Forty Years of Progressive PoliticsÂ
By Sherry Rehman
Â Â Â Â Â A political party is best judged for its performance over time by two fundamentals. One is the voters it pulls, and the second is the policy programme it stands for. On both counts the Pakistan Peoples Party emerges as the only mainstream party inPakistanthat has not just addressed these fundamentals successfully over forty years since it was founded, but has also steered a course for progressive politics through global shifts and national crises.
Â Â Â Â The PPP is not just a political party. It has long stood for an idea that embraces the most heroic of human impulses: that shared aspirations, democratic politics, and public interest can be wedded to a national dynamic for change in a fractured backdrop. In a post-colonial milieu, the only political party that challenged an oppressive status quo has been the PPP, and for this reason alone it has drawn to it the hopes and dreams of over two generations of Pakistanis seeking better lives. The Partyâ€™s greatest success has been in responding to economic and social imperatives over four decades without losing its signature brand of progressive solutions. Its greatest challenge has been to survive the corrosive de-politicisation of Pakistani society over years of illegitimate military rule.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Pakistan has always been a poor-based social pyramid. The PPP has always sought to flatten that social pyramid. Social and economic justice have been at the heart of the party’s policy engines, right from the socialist 60s,through the market-driven 90s, and now the global capital millennium. As its core values, the party has retained a decisive mix of security for the vulnerable, the women, the minorities, the peasants and the labour. If labour coalitions and peasant hunger drove the industrial relations and agricultural credit and resource policies of the first-generation PPP, the creation of a strong middle class, and market deregulations drove the second generation governments, which lay the groundwork for social nets and strong public sector services for a population still much in need of state interventions.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became known as the father of modernPakistan, because he brought public issues out of the feudal-business combine that dominated political culture inPakistan. His introduction of issues that addressed mass-interests, fixed minimum wages and lowered land ceilings was what defined the iconic programme of the PPP. His name holds cult status in many parts ofPakistantoday because he drew an entire political class, from the darkness of the urban ghetto and the dirt-poor village, into the sunshine of public life. The 1971 government of SZAB is still remembered as a powerhouse of pro-active public action, crippled by the truncation of Pakistan, but empowered by the will of a sovereign people. Unlike later PPP governments, which had to face the military-bureaucracy combine’s subversions right from the beginning of each term, the first Bhutto cabinet only fell afoul of massive right-wing envy towards the end of its term. Before the judicial murder of Bhutto Shaheed took place, he had put in place strong policy measures for the mass of the poor he routinely addressed. Within seven weeks of coming into office, the PPP announced, in February 1972, a new deal for workers which provided dignity and a fair return to labour. This was the first government that ensured security of employment by making arbitrary dismissal challengeable in Labour Courts. By law, workers were made stakeholders in business by giving them a profit share. This alone resulted in the distribution of Rs. 50 million to 200,000 workers in 1974 alone. It was the PPP government, that for the first time, established an Old Age Benefit Scheme as well as Group Insurance Schemes for all permanent workers while a minimum bonus was made mandatory. In 1988, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s government also blazed a trail in protecting labour. Post-retirement pension was made an entitlement for all citizens and housing colonies were established in every city. The thorny issue of child labour as well as bonded labour was institutionally addressed, and placed in the context of a human rights response. Hundreds of state prosecutions took place over child labour cases, and impunity became a problem for bonded labour.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â But urban poor constituencies were not the only stakeholders empowered by the PPP. Peasants were empowered by three PPP governments through land allotments, easy credit, access to tractors, seeds and other inputs. If the first PPP government went for aggressive public interventions in a labour and peasant framework, the second and third PPP governments responded to a changing global environment by securing pro-poor interests in a more deregulated context. Better governance, higher development indices and a high definition of human rights values percolated down to the grassroots. In this context, particularly following the trauma of the Zia years, women, minorities and the media always got the attention of PPP government, from the rights written in for them in the 1973 Constitution to the institutional entitlements ushered in by Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s two governments.
Despite the limited time the last two PPP governments had, their role in pursuing a pro-women agenda is acknowledged even today by independent organisations that work with public sector bodies on gender mainstreaming projects. It was Ms Bhutto’s government that set up a Human Rights Ministry to watch and investigate human rights abuses, particularly those against women.Â In February 1996, in a move acknowledged by all women’s activists in the country, and against a cacophony of strong right-wing pressures,Pakistanratified the United Nations’ Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This was a major achievement of the People’s Party Government on international covenants related to the rights of women. To this day, it is used as a critical benchmark by rights activists when measuring government performance in this area.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Much is made today, as it should be, of the need for crisis centres for women in Pakistan. The first such centres were established by the PPP government under Ms Bhutto. Legal aid centres and burn units in hospitals were instituted in response to domestic violence complaints, for the first time in Pakistan, and as the government was dismissed, a Domestic Violence Bill was caught in the cracks of political changes. On the development side, the largest credit programme was established for easy credit for women, a full-fledged Women’s Bank was set up and the first vocational training programme for women got going. Targeting public health as a poor woman’s burden, the PPP government set up the largest public sector program of Lady Health Workers, which established a vast network of 133,000 health practitioners to service rural and urban households inPakistan, exclusively to cater to women’s health needs as well as to address reproductive health issues. These women health workers today constitute all that is left ofPakistan’s public health sector backbone, and is touted by all governments asPakistan’s showpiece health programme. This is by no means all. After the institution of a job quota for women in public service, which was quietly reversed by the Musharraf regime, women judges were appointed all over the High courts and District courts, and a network of Women’s Police Stations set up.
Â Â Â Â Â Â It was the PPP which once again, begun the process of dismantling the Hudood Ordinances, bit by bit, both by executive order and acts of parliament in 1996, when whipping was abolished as a punishment, and all women booked under the Hudood were released as well as rehabilitated.Â Â Bhutto’s government instituted the new National Commission on the Status of Women under Nasir Aslam Zahid, which paved the way for the repeal debate on the Hudood Ordinances. Even in the post-Zia days, the PPP was in the frontlines of the struggle to reverse the draconian laws introduced by Zia, its membership on the streets swelling the ranks of the new women’s groups that had come up in resistance to the reactionary politics of the General. In 2002, it was the PPP again, with the specific backing of Ms Bhutto, which introduced the first legislation to completely repeal the odious Hudood Ordinances. In fact, it was the PPP’s constant pressure through private member’s bills that led the Musharraf regime to finally respond with a Women’s Bill, which again was steered and amended in committee by the PPP. As most will recall, the party made history by voting on issue with the government, when all others voted against, while the treasury benches had 44 votes absent.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â As a vehicle for political participation too, the PPP has always been the only home for progressive politics on a consistent grounding. This is the ultimate litmus test of a party’s appeal for its loyal vote bank, and that is one of the reasons why the PPP has withstood massive exogenous pressures to hold on to its famous federal constituency. This is also why the establishment of non-democratic players has always been afraid of the PPP, and Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto as it popular leader. This is still the only party that can mobilise a loyal cadre on a point of principle, for years at a stretch, without flinching, without denting its appeal. The PPP’s ability to stand up to any amount of pressure is rooted in its legitimacy in the eyes of its voters. They know that ” Benazir Aye Gee Rozgar Layee Gee” is a demand in addition to their growing thirst for what the PPP first delivered in recognising the basic dignity to its voters and promising them ” Roti, Kapra aur Makan” as an inalienable right.