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The truth about manifestos

| | in Agenda

It is often believed that party manifestos in Pakistan only play a rudimentary role. Therefore, parties hardly put any effort in writing them. They concentrate more on coining catchy populist slogans and rhetoric designed to undermine and mock their opponents' verbal bombast. Yet, this was not always the case. Recently, while going through newspaper reports in various Urdu and English dailies published in Pakistan just months before the historic 1970 elections, I came across numerous articles closely dissecting the manifestos of almost every major political party that was contesting the vote. I also came across a now defunct Urdu daily and English weekly which carried photos of men huddled at a street corner in Karachi, reading and discussing a party's manifesto. If one goes through two of the most detailed analyses of the 1970 elections — Craig Baxter's Pakistan Votes-1970 (1971) and Phillip E. Jones' The Pakistan People's Party: Rise to Power ( 2003) — they observe that party manifestos carried a lot of weight during the 1970 elections. That is why some of the most thoughtful manifestos ever authored in Pakistan largely appeared just before the 1970 polls.

Manifestos are complex documents, often authored by intellectuals, economists and trained ideologues whose job is to dissect a country's economic, political and social conditions and explain how a party would address issues triggered by these conditions. Unfortunately, from the 1980s, party manifestos in Pakistan stopped being robust intellectual exercises. They are published because they have to be. They are hardly analysed in detail anymore by political commentators who are supposed to break them down for voters to read and absorb. Just like voters, the media and its commentators too are often busy dissecting what is actually nothing more than day-to-day political gossip. Over the decades, a decline in the quality of manifestos has paralleled a decline in the quality of political commentators.

During my research on the subject, I also discovered how important a role, the manifesto of Pakistan's founding party, the All-India Muslim League (AIML), played in galvanising activists and voters during the 1946 elections in British India. The AIML's victory in all the Muslim-majority areas in these elections was the catalyst that hurried the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The May 23, 1945 issue of the now defunct Eastern Times (published from Lahore) reported that young men and women activists of the AIML had been conducting an intense election campaign in the Punjab after thoroughly studying the party's manifesto. It's a remarkable manifesto. Not lengthy by any means, and every word in it carries a lot of weight. Originally published on October 31, 1944, it was largely written by a small group of ideologues headed by a Muslim member of the Communist Party of India. The gentleman was Danial Latifi, whose entry into the AIML had been green-lighted by party chief Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

In her 2000 book, Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850, professor of history and author Ayesha Jalal scrutinised this manifesto in some detail. The manifesto speaks of a Pakistan which would be beneficial for both Muslims as well as non-Muslims under the AIML rule. It also explains that the State under AIML “will be the alter-ego of the national being and in good time the two would merge to form an ordered and conflict-free society.” Interestingly, there is little or no mention of Islam as a political entity. Instead, the manifesto explains Pakistan as a country which was to be formed by a cornered Muslim minority. The manifesto added that a country shaped by a minority of India would be more appreciative and understanding of the plight of all minority faiths in the region than a country run by an emerging “upper-caste Hindu majoritary.” Historian and author I A Talbot, in his detailed paper on the 1946 Punjab elections (published in the 1980 issue of Modern Asian Studies), writes that AIML's manifesto was often criticised “for opportunistically attempting to placate every conceivable interest group.” But there are those who have suggested that this fact actually manifests the brilliance of that manifesto. By 1946, not only was the manifesto able to attract Muslims of almost all classes, but many Christians and Zoroastrians and “scheduled class Hindus” (especially in Bengal) too had joined the party.

On the other hand, the manifesto that still stands out, after the country's creation is the 1970 elections manifesto of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). As mentioned earlier, manifestos of most parties during those elections were of high quality. But experts continued to praise PPP's 1970 manifesto as perhaps one of the best written in the region. There's a good reason for this. PPP chairman Z A Bhutto had surrounded himself with some of the sharpest intellectuals, who contributed in authoring the document. These included the formidable Marxist ideologue, JA Rahim; socialist economist Dr Mubashir Hassan; “Islamic Socialist” theoretician Hanif Ramay; and veteran socialist activist Sheikh Muhammad Rashid.

It is a lengthy, cohesive and intellectually robust document. It cogently builds a case for democracy and socialism in Pakistan by systematically reviewing the economic and political history of the region and of the circumstances that led to the creation of the PPP. Then, in even more detail, it sets out to explain exactly how the party planed to ring in major economic, political and cultural reforms so that a strong, democratic and progressive Pakistan could emerge. However, the quality of manifestos took a dramatic plunge during the controversial 1977 elections. Writing for the Asian Survey in July 1977, historian Lawrence Ziring pointed out that the 1977 manifesto of the PPP was a pale reflection of its 1970 document, whereas, the manifesto of the Opposition alliance was more of a rant against the PPP regime. It is imperative for the voters to determine and gauge a party's ability to understand the historicity of economic, political and social issues; and how it plans to address them. This can only be done by looking at the parties' manifestos. I disagree with the belief that in a developing country like Pakistan, ‘empty slogans' alone gain electoral traction. Because as we have seen, a 1946 manifesto and a 1970 one in this very region went a long way in helping shape electoral patterns and behaviour that still seem to be far more informed than what we have seen after 1970.

 
 
 
 
 

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