The Shoe, Helplessness and Legacy Politics

 

 By Raza Habib   

The shoe thrown at the President during his ill-timed visit to UK is making more headlines than all the news. While the incidence and its repetition to death on the mainstream media once again highlights  its sickening obsession with the President, but at the same time also puts a question mark on the PPP’s complete inability to either reform the behavior of its President or to simply remove him. After all even if one assumes that entire opposition is due to twisted middleclass morality and media’s irrational obsession with him, the fact is that right now he is actually damaging the party’s popularity at least in the urban areas. In a proper democratic party with a developed mechanism of election and removal of party leadership, Mr. Zardari would have been sent home for pragmatic reasons alone. 

 I am against the selective lynching of the President, and I do think that media is being extremely unfair on some accounts (though not all) but the fact is that whether rightly or wrongly his repute is impinging the party’s repute. As the party has historically identified itself with the Bhutto clan, therefore the current chairman’s repute is completely overshadowing the ideals on which PPP was originally formed.

 This difficult situation is due to the legacy politics model on which the PPP has evolved. In this model the party membership is bound to just obey the current “torch bearer” of the ruling dynasty. The evolution has taken in such a manner that party assumes that  only someone from Bhutto clan (no matter how unpopular or incompetent he is) can keep it intact.  The party needs a Bhutto and if one is not “naturally” available then make Zardari a Bhutto!!

Since the assumption is that the party can not survive without someone from the Bhutto clan, the PPP is forced to defend even it is difficult to defend. But the buck does not stop here; the criticism on the chairman is interpreted as criticism on PPP and even democracy itself. While criticism on the current chairman is often rather fantastic the defense also matches it “brilliantly”.   Since the chairman at times cannot be defended on factual grounds, the PPP supporters have to whip up various analogies equating attack on him as attack on democracy, left wing idealism, Sindhis, common man etc. And yes the President’s supporters won’t hesitate to even call you a Taliban supporter if you are critical of him no matter how liberal your credentials are.

Right now the foreign media has also started to target Mr. Zardari and in response the supporters of President, some of them are prominent liberal journalists, are now alleging that the western media is also biased and overly influenced by the local media. These elements are now conveniently forgetting that a short while ago they were often citing the Western Media to support their arguments about Pakistan’s state of denial.  And the moment Western Media criticizes the President suddenly it becomes “impressionable” and devoid of independent thinking!!

  The issue is this deeply entrenched  legacy politics model which  in turn is an extension of personality template. Personality politics is often the characteristic of many developing countries. Here often the electorate starts equating a party with a charismatic individual who is generally also responsible for founding or popularizing the party.  In some parties, after the initial phase, the individual though remaining powerful fades into background and allows the party to become more dominant.  However, in some cases individual becomes more and more powerful and cult of personality forms. Cult of personality if successfully formed gives the individual unusual power over the party members. Once this develops, the party assumes the nature of “fuehrer” party with the individual becoming the face, image and the rallying point. The identification of the party emanates from the individual and the personal traits start to dominate the image, direction and the public stance of the party. Generally speaking this personality cult often sets the basis for subsequent formulation of dynasty politics as well. In this scenario, the heir to the leader of the party does not owe his position to personal qualities but due to relation with the charismatic founder of the party.

The personality driven politics does have the advantage of ensuring coherence and centralized thrust towards achievement of objectives. In addition, it also ensures relatively diehard “loyalty” of the voter as politics becomes more personalized if it is centered on an individual. THIS TEMPLATE IS PARTICULARLY EFFECTIVE IN THE FOUNDATION STAGE WHERE IT IS EASY FOR THE PEOPLE TO IDENTIFY WITH A CHARISMATIC INDIVIDUAL.

 However, the disadvantages of this template in the long run far outweigh the advantages. On the flip side, the personality driven politics renders the party and at times even its manifesto completely to the whim of the leader. Once such a position is attained then all the second tier leaders, cognizant of the fact that they owe their power and position due to nearness to the cultish leader of the party are forced to further propagate and strengthen “loyalty’. Another negative element is that majority of the secondary leadership in order to retain the status quo do not show dissent and in the process further augment the position of the leader and inflate an already over inflated ego. Those who show dissent are generally kicked out or simply lose their stature and respect in the party. If the party was originally a progressive party, the emergence of such cult figures have a thoroughly regressive impact as the party become subservient to the leader’s whim. With little to no opposition to the leader due to weak and insecure second tier leadership, it is like a self destructive spiral which continues to take the direction of the party increasingly towards personal interests of the leader. Since the party identifies itself with its leader therefore its outward position develops in such a way that when the leader comes under criticism from outside elements, quickly the party as well as the voter construes that as criticism on the party itself and its original ideals.

