Mar 14, 2009

What is to be done?

The contradictions within the ruling establishment that came to the fore with the sacking of the chief justice two years ago remain virtually irreconcilable
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
By the time this article is printed, it is quite likely that the federal capital will have been turned into a ghost town. It has been reported that the Interior Ministry has instructed restaurants not to serve food, hotels not to rent rooms and transporters not to hire out their services in the lead-up to March 16 (which is when the Long March is supposed to culminate in Islamabad). Main thoroughfares are all set to be blocked and entry and exit into the twin cities will be highly constricted.
Of course, the volatility of Pakistani politics means that it is just as likely that a last-minute deal is struck between the two biggest parties with the ever so gracious governments of the United States and United Kingdom playing the role of broker. In such a scenario, tension would ostensibly be diffused and the Long March might even be allowed to take place in a peaceful manner, with political activists, lawyers and citizens given permission to exercise their democratic rights to assemble and dissent. Or it might not take place at all if some kind of restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry to the Chief Justice-ship is engineered.
In any case, the last few days have simply underlined that the contradictions within the ruling establishment that came to the fore with the sacking of the chief justice two years ago remain virtually irreconcilable. I noted a couple of weeks ago that, within the confines of the existing system, the only hope is for political forces to ally decisively against the military establishment, but the mainstream parties remain unwilling to come together conclusively to wage this ultimate battle. In other words, only a new political force, uncontaminated by unholy pacts with the establishments (or segments thereof), can provide relief from this infuriating game of musical chairs in which very little seems to change.
A cursory look at how deeply implicated the mainstream parties are in the status quo is necessary. Both the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) are unable and/or unwilling to break with the three A’s: America, Army and Allah (as represented both by the ideology of the state and the religio-political movements that thrive on this basis). One need not be a rocket scientist to recognise the role that the three A’s play in Pakistani politics and the fact that only a break with all of these can facilitate a departure from the status quo.
That neither of the two big parties is willing to take on such a challenge is also beyond doubt. After the general elections last year, while there was little expectation that the PPP and PML-N would try and engineer a radical shift in policy, the feeling was that they would make a much better fist of things and at least ensure that the democratic political process took root, through which newer and more radical political projects might emerge.
This has not happened. As it turns out, America and the army wanted some semblance of stability for their own reasons; the former for the purposes of prosecuting the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the latter for further rehabilitating its image as guardian of the nation (which took a battering towards the end of Musharraf’s tenure). Thus, America and the army have also expressed their displeasure at the recent turn of events.
In many ways, it is the Allah constituency that benefits most from the existing state of disrepair. The religio-political movements present themselves as a viable alternative to a socio-political order that is dysfunctional. It is another matter that, historically, these movements have been dependent on America and the army to keep them afloat. What matters now is that the deepening contradictions within ruling circles can benefit only the religio-political movements, because they are the only relatively organised political force capable of taking advantage of the situation (as the gains made by mullahs in Swat and FATA indicate).
Having said this, I do not believe that there is a chance of some kind of millenarian revolution in Pakistan, because the Allah constituency is still not entirely autonomous of the other A’s. In any case, with the exception of some outliers, it does not have any desire for a fundamental social upheaval. Thus, as Faiz once famously said, what we should be worried about is not that things will get worse in Pakistan, but that things will stay exactly as they are. In short, we will remain in a permanent state of dysfunction. The only way out is building a political force willing to take on the tremendous challenge of dislodging the three A’s and, thereby, creating a rupture in the power structure.
Such political forces typically emerge in the wake of mass movements. The PPP itself was one such force; while the guile of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a major factor in the stunning rise to power of the PPP, the organic transformation of society and the mass mobilisation that ensued arguably provided Bhutto with the opportunity to do as he did. When the movement around the chief justice was at its peak, many keen activists were expectant that a new political formation would come into being. This was wishful thinking, but the fact that the wish existed speaks volumes about the political incumbents.
The contradiction within to which I have made reference in this article will intensify in coming days, weeks and months. None of the protagonists mentioned here, including the 3 A’s or the mainstream political parties, can provide an answer to the many questions that have emerged since the start of the so-called ‘war on terror’. They will continue to jostle for position and there may even be periods of temporary relief. But in the final analysis, a clear anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and popular political alternative must come into being if the contradiction is to give way to a new conjuncture. The chickens of 62 years are coming home to roost and, as usual, the people of Pakistan are getting the short end of the stick.

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