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Saturday, 21 March 2009

Liberals, Hardliners and Imran Khan

Illiberal liberals
The Pakistan report card

Saturday, March 21, 2009
Fasi Zaka

Imran Khan's recent address at the Rawalpindi District Bar Association demonstrates how far he has come as an orator. Had he chosen to participate in these elections, which were not rigged as he had feared, he would have served as a buffer between the PML-N and the PPP by preventing the escalation in verbal diatribes by becoming the channel to air the PML-N's grievances indirectly.

In his speech on that day in Rawalpindi he kept using the word liberals disparagingly. He did so because he believed the liberals were the PPP who did not believe in the rule of law whereas those branded as hardliners, such as himself and the PML-N, did believe in it. So the liberals were actually quite illiberal, and the hardliners truly liberal?

It's an interesting question. But to answer it, one really needs to know what a liberal is, and who in Pakistan's context can legitimately call themselves one. At the most basic level liberalism can refer to a broad class of ideologies, but the most common strands between them is respect for rule of law, constitutionalism, free speech and private property.

By this definition we know most political parties in the country, including the religious ones, qualify to be liberals in one sense: they love private property, especially their own. But that was just a snide aside, back to the business of discovering liberal parties in Pakistan.

First, the PPP. Since it came to power after utilising the NRO, it's definitely not constitution-loving, nor for the rule of law post the Farah Dogar episode and applying governor's rule in Punjab. Free speech is under threat; just ask Nawaz Sharif, whose diatribes may be classified as sedition sometime soon. There is freedom of assembly, as long as it is not for the long march, or to restore the deposed chief justice. On paper at least, the PPP of today (as opposed to the socialist one of the 70s), may describe itself as a social liberal party because of its emphasis on the poor and redistributing wealth, though frankly in the past the only redistribution discerned stopped at 10 percent.

Then the PML-N. It is quite conservative on several moral issues but quite liberal in the classic economic sense, which makes it conservative liberal. They love rule of law, especially if it includes the law of an Amir-ul-Momineen. But since that's not happening, they are sticking to the deposed chief justice. In current times, they fit the rule-of-law bill well when it comes to rhetoric, even though their past on freedom of speech has been questionable. Their silence on the militancy and the Taliban is deafening, and, frankly, contradictory, since they want the chief justice to apply the national law while agreeing to contravention of the law though a parallel system in Swat.

And finally Imran Khan himself. In his heyday, he was considered a liberal in Pakistan, but that had nothing to do with his politics, economics or social justice programmes, but more to do with a colloquial understanding of the word liberal as applied to one's personal life. While ostensibly he stands for the rule of law, he decries those who oppose the Rwat deal. But doesn't that reward those who contravened the law to get a new one? This begs the larger question: with all this talk of liberalism and the rule of law, is the issue only the restoration of the chief justice and not respect for the law itself? Is the movement hinged on the restoration of one man, or is hinged on a principle? Imran's love of jirgas doesn't bode well for constitutionalism. He was right to raise the issue of the paradox of those who are labelled as classic liberals (the PPP) opposing the rule of law and constitutionalism, but wrong in presuming that his own stance offered some kind of intellectual resolution under a conservative framework.

Liberalism in the classic sense is not some superior ideology, in fact if its economic doctrines in the classical sense were applied mercilessly, it can create a woefully unequal society that rewards existing power elites. But if we nit picked the parts we liked, especially the rule of law that we desperately need, with or without the deposed Chief Justice, we would be getting our house back in order. As it is we far from having truly liberal parties, and further still from having coherent political stances that behove some kind of intellectual coherence, beyond the simply opportunistic. That, by the way, is also illiberal. (The News)

The writer is a Rhodes scholar and former academic. Email: fasizaka@yahoo .com


Anonymous said...



Aamir Mughal said...

Smoker's corner: Cobwebs by Nadeem F. Paracha

Sunday, 22 Mar, 2009 | 01:12 AM PST |


In a terrific new documentary called “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” director Kim Bartley convincingly pushes forward the idea that the right-wing coup that toppled Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez in 2002, was propagated by a string of private television channels that are owned by the country’s elite.

