Political culture of Pakistan

By Sayeed Hasan Khan and Kurt Jacobsen
For a democracy to work at full throttle there must be reliable institutions, among them a civil service, a judiciary, political parties, civic associations, the press and a military subordinate to civilian rule. Many a scholarly study has been cranked out to prove this point, but common sense says so too.

To give the urban work force a voice at least one major political party should have trade union links. Pakistan came into existence during the rise of an all-India trade union movement, with one of the strongest components being the Railwaymen’s Federation. Bombay was the bustling centre of the subcontinent’s union movement. The Communist Party exerted the strongest single dynamic presence while the next largest union was run by the Indian National Congress.

At partition the mass of Muslim dock labour from Bombay, along with its leadership, such as M.A. Khatib migrated to Karachi. As they were already organised they became the national labour leaders. As the Karachi docks expanded, however, the owners attracted a supply of docile labour from the north, especially from the Frontier Province, with the intended result of undermining a nascent national labour movement. Instead of trade unions protecting them, labourers were channelled as scabs into the docks and industry by eager Pathan contractors, and that was a heavy blow.

In Lahore, in the largest railway workshops, the union was led by the legendary Mirza Ibrahim, who was also the head of the Pakistan Trade Union Federation. In 1946, before partition, Ibrahim helped win an epochal struggle against a government intent on decimating the railway workforce.

In 1951 Ibrahim formally lost his election to the Punjab legislature because the vote was rigged in the most literally dirty way. Many ballot papers were rejected because they were handled by the soiled hands of his loyal railway workshop workers. After this infamous stunt a Punjabi word ‘jhurlu’ was coined and it is still the common word for outrageous rigging.

Later, Ibrahim spent time in and out of jails — including during the 1967 railway strike — and hospitals and died a poor man. V.V. Giri, who was the president of the federation along with Ibrahim as general secretary before independence, became the president of the Indian republic.

As for the evolution of parties, the Muslim League wiped out competitors in Sindh and Punjab. In 1947-48 in the only province where a vibrant political party — the Red Shirts in the Frontier — was in control, the party was removed through devious bureaucratic means. In provincial elections in the western part of Pakistan the Muslim League came to power through more creative electoral high jinks.

In 1954 in East Pakistan, the Muslim League was defeated outright but, again, bureaucratic manoeuvres reversed the decision so that the ultimate consequence was the discrediting of electoral politics — and a hideous reckoning in 1970-71. Bureaucrats effectively became the political leaders of Pakistan. Ghulam Muhammad and Iskander Mirza styled themselves as chief ideologues. With the connivance of Gen Ayub Khan they abruptly dismissed the parliament in 1958.

A high court ruled against the governor general for dismissing the parliament. The government appealed to the Supreme Court. A British barrister, Lord Diplock, notorious in Northern Ireland later for instituting a non-jury court system there, staunchly defended the government while D.N. Prit offered to fight the case for the opposition free of charge. After the judgment went against him, D.N. Prit told one of us that the decision signalled the end of democracy in Pakistan. Since then, whenever a new dictator popped up, segments of the Muslim League bent over backwards or sideways to accommodate his whims.

In the late 1960s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto named his exciting new political entity — promising honest democratic socialism, which appealed to rising peasant movements — the People’s Party, but the key figures running it were Muslim League relics. The political culture in the upper strata was self-serving, circumspect and cynical. Though Britain had its own purposes in establishing institutions, it bequeathed a first-rate civil administration and judiciary. But every institution that Pakistan inherited, its venal new leaders undermined. India, on the other hand, kept British institutions intact (with minor modifications) and benefited immensely. The only Pakistani institution that retained the British tradition is the army, which nonetheless became contaminated by the periodic intoxication of taking power.

So of the two major political parties today, one was nurtured directly by the army GHQ and headed by Nawaz Sharif during Zia’s reign. The other was eventually embraced by Musharraf. As he said only the other day, Benazir, had she survived, would have been prime minister under his patronage.

Benazir’s father, to no good purpose, nationalised the schools and colleges. These often excellent colleges, built by philanthropists and civic-minded organizations, suffered for it. After Bhutto left, an insistence on teaching Urdu arose and of teaching Islam foremost or exclusively. The poor could go to nationalised schools, if even to those. The middle class attends insulated private schools to sit for British examinations and, afterwards, work abroad or at home for multinationals. So, despite the ritual hailing of democracy, there is a freedom only for the few because of their money.

A vital guardian of civil society should be the press, doing its job of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. But the less said about it the better. Some owners appear quiescent and daring journalists are discouraged, if not repressed.

Corruption over 60 years is up in leaps and bounds. The industrialist long ago developed a knack for sharing profits with ruling bureaucrats rather than with workers. The people feel powerless and are prepared to believe any odious story about their rulers, whether absurd or on the money.

Government legitimacy is, to say the least, shaky. Everybody feels that they are on their own. That despair — far more so than armed militants — is not only a disturbing feeling, but a danger.

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