| 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.