 Even more problematic is the situation where personality template transforms into dynasty politics. Here a totally incompetent heir can inherit a party with a developed leader obedient culture. If this happens the results are catastrophic as the incompetent heir has virtually ineffective opposition within the party, enjoys the support of the worker and even that of the intelligentsia.

This has actually happened with PPP which now finds itself trapped in Dynasty politics which emanated from Bhutto the founder of the party.  Bhutto was a charismatic person who developed a cult like following. By no means is he the creator of this concept as this has been witnessed in many other parts of the world also but in Pakistan it initiated with him and gathered pace subsequently. Apart from PPP, this also had significant impact on the course of development of other parties. The “success” of Bhutto in this respect also paved the way for the other parties to follow suit whether deliberately or because this was what seemed to work. Today, MQM, PML (N) and PTI, all are modeled on same personality template.

 After an initial phase of uplift this had a regressive impact as it gave Bhutto an unaccountable power over the party affairs and virtually insulated him from all the criticism. Progressive workers like J A Rahim were humiliatingly kicked out of the party and with no effective resistance.  Moreover, it extended even after his death to such an extent that once Benazir was accepted as an heir to his legacy she was able to whip the party to her own desires. Unfortunately PPP in order to remain “in” had to constantly whip Bhutto mania and this in the longer run has proven to be catastrophic.

Lets not forget that A PROGRESSIVE PARTY BY ITS VERY NATURE HAS TO BE GEARED AGAINST STATUS QUO AND SHOULD HAVE THE ABILITY TO CHANGE ACCORDING TO THE CHANGING GROUND REALITIES. Conservative parties on the other hand have negative assumption about human nature and try to retain the restrictions and laws which have evolved to control freedom. Conservative parties try to retain status quo while progressive parties in principle challenge it. For conservative  parties, legacy politics does not matter much on the ideological front as they are traditionalists. That does not mean that for them it is a good thing either. Dynasty politics can potentially curtail the ability of the progressive parties to evolve and continuously challenge the status quo. Because in case of legacy politics model the change comes from the cultish leadership who may or may not be receptive to such ideas. And even if one generation is, there is no guarantee that the subsequent generation would be. In essence legacy politics is like monarchy through with apparent semblance of “democratic” popularity.

 In addition the personal “fame” of the leader completely determines the party’s image as well. While this is true for transitional leadership parties as well, but the extent is not that prominent. Moreover in that template the leader can easily be replaced whereas in the legacy template that cannot be. This problem actually negates the argument that dynasty politics is necessary for keeping the party coherent because in case the “heir’ comes with a controversial reputation, ideals of the party are likely to be completely overshadowed by the reputation of the leader.  This is why PPP is in a quagmire.  

These are the factors which have to be kept in mind by the liberal intelligentsia before passionately supporting legacy politics particularly in progressive parties such as PPP. The counterargument given is generally on the pragmatic side that without the central legacy leader the party will break apart. The problem is actually that the template itself necessities this logic and once this template is broken the party will quickly readjusts. 

 One way to gradually dismantle the legacy politics is to ensure elections within the party on a regular basis. This may at least weaken the legacy leader’s power to make discreet appointments. After all lets not forget that personality template and legacy politics is strengthened by handing over the key positions to the “favorites’. This explains why all the mainstream parties are today reluctant to hold elections. 

 For a developing country like Pakistan which is right now reeling under forces of conservatism, the progressive parties have to play a meaningful and active role. Right now the dominance of legacypolitics is seriously hampering their ability and in the process strengthening conservative forces as they are able to make a better case for themselves on the basis of competency and good governance. This  template needs to weaken and eventually discarded for the progressive parties to play their due role effectively. The media, particularly the liberal segment, needs to exert efforts in this direction rather than spinning facts to absolve the central leaders of their follies. It has to be remembered that mistakes of liberals are the gains of conservatives. Defending leaders and equating them with lofty ideals is only proving counterproductive.

16 Comments

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16 responses to “The Shoe, Helplessness and Legacy Politics

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  2. Tilsim

    Raza Habib, this is brilliant commentary.

