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Future of Pakistan's left

Publication Date : 19-11-2012


A tradition of unity and mergers constitute left-leaning politics in Pakistan.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that yet another merger involving the Workers Party Pakistan, the Awami Party Pakistan and the Labour Party Pakistan materialised on November 11 in Lahore.

This was the third major merger over the past seven years, denoting a trend that stretches back to the 1980s when at least three major mergers occurred.

What brought them about? Two reasons readily come to mind. One, the left’s disillusionment with the Pakistan People's Party when it turned its back on the former; second, the Islamist dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq that brutally squeezed the left, spurring a unity-forging process against the rising tide of the state-sponsored right.

The merger trend continued following the demise of the Soviet Union, which — as elsewhere in the world — further accentuated the identity crisis within the Pakistani left.

One hopes that the new merger will see the left consolidated into one recognisable bloc geared towards seeking a national profile through electoral presence and a locally generated unifying programme and vision.

Having said that, there are formidable challenges ahead. The very first task facing the newly formed Awami Workers Party (AWP) is to sustain the merger road show and strengthen it in the coming days. According to the announced plan, the new party has set itself the task of harmonising all parties into a single organisational structure while smoothing over ideological and political differences in the next six months.

This period is quite crucial in the context of the history of previous leftist mergers. In the past, many mergers have sunk without a trace when faced with the task of developing a unifying vision for a single leftist party structure and programme.

Historically, there has been a hasty rush to enter into mergers and an even hastier one to exit when practical issues of ironing out ideological and organisational unity are put on the table.

The example of the Qaumi Inqilabi Party (QIP) that sank in 1987 is instructive in this regard. The hope is that the AWP will learn from the collective experience of the amalgamated parties which are themselves unified products of various leftist groupings.

The AWP also faces the challenge of reinventing the Pakistani left and making it fit for the 21st century. This intention is already embodied in the press conference and the mini manifesto released by the party. Given the history of poor theoretical scholarship and nimble political leadership, this constitutes a tall order.

In mitigation, however, this needs to be placed in the proper context. First, what needs to be kept in mind is that the left has never been a significant political force in Pakistan due to the depletion of its trained cadre in the wake of partition.

In the post-partition period, the left was brutally suppressed by successive governments which resulted in the banning of the Communist Party of Pakistan in 1954.

Yet what the left lost in the political arena was more than made up for in the cultural field, where the influence of the Progressive Writers’ Association and protest literature produced by left-leaning writers remains immense and lasting. The names of Faiz, Jalib and lesser progressive writers adorn the literary and cultural pantheon of Pakistan.

Even for rightwing political parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami and the PML-N, it is impossible to ignore the left’s cultural influence. The challenge for the AWP would be to build upon this enduring tradition and yoke it to a viable and credible left-leaning political project with mass appeal.

Another major challenge facing the new party is to triumph in elections, which has been the major motivation behind other mergers over the past few years. Electoral politics is transactional and requires resources and mass appeal in order to score.

The left has been deficient in this area largely as a consequence of official suppression in its early phase. Therefore, winning an election would constitute a long haul for the left in its current form, with only limited influence in a few electoral pockets.

More importantly, placing electoral consideration as the be-all and end-all of the merger may detract the new party from its overarching vision of developing a Pakistan-rooted grand left theory that appeals to both the wider left and the general public.

That the AWP has indicated this to be its priority is to be welcomed. Yet the new party should also be cautious in the electoral alliances it makes. As unseemly alliance without forethought in search of electoral gains is the surest recipe for disaster.

The AWP should concentrate on expanding its engagement with burning social and political issues and building upon these engagements to develop a nuanced programme rooted in the local context. This much-needed work and its ripple effects are more likely to transmute into an enhanced electoral profile and mass credibility.

The AWP is also seeking to position itself as a stridently anti-imperialist party.

Yet the party has to clearly define its notion of anti-imperialist politics in the current context of Pakistan since some sections of the international left have aligned themselves with anti-US religious Muslim groups on the basis that their anti-Americanism fits the leftist definition of anti-imperialism.

This would be a tricky path for the AWP to tread in the Pakistani context where the anti-Americanism of the religious right constitutes an opportunistic and expedient ploy for political gain rather than a well-thought-out position based on engaging with long-standing analysis and the tradition of anti-imperialism, which the left has historically espoused.

Elaborating on these concepts and making them part of a grand new leftist theory and political project should be a priority for the AWP’s leadership. This requires patience and theoretical rigour which the new party would need to cultivate and patiently tend if it is to have any future as a credible and popular alternative.

The writer is an Islamabad-based development consultant and policy analyst.


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