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“The leading political parties have come close to each other in terms of ideology”

Interview with Dr Mohammad Waseem, political scientist and professor at LUMS

“The leading political parties have come close to each other in terms of ideology”

The News on Sunday: Do you think politics in Pakistan today is rooted in ideology? Are Pakistan’s main political parties — PML-N, PPP, and PTI — following any broad ideological guidelines?

Dr Mohammad Waseem: I think, right now, party politics as well as electoral politics is basically following a pragmatic line where you recruit people in a political party without considering any ideological differences. The leading political parties have come close to each other in terms of ideology. They don’t make an issue of ideology like they did in the 1990s when PML-N was considering itself a legatee of Zia’s Islamisation Programme. As for Pakistan People’s Party, it had moved away from its leftist ideology. Both had started playing politics according to the number of legislators they represented in the parliament, and so on. So, party politics, the way it was moved to what we may call the leader-party model.

That is, instead of ideology providing the indicators in terms of its policies, it is the person who is leading the party who provides the identity to the party. So, the parties are known as Bhutto party, Nawaz party, Imran party, instead of ideologically defined political parties. Ideology, as far as the quantum of Islamisation is concerned, is in a way a constant in Pakistani politics. The level of Islamisation will be the way it is right now for some time. Only, last week or the week before, the Khatam-e-Nabuwwat controversy emerged and no party took a position against Captain Safdar or others. That means they have a kind of a working consensus on this issue. You may be liberal, you may be conservative, but you accept it now as fait accompli; meaning that you have to adhere to certain Islamic provisions operating on the ground.

Similarly, nobody is talking about leftist politics among the major actors. So, this is now a game of a) political identity and not political ideology and b) the leader is representing the identity of the party, rather than ideology. The Labor Party and the Conservative Party in the UK represent their respective ideologies and policies. In Pakistan, political parties have come very close to each other in terms of ideology and policy. Instead of ideology or policy, they fall back on negative campaigning.  Since Imran Khan doesn’t have anything positive to sell by way of policy, therefore he talks constantly in an anti-Nawaz idiom.

Nobody is talking about leftist politics among the major actors. So, this is now a game of a) political identity and not political ideology and b) the leader is representing the identity of the party, rather than ideology.

TNS: In the backdrop of recent political developments, how do our main political parties differ on their stance on civil-military relations? Or do they? Are they acting cautiously?

MW: The point is that when a civilian government is in power it considers itself susceptible and vulnerable to the military establishment. The military establishment has its links with the opposition parties at that time. So, under the Asif Zardari government, Nawaz Sharif played a role in the Memo scandal. Although before that, in 2006, the two parties had reached an understanding in London that now we would join hands and not become pawns in the hands of the military establishment. But again, Nawaz Sharif was persuaded to take a step away from civil unity.  People think that it was opportunism.

Now, recently, when Nawaz Sharif was under pressure of the Panama case and the judiciary, people generally think that it is the same old story of civil-military tension, even as the military is not directly involved. Indeed, the military has been saying it quite often that the judiciary is doing it all and not us. But the wider public and the political community think that the current imbroglio is rooted in the civil-military tension.

Read also: Which is the real PML-N

Now, the PPP has distanced itself from the PML-N. Previously, the PPP was rather cautious about the civil-military tension and sided with Nawaz Sharif when there was the dharna of Imran Khan. It seems that the PPP was not taken into confidence after that by Nawaz Sharif, and the federal government was rather harsh on the PPP government in Sindh. So, the PPP played the same game this time by distancing itself from Nawaz Sharif. Probably it considers that the time of joining hands will only come when the PML-N offers a hand of cooperation. But this is a risk that the PPP did not take in the past. But this time it has gone on with an anti-Nawaz campaign.

The civilian set-up is under pressure. On the other hand, Imran Khan is non-committal on the civil-military relations and the general idea in the political community is that the PTI is somehow close to the military establishment. Therefore, Imran Khan does not find it an issue. He thinks that civil military tension will help him bring down this particular set-up and then get him into power. This seems to be his game plan. Whether he can manage, for example, to go scot free from the legal matters is another matter.

TNS: When it comes to the economy, can we say that these political parties have a different outlook on how the economy should be run? Do they offer an economic programme which is any different or better than others?

