Where political parties failed

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The Speaker of the West Bengal Assembly, Mr Hashim Abdul Halim, who is also acting chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, had a brief stopover in Karachi on his way to Islamabad.

He is a suave man, a competent parliamentarian and has been the Speaker for 23 years. He says he wants to step down and resume his legal ractice but his party, the CPI-M, would not let him go. The party itself has been in power in Kolkata for 24 years.

Describing the achievements of his party, which was led for most part by the redoubtable Mr Jyoti Basu, he said that the party with its deep roots had a powerful rapport with the masses.

Its cadres provide a vital link between the people and the leadership. So strong has been their commitment to the party’s ideology and so effective is their enlightened message to the people, that not a single BJP candidate has been elected from Bengal.

In the backdrop of Mr Halim’s observations, one wonders why the same can’t be said of any party in Pakistan. The subject came up again with full force at a seminar on women organized by Bazm-i-Amina in Karachi.

One speaker came down heavily on the military governments in Pakistan, which he said, have done a great disservice to the country by stunting the development of political parties.

Another speaker spoke on violence in the universities and was critical of the role of the political parties. He pointed out that an unhealthy trend was initiated by the parties which recruited students in their rank and file and even armed them to serve their own interests. She held the political parties responsible for many of the ills one sees on the campuses.

Who is right? The fact of the matter is that our political parties, including the Muslim League which was founded by a group of elitist leaders in 1906, have failed to strike roots in the masses.

Until 1947 the Muslim League was more of a movement and after independence it failed to convert itself into a party with a structured machinery and discipline. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the army which has ruled the country for more than half the period of Pakistan’s existence has not allowed a free interaction of political forces.

Thus the two– the armed forces and the parties– have jointly contributed to the failure of democracy in Pakistan. Each has fed on the other’s weaknesses and used it as a whipping boy to justify its own inadequacies and wrongdoings.

Every time the army has taken over control, it has spoken of the corruption, ineptitude, bad governance and lack of stability because of the poor performance by the political parties.

In October 1958, Ayub Khan spoke of “the ruthless struggle for power, corruption, shameful exploitation of the masses” and tmisuse of Islam for political ends.

He described the “mentality of the political parties ” as having sunk so low” that they would not enable him to form “a stable government capable of dealing with the innumerable and complex problems” facing the country.

The same story was repeated by Ziaul Haq in 1977 who said that the political leaders had created a vacuum which he was filling. Again in 1999 General Musharraf alleged that the politicians had been following “self-serving policies, had played around with, and systematically destroyed various institutions and brought the economy to a state of collapse.

Since the political parties had no power base in the masses they could not mount an effective resistance or even register a protest against military take over. Political parties mature with electoral experience.

At election time they are activated into mobilizing and educating the masses to achieve their ultimate objective of gaining power to implement their programme charted out in their manifestos.

In Pakistan the parties have been denied this opportunity because the political process has been held in abeyance whenever the military has seized control of the government.

One may well ask why the political parties did not attempt to create a power base for themselves by working with the masses on issues not directly an offshoot of electoral politics.

This could have been undertaken as a long-term strategy to expand the membership of the party and train the party cadres to work with the people and respond to their needs. One cannot deny that the parties would have had to face constraints in this area too. Nevertheless it would not have been an impossible task.

The elitist politics of the political parties which only sought office, and the absence of a tradition of public service among the Muslims of the subcontinent, account for this failure of the parties to reach out to the masses.

Although the People’s Party started off on a positive note in this direction, it too degenerated into an organization engaged in power-struggle. That would explain why no political party in the country has had democracy within the party itself. Party elections are not held and the leadership is generally self-appointed with the support of a cabal of supporters.

This would explain the countless problems which destabilize the country even when the constitutional process is in place. Floor crossing, the duress which is used to win votes of confidence in the Assembly, the apathy of party members towards their parliamentary duties and the ‘lotaism’ with which we are so familiar are a reflection of the immaturity of political parties.

Had our political parties consolidated their position by winning suport at the grassroots level, the military rulers could not have had such an easy sailing in their political adventures.

In other Third World countries where parties are strong, bonapartism is rare. India, Sri Lanka and now even Bangladesh are good examples of how the political forces have managed to keep their armies in barracks.

Even now our parties can attempt to make a beginning. While they struggle to democratize the system, they can seek to strengthen their role by attempting to reach out to the people, by paying attention to their parliamentary responsibilities, attending to their party structure and, above all, doing their homework on various issues and proposing alternative strategies.

True, the ultimate objective of the parties is to gain political power. But while they are out of office they can surely work to strengthen their claim to power and improve their image.