Meraj to Mirza, the end of the party

Published in The Express Tribune

Well, one thing’s for certain: the left is dead.

This election was between Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, the film set entirely in sunny Punjab. And their leanings were clear. Mr. Sharif’s fans compared him to Ronald Reagan; the PTI chairman often spoke of Mahathir Muhammad (heroes rarely more flawed). Our liberal candidates weren’t at liberty to make pretty analogies, besieged as they were by the Taliban.

The MQM somehow managed to hold its ground in Karachi, to little surprise. What was left of the ANP however – bombed, bombed, and bombed again – was punted aside by the voter. And the People’s Party, lord of all it surveyed in 2008, was sent reeling back to Sindh.

With good reason: while the country burned for five years, ‘the left’ spent most of its energy tearing one another’s throats out in Karachi.

But this is no left, armed wings and all. And though the PPP lives to fight another day, it’s time in Punjab may be close to over. The election results have proven Nawaz Sharif conservatism’s unlikeliest renaissance man. The Muslim League now boasts a voter base as solid as it is underreported: mildly nationalist, moderately religious, and if not committed to their party, unconvinced by anyone else. Punjab’s breakneck urbanization has helped, as has a rather violent capitalist streak fond of its Ittefaq Groups.

But while Nawaz League looms large, and Imran Khan fires up the imagination of a fresh generation, the PPP brand is in crisis, pointing to the wider crisis of Pakistan’s left today.

A strong left is vital for a noisy, inclusive democracy. But already assailed by the hard-right, we too have infantilized liberalism to mean nightclubs and all-night phone packages. It does not.

The liberal element, at its highest, is meant to be society’s conscience (not the province of coffee-drinking elites). The political left, meanwhile, is rooted in reducing social inequality. These are ideals worth striving for.

But working class issues, the lifeblood of progressive parties everywhere, have faded from discussion. The culprits are many: privatization, awful labour laws, and the beatings our workers’ unions have taken under martial law (and, ironically, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto).

Which leads us to the party itself. The PPP had no message during the campaign. The –isms the party once promised, nationalism, anti-imperialism, infamous Islamic socialism, are all gone. Populism, the one that made it special, breathes only via Benazir Income Support Programme.

For old jiyalas, the current leadership model – a boy-king and a president-regent –doesn’t wash. Hereditary party though it is, Zardari isn’t Benazir. Nor was Benazir her father, but the party was fine with exactly who Benazir was. The great Anwar Mooraj wrote in these pages about the elder Bhutto chastising dinner guests for not knowing ‘the first thing about communism’ or Stalin. Bhutto’s less morbid heroes included Cavour, Mazzini, and Rousseau; men his son-in-law would be forced to Google today.

Yes, ‘leadership’ is too often the reason given in explaining away Pakistan’s problems. But it seems the case for the People’s Party, and not just including its co-chairmen. It is the senior cadre that has changed. Because the People’s Party was also once the party of Malik Meraj Khalid. And Meraj Khalid was all that the left could have been.

Meraj Khalid was synonymous with what liberalism could be at its purest: relentless welfare work, a kindness of spirit, and a powerful, fundamental decency. And for those who find goodness a liability in politics, Mr. Khalid quietly set the record in 1970 for most votes ever won from Lahore.

Today, he is best-known for being Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister, and caretaker PMs, by definition, aren’t meant to inspire. Meraj Khalid did. His short premiership was defined by an endless compassion for the poor, and a near-absurd lack of security. That he flew economy and promoted educational drives for the rural poor is well-known. But an incident recounted by Shafqat Mahmood, where Meraj Khalid couldn’t sleep for days, complaining his Governor House bed was ‘too large’ and he too small, stays with one forever. His opinion on the PM House would be no doubt be similar, had he not refused to move in.

A man of the old guard (more J.A. Rahim than Jehangir Bader), it was Meraj Khalid who spoke sadly of his own party having lost its way – in 1974. He was made to step down from Law Minister as a result, his honesty cutting into Chairman Bhutto’s prickly vanity. He would later also part ways with Benazir over differences with Asif Zardari, then at his mid-‘90s worst.

From modest beginnings, Mr. Khalid passed away in modest circumstance, a wonderful distinction among those who achieved half as much eminence.

With Benazir’s assassination four years later, the party would eat itself again. What was left of the left, if you pardon the phrase, would be steamrolled by Asif Zardari. PPP 3.0 was the party’s saddest incarnation, and Zulfiqar Mirza its poster child.

Carried to Sindh’s home ministry by Pakistan’s ‘only national party’, Mirza, in an unforgettable press conference, reminded those ‘bhookay nangay’ Muhajirs how they had sought sanctuary in Sindh. It’s to Zulfiqar Mirza’s credit that he provided such a stunning example of what our politics now is: ethnic, ugly, and diseased from within.

The historian Gibbon once wrote that there was little historical record of Roman Emperor Antoninus, though he reigned 23 years. Gibbon thought this tribute to him, considering history little more than ‘a register of the crimes of mankind’. Our own history proves Gibbon right.

The lore of the Islamic Republic belongs to Ghoris and Ghaznavis, men seldom Islamic and never republican. More recently, a whole news cycle was dedicated to Zulfiqar Mirza’s bile in 2011. But Gibbon was writing in 1776. It might be time we afford space to kinder souls.

Because Meraj Khalid’s life is one worth remembering, appeal as it does to the better angels of our nature. And it tells us a better, kinder Pakistan is out there, one we may still find if we keep looking.