MW: After the major input of the PPP in the politics of Pakistan by way of bringing about a change in policy in the 1970s, e.g., nationalisation, there has not been any major policy away from the given framework. So, the economy is run by the finance ministry, by the Planning Commission — by the financial bureaucracy, indeed. All these three parties as well as other smaller parties in general are all talking about other issues.

Changing the economic policies is not one of the issues that they have taken up. Sometimes Islamic parties talk about Islamic banking and about other issues related to that but in practice that does not mean anything. For example, the Jamaat-e-Islami controlled several ministries under Ziaul Haq, dealing with finance and the economy and there was little change in terms of policy. Therefore, I don’t think anything will happen in that realm. Political parties are blind about economics in Pakistan.

Read also: Politics of paradox

This is what is called the Washington Consensus. In almost every country in the world, private enterprise — capitalism — is now the accepted norm in practice. If our political parties give an alternative only then we can say that there’s an alternative. I don’t think that there’s a big debate in Pakistan on the economic system within or outside the political parties. Even the academics or the progressive intelligentsia doesn’t talk about it. Some time back, Dr Mubashir Hassan had put together the alternative planning commission. But that has died down.

TNS: Which of the political parties, in your view, has a better stance and is more vocal on human rights and women’s issues in terms of policy and legislation?

MW: The PPP, on the floor of the House, is among the champions of women rights and minority issues. Otherwise, human rights is not one of the main issues of the political parties. Nawaz Sharif has mellowed down his rightist position in politics. In this party, there was, like in the 1990s, far less sensitivity for example about minorities. Now, the PML-N is more sensitive about the issues of non-Muslim minorities. Nawaz Sharif has even talked about the need of a progressive and liberal system. Sirajul Haq and others blame him for turning away from the Pakistan ideology and talking about a secular system. Imagine Nawaz Sharif being considered a secular person. Only Islamic parties could say that, because otherwise he is a conservative by normal standards.

Read also: The corruption chorus

TNS: Relating to the question above, how have the political parties raised the issues of minority? Have they been acting proactively on issues, such as abuse of blasphemy laws and rising extremism in society?

MW: For the voters, the activists, the cadres who belong to the PPP and who are now not voting for the PPP, it became clear after the 2013 elections that the party had lost ground in Punjab. I think the strategy seems to be that this party’s voters can be won over against Imran Khan. The PPP’s lost voters and activists are the target of the PML-N’s progressive stance. Of course, the minority voter has to choose between Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif. So, the idea is that Nawaz Sharif should be that kind of a leader for whom the traditional non-PML-N voters such as the ex PPP voters, can vote.

TNS: Last but not least, education doesn’t seem to have been a priority agenda for any of these political parties. Do you agree? Why so?

MW: The last time a major change took place was, again, under the PPP government. There was a structural change about the ownership of schools and colleges. There was nationalisation of private institutions. It was a large-scale comprehensive reform. It had many critics, of course, but overall it was a major reform. It was considered popular at that time.

Under the military government of Musharraf, there was a new vision for higher education. The shift was from schools and colleges to universities. The idea was to produce a high class, educated and scholarly community, which could compete at the global level. So, they established the HEC in place of the University Grants Commission. And they dumped quite a bit of money in the universities. They improved access to the world libraries. But critics say that it involves transferring sources from the lower sections of the education edifice, which means schools and colleges, particularly in the rural areas. There is a narrow elitist base of this educational approach.

Now when we come to that, the civilian governments of Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif both have, in a way, avoided changing anything substantially in the existing educational structure, partly because the HEC continues to claim autonomy from the government and there is quite a bit of controversy about the two kinds of HECs —federal and provincial — after the 18th Amendment. The idea is that on the one hand, the HEC has not been able to produce that quality which it claimed because there’s no Pakistani universities in the first top five hundred universities of the world even after 15 years of HEC. Still, the HEC continues to be proud of it publicly. It recently produced Vision 2025 as a success story which is obviously very controversial.

Secondly, for political parties it is a longer-term issue which they can’t sell to the voters. To the public, they sell the issues of corruption, inflation and unemployment, meaning direct improvement in people’s income nets and bringing down the prices of the commodities in short term, but not education. Education is somehow being taken care of by the private sector. That’s where they are concerned. The public sector has been allowed to degenerate, declining by the day. Nobody cares about it. The public sector schools and colleges have been orphaned, it seems.

Ather Naqvi

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