  3. Raza Raja

    Thanks Tilsim, I seriously think that legacy politics is becoming a sticky issue particularly for PPP. It will become one for PML (N) also.

  4. aliarqam

    The shoe throwing incident is not a big deal to discuss and draw conclusions on its basis. Saeeda Warsi was pelted with Eggs by people of the same mindset, “Al Muhajiroon” goones some time back, draw some conclusion on that incident also…
    Another thing emphasized in the post is legacy politics, internal democracy etc. etc. Let the political system evolved, the political class groomed, these issues will be resolved, at this time it has nothing to do with the Political system.
    We had retrogressed in this regard in the last decades, as once upon a time there were student unions and student politics before the violance entered the campuses, we have produced people like Dr. Sarwar, NFP, Tarek Fateh, Husain Haqqani, Javed Hashmi and a lot more. Let us discuss whether Democracy comes first in the system or in the parties…
    Keeping a particular situation in mind, and then queue all the arguments for that is not objectivity, and your comments “it will become for PML(N) too…

  5. Nadeem

    1. Legacy politics is a part of democracy, although unpleasant all around the world ans especially in Asia.
    2. George Bush was son of Bush senior, USA, the most modern democratic state.
    3. Gandhi family still in power in India as Bhutto’s in Pakistan.
    4. Hamza Shahbaz, Shujat Hussain, Fazul Rehman, Asfanyar khan, Qazi Hussains daughter (MNA) and every one else is ignored while criticising Bhutto’s.
    5. From Malaysia where son of former PM is Prime Minister and son of another PM is a minister to Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal….just name it…and its legacy politics.
    6. Given the political environment and limited democracy in Islamic world, institutions might take longer to be established for which USA took 200 years and still Bush Junior crept in.
    7. Not every body from ‘Legacy’ becomes a leader, people did not voted for Mir Murtaza Bhutto, they did not voted for Ijazul Haq and even Fatima Bhutto….it takes sacrifices to be the NEXT.
    8. Whatever Zardari is today, is because of his sacrifice, another guy would had bargained Musharaf, became a minister and left Benazir in first few weeks of prison as Nawaz made a deal. Even today Zardari is nothing if PPP central committee wants to through him out, and CEC is composed of top stalwarts of PPP, none of them can be said to be crony of Zardari.

    9. And finally, if democratic process continues, we might see parties become more powerful than persons, but still look at ‘public wisdom’, Zia, Shaukat Aziz, who not…..can they win a seat in a fair election?

    Zia and Aziz were also in power….why no legacy? Are people fools and their decisions stupid? No! They know better what they are doing and their decision is above everything.

  6. Raza Raja

    Dear aliarqam let me assure you that my views on legacy politics are not the result of the shoe throwing incidence..
    However, that was used to just communicate my reservations against dynasty politics.
    Regarding that dynasty politics also exist in USA i.e. George Bush Junir. well there is hell of a difference. george had the advantage of being Bush’s son but he did not inherit the republican party the wayMr Zardari has and yes he was so unpopular that in 2008 the republicans had stopped inviting him to the fundraisors also and his influence in repulican party had diminished completely. The legacy politics in pakistan is of a different template.
    Moreover it has been 42 years and we are still trapped in dynasties where the sole credential of a person being elected as chairman is that he is BB’s husband.
    The article has given arguments on the disadvantages of the model. You can counter those.

    I am against dynasty politics in any party and it includes PML (N) also. However I think that a progressive party is damaged even more due to this template. this argument is given in the article and I am reproducing it below:

    “Lets not forget that A PROGRESSIVE PARTY BY ITS VERY NATURE HAS TO BE GEARED AGAINST STATUS QUO AND SHOULD HAVE THE ABILITY TO CHANGE ACCORDING TO THE CHANGING GROUND REALITIES. Conservative parties on the other hand have negative assumption about human nature and try to retain the restrictions and laws which have evolved to control freedom. Conservative parties try to retain status quo while progressive parties in principle challenge it. For conservative parties, legacy politics does not matter much on the ideological front as they are traditionalists. That does not mean that for them it is a good thing either. Dynasty politics can potentially curtail the ability of the progressive parties to evolve and continuously challenge the status quo. Because in case of legacy politics model the change comes from the cultish leadership who may or may not be receptive to such ideas. And even if one generation is, there is no guarantee that the subsequent generation would be. In essence legacy politics is like monarchy through with apparent semblance of “democratic” popularity.

