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Bilawal’s quest for a social democratic agenda

We had an intense discussion with Bilawal Bhutto at the end of the PPP’s provincial and national bodies’ meetings, attended by over 20,000 enthusiastic activists, in Lahore. What will be his social democratic agenda – since he claims to be a social democrat? (Or is that just populist rhetoric?)

The questions that were raised were: what is the PPP’s ideology or mission that differentiates it from other right-wing parties? What kind of social democratic agenda? What changes is he going to bring in the class structure of his party, which is led by the landed aristocracy? How far will he distance himself from the post-BB baggage? What are the changes he is going to bring in Sindh to improve its mal-governance? And will he be remote-controlled by his father or will he take his own independent course and build his own team?

In his first informal encounter with the journalists, Bilawal came out as an intelligent, well-educated, respectful and confident young leader obsessed with liberal-democratic and progressive ideals. He vowed to rebuild the PPP just not as a centre-left party but as a “left social-democratic party”. He seems to be quite clear on the nature of the state and religious extremism. He is also quite vocal on human and civil rights, women and minorities’ rights in particular, and is inclined towards secularism.

However, he came under severe criticism about his ultra-nationalist and anti-India chauvinist tirade during the election campaign in the AJK elections. Though he defended his position vociferously, the very next day he spoke about how his foreign policy will be based on the “strength of peace”. For a change he has brought forward a younger and progressive lot. His greatest challenge is how to transform the predominantly feudal character of his party and get rid of some of the ill-reputed central leaders.

Although Bilawal takes credit for bringing a young chief minister in Sindh, that alone doesn’t ensure good governance and a social democratic agenda. Despite his dynamism and independence, it is yet to be seen how far he will be able to become a leader in his own right. And that will depend upon how far he will be able to attract the public support that his party has lost. However, he has succeeded in reviving enthusiasm and hope among PPP jiyalas.

Surprisingly, on social media I found quite visible support for him, even though many rightly questioned his social democratic credentials and his independence from the influence of his aunt and father. It seems to me that he will combine BB’s liberal legacy with his father’s expertise in the art of politics. He may have announced his candidature for the pivotal post of prime minister in the next elections, but he has a long way to go – even though Asif Ali Zardari may be preparing for coalition-making in the event of a divided vote.

Some social media commentators have been asking me what the ‘left’ answers are to the issues that we are facing. Here are some of the points for an alternative social democratic agenda that may facilitate real progressive change in state and society.

Given the left-vacuum and predominance of an extremist religious and militarist paradigm, it is time to come up with a progressive worldview to defend the rights and freedoms of the people and extricate our country from its current predicaments.

The primary objective is to change the status quo. A social democratic platform has to be consistently democratic, secular, federalist, pluralist, inclusive and without hierarchical structures. It must be based on scientific knowledge and research-based analysis of our socio-economic formation and offer a concrete programme for the betterment of the poor and the middle classes. It should solely rely on the mobilisation and support of the people with a purpose to empower all of them, not just a few – as has been practised by the PPP in the past.

There are many challenges: ideological and security threats from religious extremism, sectarianism and terrorism. Unsustainable aggressive national security agendas couched in an isolationist foreign policy and hostility with neighbours – perpetuating an enemy syndrome. A neoliberal economic model and an exclusionary elitist development model at the cost of the pauperisation of the masses and the peripheral regions. Another threat is authoritarian, centralised nation-building – in the name of Islam – while suppressing and excluding constituent federating units/nationalities, and their cultures, languages and identities. We see hurdles in the way of devolving powers to the grassroots level and peoples’ empowerment through direct participation.

Democracy is fragile and remains vulnerable to inverse civil-military relations, an undemocratic culture, intolerance, intervention of the state in matters of faith and the persecution of minorities. The current political economy of resource generation (taxes and other revenues) and allocation of resources favours the privileged while ignoring peoples’ needs. Development of human resources, provision of much-needed physical infrastructure in all regions, protection of the environment, conservation of resources and population planning are being neglected. Unbridled profit making and rent-seeking override need-based, participatory and sustainable growth.

We also face the challenge of bringing an end to the worst kind of exploitation of the rural and urban poor, peasants and the working and professional classes at the hands of parasitic rent-seeking capitalism and feudalism. There is suppression of the fine arts, performing arts, indigenous cultures and languages, distortion of humanities and syllabi as well as the degeneration of the education system, in both public and private spheres and particularly in madressahs. There is prevalence of patriarchal, tribal and feudal traditions, especially honour codes that cause countless miseries to women.

Instead of perpetuating conflict in the interest of a warrior state, good neighbourly relations and economic connectivity between South Asia and Central Asia are needed. And there is a need to end the suppression of trade union activities and professional associations.

Now, we come to some of the salient features of a minimum social-democratic platform. First, change the nature and character of the state by separating religion from the state. Transform Pakistan from a national-security state into a social welfare state by establishing the sovereignty of the people through participatory democracy. Deepen and consolidate provincial autonomy and devolution of power to the grassroots level through municipal socialism and village cooperatives.

Introduce a participatory, inclusive and sustainable mode of growth that includes the working class and the middle strata into the accumulation process and gives prioritises peoples’ needs rather than the dominant elites. Such growth would have to reverse the political economy of resource generation and allocation of resources: tax the rich, save from non-development expenditures and the reallocation of resources to address hunger, malnourishment, illiteracy, discrimination, marginalisation etc.

Uphold equal rights and equal protection of all citizens regardless of their religion, gender, ethnicity, caste and colour. Introduce radical agrarian reforms to bring an end to archaic feudal structures. Promote cooperatives and ensure public-private partnership in the manufacturing and services sectors. Preserve and conserve our natural resources and the environment by improving water resources, expanding renewable energy, and focusing on human resource development and evenly spread physical infrastructures.

Promote peace, amity and mutually beneficial cooperation, and strengthen connectivity with our neighbours and across the regions – South Asia and Central Asia in particular. Adopt a foreign policy based on ‘friendship with all and enmity with none’. Ensure nuclear stability while opposing war, subliminal warfare, proxy wars, cross-border terrorism and the arms race. Benefit from the information, scientific and technological revolution and promote a knowledge economy. This is the minimum agenda a social democratic party must adopt, or it will again be sham populism. Let’s see what Bilawal says.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: imtiaz.safma@gmail.com

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

Imtiaz Alam, "Bilawal’s quest for a social democratic agenda," The News. 2016-12-08.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political parties , Government-Pakistan , Nuclear stability , Foreign policy , Civil-Military relations , Extremism , Economy , Asif Ali Zardari , Bilawal Bhutto , Lahore , India , PPP