in 1776. It may be time we afford space to kinder souls. Because Meraj Khalid’s life is one worth remembering, a life that appeals to the better angels of our nature. And it tells us a gentler, better Pakistan is out there, one we may still find if we keep looking.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 27th, 2013.