At the time of Independence, the political and social elites of Pakistan came from Hindu- and Sikh-dominated urban centres of Punjab, while Muslim politics was dominated by rural feudals, large landowners and bradri (caste) chieftains. After the departure of the non-Muslim elite, traditional rural feudal politicians, incapable of grasping the essentials of running a modern state, kept themselves occupied with palace conspiracies. The reins of the Pakistani state thus came to rest, by default, mostly in the hands of culturally alien migrated elites of Uttar Pradesh. The traditional brand of politicking did not cease either in the pre-Martial Law parliamentary stunts of the 1947-1958 era, or during Ayub Khan´s hybrid political system of “Basic Democracy”. The mass of the population remained un-empowered. It was waiting for a new leadership to take the place of the migrated non-Muslim elites. This was the situation when the Pakistan People´s Party (PPP) made its entrance and the party, founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, led the first-ever socio-political revolution in the heartland of Punjab, which is its real power base.
The population of middle Punjab, the non-feudal belt stretching from Khaniwal to Rawalpindi, comprising mostly of peasants, artisans and labourers at the time of Independence, was ´coming of age´ when PPP was formed in late 1967. Ayub Khan´s Green Revolution in agriculture, the formation of an industrial base, rapid urbanisation and extension of educational services, had produced a significant mass of educated youth that was semi- or totally unemployed. By 1968, when Ayub Khan was celebrating ten years of his rule, the Pakistan People´s Party, led by Mr Bhutto, was igniting fires in the area. The population was keen to better their lives by freeing the system from the stranglehold of the traditional feudal and bureaucratic elites. The downtrodden masses, urban poor, owner peasants living on the economic fringe and the rural poor kammis (menial labourers) were ready to follow the mass of politically conscious, unemployed youth, who, for their part, were ready to put their lives on the line.
The anti-Ayub Khan movement of 1968-1969, for the restoration of democracy, turned into an expression demanding economic and political change. The campaign touched every home in every town, village and hamlet in central Punjab. Provided with the revolutionary slogan of roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter) and targeting the feudalism and bureaucracy for keeping the country impoverished, this fired-up youth generated a mammoth movement in which, among others, caste system and religious sectarianism were both smashed. It was this strong momentum created by the millions of PPP workers that kept the party alive for the next 25 years.
Insurgency in East Pakistan, war with India and ultimately the breaking away of East Pakistan had dire effects on the country, but not all the upheavals of the time could tame the djinn that had been released in middle Punjab. The political tidal wave of the PPP started abating only after Bhutto took over power which he did with a landslide victory in middle Punjab. (Sindh remained under the big feudals, who won on PPP tickets. The North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan remained under the influence of regional and religious parties.)
Bhutto nationalised the industry and, as a symbolic gesture, gave some residential plots to those without property. Other than that, his lukewarm land reforms, half-baked bureaucratic changes and other policies did not expand the domestic economy enough to absorb the restless youth with time in their hands.
Bhutto´s policies, however, brought unprecedented prosperity to the urban merchant class. This class was composed of the socially conservative and, by 1977, it was this very bazaar category which provided the backing for the movement against him that resulted in Bhutto´s ouster and, in the end, hanging. In the modern context, the genesis of Nawaz Sharif´s rise can be linked to the upsurge of this merchant class.
A large chunk of the PPP´s political workforce was co-opted into the system through jobs in government and endowment of licences and ration depots. A large number of those who couldn´t get anything went abroad. Part of the progressive-minded drifted towards the more radical political formations like the Mazdoor Kisan Party (Labour and Peasant Party). Furthermore, expulsion of progressive elements from the party and Mr Bhutto´s newly found (or revived) solidarity with the feudals of south Punjab and Sindh disheartened the remaining activists.