  7. Raza Raja

    @ nadeem

    I know it is present in Asia but that does not mean that I support it!!!!
    It has its advantages and disadvantages. George W Bush though son of Bush was still elected through primaries. That is not dynasty politics of the way it is done in pakistan. There is hell of a difference.

  8. Nadeem

    I am not defending it either, be it in Malaysia, Bangladesh, India or USA. But one thing is called transformation and it does not happen over night or can be fixed with one strike. Institution building a a long process and need certain environment to flourish, if you kill that environment, you will be again where you started from. So my belief is process will fix it but at this point of time, we need a continuation of that process. And still, I repeat, every one does not become ‘NEXT’, even in family or legacy. One have to contribute and prove or get eliminated even in dynasty. Murtaza Bhutto could not make it, so did not Gohar Ayub and Ijazul Haq. Let the process and time refine rather than bashing and making it weaker on premature stage.

  9. Raza Raja

    It is been 42 years, and it the trajectory is not showing signs that process will “fix” it.
    Legacy politics once entrenched becomes the “culture” and in PPP’s case it has.
    If the progression in 42 years was the gradual wearing off, i would have agreed. But it is not o that.
    And i am not in a position to “kill” it…i am just airing my opinion..Obviously the dynasty politics will stay here in pakistan.
    Things change when we realize that something is wriong…only then the pressure emanates prompting it to change. The issue for me is that PPP walas do not think anything is wrong with this model and hence after zardari it will be Bilawal who is very young and will obviously chair fro a long time. So during his time also the culture of legacy politics will become stronger not weaker.
    Mind you not every party in third world is based on legacy template. BJP is a clear example.

    It is just my opinion….I know legacy politics will stay here…whether it is PPP or PML (N)

  10. nazir allahwalla

    A shoe thrown here and a shoe thrown there really makes no difference to the one who has crocodile skin. The undiplomatic manners of our president and his son worry me. Outbursts like telling people to shut up (zardari video on Youtube hope its still there) is such a trashy way to conduct politics, its so cheap. The other example is of young Bilawal in an interview he was asked a question/ or a comment was made by a journalist that made Bilawal angry. He burst out ” you are lying ” ( i saw it on Aljazeera and it was never eepeated again). Then what about the original Bhutto aka Zulfi he told the crouds (ben ch**d) how many of you remember that one? Anyway.
    The shoe is a symbol of protest in the middle east and africa.
    The first time I saw shoes been thrown was in Somalia ( somali rebels threw shoes at helicopters flying hundreds of feet above the ground and showed the soles of their shoes to the americans sitting safely in their air machines ). The next one was the famous shoe thrown at Bush in Iraq. and now out very own President is involved.
    The Iraqi shoe thrown at Bush was made in Turkey and thousands of turks flocked to the markets to buy just such a shoe. I think we should try to find out what was the make of the shoe thrown at Zardar, so that every protesting Pakistani can buy one and wear it to mark his or her protest silently without hurting anyone.
    Let get that shoe and put it on display in Muhatta Palace. It is part of the history of our country. Dont you think so?

  11. krash

    Legacy politics exists because it works. Political parties are by nature pragmatic and will do anything for survival. They will give it up only if the voters reject it. That requires a cultural shift – which is happening but slowly (e.g. MQM and JI).

  12. Mnoor

    This is perhaps the best article I have seen on this topic in a long time.

    Dynasty politics at it worst exist in Pakistan. It exist in other countries of Asia also, but at least the heir has to demonstrate some good statesmanship before he can get ahead, for example Sonia Gandhi rose to prominance as member of Nehru family, yet she had to improve her leadership skills along the way a great deal.

    In our case we follow a kind of imperial system where family ties is the only qualification you need to be the party leader.

    Zardari refusal to recognize how bad he has proven to be for PPP, also reflects the fact that he doesnt really care about the party also.

  13. Bin Ismail

    This is the history of Dynasty Politics in Pakistan. Mullahs. Then came violent Mullahs. Then came the Pakistani Taliban.

  14. Nusrat Pasha

    …then came the deluge.

  15. bciv

    >Then came violent Mullahs.

    …or the armed ones. but who armed them?

  16. Bin Ismail

    “…Then came violent Mullahs…or the armed ones. but who armed them?”

    Those who wanted the world to behold, register and despise an ugly face of Islam, a face that in reality is not the face of Islam.