With the help of a series of images and sound bytes taken from talk shows and news programmes on these channels, the documentary reveals how the media promoted demonstrations against Chávez, and how the programming on these channels created an anti-Chávez climate leading to the day of the coup.

According to the Venezuelan TV channels, the coup, led by conservative politicians backed by some military personnel, was pulled off in the name of “democracy.”

However, the overwhelming agitation and response by Chavaz’s main constituency, comprising of the urban working classes and the rural peasantry, managed to crumple the new government within a week, paving the way for Chivaz’s return. It rudely rendered as biased and sensationalist the claim of the electronic media that had insisted that Chavaz’s toppling was a popular undertaking. The claim was nothing more than upper and middle-class wishful thinking propagated by the channels as “revolutionary” and “democratic” action.

I feel the documentary is just too close to what we have been witnessing in Pakistan in the last two years. This is not to suggest that President Zardari is Chevaz — far from it — but the bulk of the Pakistani electronic media is certainly the bastion of new urban middle-class aspirations. It is a stark reflection of what certain quarters of the country’s urban middle-classes (especially in the Punjab), are metamorphosing into. In a queer twist, people who were demanding radical action in the name of democracy, free media and the judiciary, most of them have had a class and generational history of backing military dictatorships, staunch politico-religious initiatives and social conservatism.

So what made entities like PML (N), Jamat Islami, the electronic media, and political minnows like Imran Khan pose as the new ambassadors of revolutionary politics in Pakistan?

There are two interesting theories that may answer the above question.

The first view is that in countries like Pakistan, whenever a progressive or populist political party manages to graduate from the streets to the corridors of governmental power and gets assimilated by the politics of pragmatism, an ideological vacuum appears.

Consequently entities that are inherently conservative readjust their ideological orientation by giving their conservatism a face-lift and start expressing it in a language that was once strictly the linguistic and symbolic gesture of Cold War-era leftists. Mind you, the irony is, during the Cold War the leftists were gleefully bludgeoned by the same urban classes and political entities who today are claiming fresh revolutionary ground in Pakistan in the name of democracy and the judiciary.

The second theory in this respect is closely-knitted to the above one. It suggests that the recently triumphant lawyers’ movement and the agitation exhibited by PML (N), is a symptom of an unprecedented occurrence in which the largest province of Pakistan, the Punjab, has for the first time found itself largely outside the power circles of state and government.

This theory suggests that secular/progressive parties such as the PPP, ANP and MQM, that prospered more outside the Punjab in the last fifteen years, have discovered that if together they are able to win most seats in the NWFP, Balochistan and Sindh, they can still manage to construct a coalition government at the centre without the need to do well in the Punjab. And the reason why the radical action and language being heard from Punjab’s streets and drawing-rooms today is coming from conservative/rightist elements is because it was largely bourgeois conservatism that flourished in the Punjab as the dominant psyche ever since the 1980s. So, ever since the Musharraf coup in 1999, and especially after the formation of the PPP-led coalition government in 2008, this conservatism increasingly found itself alienated by a new-found regional alignment at the centre, and thus the reaction.

Can this mean that the current trend of “democratic radicalism” that was otherwise being portrayed as a nationwide phenomenon by the electronic media, was basically a chant confined to the Punjab?

Can this also mean that even if there were some genuinely progressive elements in the lawyers’ movement, they completely failed to avoid hijacking bids by reactionary elements (JI), and democratic-conservatives (PML-N)?

The progressive/populist uprising against the Ayub Khan dictatorship in 1968, and the rightist/Islamist movement against the Z A. Bhutto regime in 1976 were both a national phenomenon, encompassing participation of all the four provinces. The lawyers’ movement wasn’t. So does this mean the lawyers’ movement too was largely a provincial phenomenon?

These questions may be sidelined in the current mist of euphoria (in the Punjab), and silent cautious hope demonstrated elsewhere in Pakistan at the reinstatement of Iftikhar Chaudhry , but the regional cobwebs that they may have generated must be addressed before they turn into the kind of ethnic and politico-religious monsters Pakistan is infamous for nurturing.

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