In short, by 1975, the PPP had lost the core of its best political workers through state co-option, migration or ideological betrayal by its leadership. Progressive politics, within and without the PPP, collapsed. That was one reason why the PPP was not able to mount a vigorous protest movement when Martial Law was decreed in 1977. During the Zia-ul Haq era, its worker base shrank further through repression, on the one hand, and newfound economic prosperity, on the other.
Through harsh repression, Zia-ul Haq forced many of the remaining PPP activists to leave the country. A large number headed West during the 1980s. Meanwhile, the economy expanded with remittances from immigrant workers, massive infusion of foreign aid linked to the Afghan war, and the booming drug business. Economic growth and prosperity absorbed and depoliticised many of the already disgruntled PPP activists.
It so turned out, therefore, that by the mid-1980s the party was being led by second rate workers and leaders who were mere agitators. Nevertheless, the PPP retained a silent majority of followers who still kept the faith, and the struggle for democracy and justice remained a credible ideological force to keep the People´s Party going. Then, consciously or unconsciously, Benazir Bhutto, who had taken charge of her father´s party, forced out the remaining few intellectuals who may have been able to redefine the new tenets of appropriate ideology.
Cashing in on the residual political capital of the 1970s and pent-up anger of its constituency, the PPP still remained master of the streets in middle Punjab. Benazir Bhutto´s welcome to Lahore by millions upon her return from exile in 1986 not only frightened its enemies, but also reinforced the self-righteousness of this 35-year-old self-centred feudal aristocrat. She felt vindicated in her decision to force out the intellectuals and the experienced party hands, and the outpouring of support in middle Punjab blinded her to the pitfalls of history. Her subsequent victory in 1988, won against all odds, only added to what turned out to be Ms Bhutto´s delusions.
Benazir Bhutto´s need to gain power at all cost and make compromises later is a matter that can be discussed at length. But there is no doubt that she entered the office of prime minister with a mediocre team of opportunists and amateurs. She was also leading a party that had no vision, little ability in terms of management skills, and ignorant in the art of governance. It was thus inevitable that Mr Bhutto´s abrupt and unjustified ouster two years later had her back in the streets with an agenda no different from that of her opponents.
The conflicts with the establishment of her successor, Nawaz Sharif, gave Ms Bhutto a second chance to come back to power in 1993. By then, however, she had internalised the feudal ethos of her husband, Asif Zardari, who himself was an even worse combination of feudal egotism and petty but artful wheeling and dealing. The Benazir Bhutto that emerged now was an arrogant, know-all mistress of politics who demanded millions of rupees for granting party tickets for the elections. More importantly, by that time, the party structure, at all levels, had come to be dominated by traditional local chieftains (numberdars, petty chaudhries, etc)—the same people who had opposed it in the heady days before the PPP had tasted power. As the remaining committed workers jumped ship, the PPP of 1990 was more like the Muslim League of the pre-1970 era.
Given such a party, it was no surprise that Ms Bhutto once again ran a visionless campaign against an opponent, Nawaz Sharif, who, besides enriching himself during his rule, had remembered to make symbolic gestures which were to pay returns in a do-nothing society. Ms Bhutto, therefore, could not defeat Mr Sharif even in middle Punjab, the keeper of the Bhutto flame. She lost in all the urban centres of this region and her victory margin came from the rural constituencies and the feudal belt, not won because of any ideological fervour but through traditional politicking.
About Ms Bhutto´s second term as prime minister, the less said the better. A lot has been reported on the corruption of her husband and colleagues, but corruption charges are no longer so unsettling in a corruption-immune society. It was, again, her arbitrary style of governance through home-made experts, her unwillingness to listen to sane voices, and, most importantly, her directionless political course, that marked Ms Bhutto´s second term.
Ms Bhutto did not make symbolic changes, but neither did she provide any relief to the common man, who made up her party´s key constituency. Prices kept on rising while incomes continued to dwindle. She evoked hatred against herself among the downtrodden and the poor. They paid her, and her party, back properly at the polls in 1997.