POPULAR leaders with non-elite roots, pro-poor agendas and origins in institutionalised grassroots political movements often deliver equitable and democratic progress. Non-elite roots obviously aid such agendas while a rise through strong movements keeps their politics democratic and non-personalised. We haven’t had such progress as our many popular leaders haven’t met these criteria well.

With an elite background, many independence leaders lacked a pro-poor or even a clear policy agenda. The Muslim League was less grassroots and institutionalised than Congress where Gandhi and Nehru, though elites, had a pro-poor agenda which was used after 1947 but produced mixed results. The Muslim League fell to bureaucratic intrigue. We had no popular leader till Mujibur Rehman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto rose in the 1960s.

Mujib rose through student and Bengali politics. He perforce pursued identity politics given Bengali complaints but had a socialist agenda too which he applied briefly — with poor results — after 1971. My fellow Berkeley alumnus and childhood hero Bhutto was socialist too but part of the elite. Skipping institutionalised politics, he rose laterally via army aid and then by forming the PPP. That even socialist leaders from the two wings had such varied roots and routes was due to greater hierarchy and elite hold in the West wing society. His socialism looks passé now but was cutting edge for poor states at that time. It gave us mixed results because of weak policies and autocracy. But growth was still 4.5 per cent despite global stagflation, US aid cuts and loss of the eastern ‘colony’.

The next generation rose in the 1980s. Benazir like Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif belonged to the elite who didn’t rise through grassroots politics. She largely nixed Bhutto’s pro-poor agenda. Nawaz and Altaf Hussain were the first popular Punjabi and Mohajir leaders to rise, four decades after 1947. So strong was the hold of these two ethnic groups in state and business, and so weak the earlier political eras, that neither needed popular leaders; those rising were only in ethnicities seen to be weaker. But once democracy prevailed, both perforce hastily produced them. Altaf was non-elite, came via student politics and did violent ethnic but not pro-poor politics. Nawaz initially did soft ethnic, pro-elite, pro-Pindi politics but mellowed later. Yet even now he is not pro-poor.

Only Bhutto had a clear, but weakly run, pro-poor agenda.

Imran Khan too is from the elite who rose not via grassroots politics but Pindi’s aid. He uses a toxic mix of socially regressive, politically autocratic and opportunistic, anti-West, cultist populism — likely our worst politics after Altaf and extremist parties. He is untested in fair general polls yet.

Some popular pro-poor ethnic leaders never ruled, such as Bacha Khan, G.M. Syed and Bizenjo. Ayesha Jalal called Jinnah the sole spokesperson for Muslims. Some later became ethnic sole spokespersons — eg, Bacha Khan for Pakhtuns, Altaf for Mohajirs — despite mainly being national leaders. Except for Bhutto, others or their progeny lost this status later, among Bengalis, Baloch and Pakhtuns, due to unwise acts. Arguably, Kashmiris, the Baloch, Seraiki- and Hindko-speaking people, and those from Gilgit-Baltistan haven’t had such sole spokespersons yet.

Popular national rulers (eg, Liaquat, Bhutto, Benazir, Nawaz and Imran) were members of the elite who didn’t rise via grassroots politics. But most faced some struggles in opposition. Only Bhutto had a clear, but weakly run, pro-poor agenda. So a popular national leader meeting all criteria is yet to rise. We have many electorally tiny left parties with leaders meeting all the criteria but they barely link with each other, let alone unite. Thus a strong sole spokesperson, leader or party for new left politics is yet to rise. This can be attributed to the establishment’s aid to elite leaders and the assault on left parties, labour and peasant groups. In fact, a sole spokesperson for extreme politics, perhaps from the TLP, may predate a left one.

Globally, too, we see few such leaders. Lenin was one. His agenda made ex-USSR a superpower which opposed the West’s imperial diktat. Misrule and US intrigue later sank it. Mao’s China did worse. Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia had social gains but misrule too. Leftist regimes opposing the West’s diktat have lost access to high capital and technology. States co-opted in capitalist value chains, such as China, get access and do much better. But few are so invited and then only if they accept the West’s diktat that keeps most states poor. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Brazil used both policies well; we failed on both. Only strong globalist pro-poor activism in the West can resolve this bind.

The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

[email protected]

Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2022

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