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Antonio Gramsci recognizes political parties as “…every party is the expression of a social group, and of one social group only, nevertheless in certain given conditions certain parties represent a single social group precisely in so far as they exercise a balancing and arbitrating function between the interests of their group and those of other groups…” Gramsci’s reflection on political parties is a perfect epitome of political parties currently functional in Pakistan—serving interests of representative groups. Political parties, according to classical democratic theory, are the spearhead of entire political modus operandi. They adapt changing political realities in consonance with economic, demographic and social changes to formulate their elections manifestoes and convert those manifestoes in long-term workable policy after coming into power. However, in Pakistan, political parties are operating in the dead end—unaware of rapidly changes realities in socio-economic realm at domestic, regional and global level. Political parties are embedded in the old style of patronizing politics—the aim of which is to strengthen their power base whether that be in the constituency or in the entire province. In this case, agency overwhelms structure and weakens it from its core. That is why PML-N is gratified by being in Punjab, PPP in Sindh, ANP and PTI in the KPK. Amongst all these parties, only PTI wants itself to outgrow from KPK and reach at national level. Every party claims itself to speak on nation behalf, but, in actuality, acts itself in the local and provincial contexts. The casualty of this regimented politics is the marginalization of ethnic groups without having any provincial representation.
The emergence of new political parties, like PTI, has been successful to capitalize the cynicism in urban, middle class regarding the prevalent democratic dispensation in the Center and provinces. The PTI, on the extreme right, and the PAT, on the religious right, have been contenders of power last year by socially mobilizing masses and reverting to Dharna politics. Their pro-people slogans kept people glued to media screens. Their demand to change the system without any presence of working class or religious class has lost steam amongst the masses now. It was a failure then, it will be the failure in future with same set of preferences and participants. The irony of their politics is that these parties want to change the system without acknowledging the fact that their discourses are being framed within same system. Their slogan of change is shorn of any substantially formulated policy having any representation from rural strata, trade unions, lower middle classes and the most vulnerable classes known as fourth world. Its overwhelming focus on changing political interface by eliminating corruption undermines the intellect of the entire nation. The traditional colonial system with bureaucratic arms and judicial apparatus is well anchored in the governance machinery—an agent to control corruption. What inflicts nation is not the democratic dispensation, but the patronization, connections within power circles, increasing influence of money, contacts, caste-based ties and relational bondages. Democrats are usually considered as tokens to bypass this rationalized, impersonalized bureaucratic system of governance. What at work is the contestation between the rule of law and the power of traditions in an erstwhile colony, which was modernized after the arrival of colonial power.
On the other hand, the traditional cadre of political parties has not shunned their old-style politics of 1990s. They do not realize the potential of media—old and new—in changing the political landscape. These political parties do not intake research from policy and research institutes to analyze demographic and social changes occurring in society. They are still enmeshed in appeasing extra-constitutional forces to prolong and assure their survival instead of coming up with an egalitarianizing economic policy. PML government, which won overwhelming majority in 2013 elections, has not come with a formidable economic policy in consonance with new economic forces and trade regime to make Pakistan a progressive and forward looking nation. Instead, it is pumping provincial and national resources in the heartlands of urban Punjab at the cost of rural development. Laptop schemes, metro buses and gigantic road networks are all directed towards urban centers. Peasants and labourers are conspicuous by their absence in the radar of PML. PML claims its popularity by projecting its successful functionality in Punjab through advertisements. In actuality, it has attained dominant position in this province owing to changes in demographic shifts and class structures—youth bulge and rise of middle class in urban areas.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), once a progressive force, has become an ethnic party content with its rule in the province of Sindh. In Punjab, PPP had been a class party with its supposedly socialist outlook in 1970s. In 1980s it gained its image by fighting Zia’s dark period. Its overall outlook attracted intelligentsia, liberals, democrats, peasants, labourers and lower classes. In last decade or so, Punjab has undergone massive demographic and social shifts, which has rendered the PPP an outdated party with its primary manifesto of roti, kapra and makaan (food, cloth and shelter). In Sindh, it operates as an ethnic party—a party of Sindhis mainly. It contests with Mohajirs represented by MQM and Pukhtoons represented by ANP. However, there have been some misguided perceptions amongst the stalwarts of PPP in Punjab that Bilalwal’s arrival in the politics would boost up public profile of the party at national level. They are inept to see the emergence of PTI on political front, which is filling the gaps left by PPP on the basis of populist, but shallow slogans.
Major political parties should recognize the fact that globalized media technologies and arrival of new media has made cult of personality at top level fragile. Whether Nawaz or Zardari or Altaf—there is a rapidly increasing discontent in masses owing to their not-so-sane talk. Their party spokespersons are unable to withstand coherent questions hurled by talk shows’ anchors. The differing opinions and personal attacks by politicians on one another reflect the potential of media to unravel the inherent deficiencies within political parties. People’s perceptions are liable to change in the wake of populist framework of media. Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have added a new flavor to change people’s perceptions about traditional leaders. The leaders of mainstream political parties should acknowledge that their audiences cannot be cajoled into rosy sloganeering time and again in the context of information age. The leadership of PTI, in the aftermath of Dharnas, seems to learn lessons from this phenomenon as it is shaping itself at national level through its appeal to middle class across the board. It is well placed to face media’s strategy to dethrone all political parties from their stated statures.
Contributed by Hammad Raza