Benazir Bhutto’s assassination is perhaps as significant a turning point in the history of Pakistan as was the assassination of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and of Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaqat Ali. In a sense these three killings form three significant watersheds in the political history of Pakistan and each represent the culmination of the failure of the country’s ruling class to successfully manage the contradictions of their time. What is particularly significant is that each assassination, built as it was on the failure of the previous attempt to overcome contradictions, has been more calamitous for the country than the previous one. Today, in the opinion of this columnist, it’s a situation of do or die for Pakistan as a nation and its citizens as a people.
Before I venture to explain my analysis and gloomy prognosis, a few caveats would be in order. I am an Indian who was born a few days after Bangladesh was formed and have grown up, as many others of my generation, with very little knowledge and perhaps lesser understanding of what Pakistan is as a living reality. Even today, despite my efforts to know and understand my neighbouring country better, my knowledge is perforce bookish and lacking the depth of personal contact. But as a Marxist I seem to identify certain trends and features which have not been commented upon and would want to proffer them for consideration.
In 1947 when the British left South Asia, the two successor States which were formed – India and Pakistan – did not see any transformation in the property relations or in the composition of the ruling classes. Political power remained in the hands of those who wielded economic and social power. From a Marxian perspective, the religious reasons given for Partition are not very convincing. What is important is that in India, it was the budding industrialists who had come to control the Indian National Congress in an uneasy alliance with the large feudal landholders. In Pakistan, this relation was mirrored with the feudal landlords being the dominant partner in the ruling class alliance which had a weak component of industrialists but many important professionals, specially lawyers.
The Muslim League represented this feudal landed class of North Indian Muslims and, as noted Pakistan scholar Hamza Alawi states, their success in Punjab came when they managed to convince the large landholders in the Unionist Party that their property would be safer in Pakistan and not India. The fact that the Muslim League represented only Muslims, particularly those who spoke Urdu or its related languages, only meant that it could not represent the interests of the entire class of feudal landlords spawned by moribund colonialism in South Asia, but only a fraction of it, and thus weakened the political position of its own class by fracturing it. The Hindu feudals were further divided between Hindu nationalist parties where they were dominant and the Indian National Congress where they were dominated by the rising class of industrialists. The only province where the class of large landholders managed to form a political front outside religious affiliation was in the Punjab with its Unionist Party, but that fractured when the cast of colonialism was being broken.
Both these ruling classes had successfully managed to hitch large numbers of the poor and dispossessed to their political platforms. The Congress had history of involving the poor, specially the peasants, with its political platform which stretched back four decades and more, while the Muslim League was new to the game. This had enabled the Congress to well calibrate its mass populism where it managed to get the poor to come out in support of its political agenda while controlling their revolutionary urges. Further, the Congress used the promise of social justice and economic succour to feather their populism while the Muslim League relied solely, newcomers as they were to this game of populism and as the history of Pakistan would fatally prove, on religious affiliation and sentiments.
After independence the ruling dispositions in both India and Pakistan had two strategies to manage the demands for social justice and economic equity that were unleashed among the working people by the demise of colonialism. One was the strategy of carrot and the other was the strategy of the stick. The strategy of the carrot required deft political handling of popular demands, acceding to some of them and the cooption of the leading elements of popular movements into power-sharing arrangements with the ruling class. Experience shows us that this strategy is successful only when there are institutions of democracy, specially elections and change of governments, to mediate this power sharing. The strategy of the stick was largely predicated on the ability of the ruling establishment – the State, government and dominant classes – to beat back the demands for social justice and economic equity by using a combination of brute repression and a deft handling of the social prejudices already present among our people. This meant recourse to religious and other primordial identities and an encouragement of illiberal ideologies.
The ruling establishments of both India and Pakistan have used elements of both these strategies in the last six decades. But as would be evident to most observers of our countries, the ruling classes of India have predominantly used the carrot while the Pakistani ruling classes have used the stick. While the difference in the composition of the respective ruling classes (landed in one and industrial in the other), as well as the role of ideology (religion based in one and secular in the other) have been important factors which determined the preference for one strategy over the other, an important factor has been the economic foundation of ruling class alliance. India’s independent industrial base and the existence of a monopoly bourgeoisie provided the economic resources to share for the success of the strategy of the carrot. The dependence of Pakistan’s ruling class on landed wealth meant that the only way to share resources was to divide the land, or provide new land to those aspiring to join the ranks of the ruling class. There is a geographical limit for land allotment and division which, apart from the fact that landed income has a tendency to fall in the era of global capitalism, pushed the Pakistani ruling class towards the strategy of the stick.
The assassination of Liaqat Ali Khan in 1951 and the failure of the ruling establishment to agree on a Constitution was a clear indication that the strategy of the carrot (democracy) was considered too dangerous a course by the ruling class of Pakistan. It is indicative that this was followed by more than a decade of open military rule, or the strategy of the stick. The rise of the Pakistan People’s Party and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a brave attempt to resurrect the strategy of the carrot with elections, a Constitution with clearly defined rights and a populist economic policy which at least recognised the poverty and inequity under which lived the millions of working people in Pakistan. The legalised assassination of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was merely the expression of the blind fear of the ruling class at the dangers of the strategy of the carrot. It was, as should be expected, followed by Zia-ul Haq’s brutal military dictatorship which fanned the flames of religious prejudices and sectarian divisions.
Next week, this column would try to analyse how this see-saw of the carrot and stick led to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and what it portends for Pakistan and its people.
(to be continued next week)
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This was published in my column in The Post, on 2 January 2008.