(First published on January 19, 2019)
“Two elements, therefore, enter into our investigation: first, the Idea, secondly, the complex of human passions; the one the warp, the other the woof of the vast tapestry of world history,” writes Hegel in his Reason In History, a general introduction to the Philosophy of History. This interplay of the two where the Idea exploits human passions to get its ulterior, albeit rational designs, is called the cunning of reason. To paraphrase, the rational heartless forces of history play with your irrational drives to get what they want. For instance, why would an otherwise sane Indian journalist repeatedly quote my columns out of context whenever I criticise India? Because he thinks it is patriotic to portray a caricature of a man who is critical of his nation even if the sole purpose of holding a mirror was to make his country better. Ergo, patriotism in this case is the drive which might be masquerading his own helplessness against the forces of saffronisation at play to ravage his nation. But patriotism is not the only impulse that can be exploited by the Idea. There are other mundaner forms of tribal loyalty. You wouldn’t suspect any shade of liberal outlook to fall prey to the cunning of reason. But then you would be dead wrong.
Pakistan has not been able to treat its liberal community well. Always marginalised, often scoffed at, this community has desperately clung to whatever olive branch was tactically extended to it. I say tactically because none of its accidental benefactors were very fond of it. Sapped of its life essence the community battled on. Someone found small mercies in Ayub’s wariness of clergy. Another found Bhutto’s convivial, some say Caligula-like, lifestyle a proof of his liberal convictions. While Zia and the ensuing decade of nineties could hardly produce a liberal ethos, in Musharraf many saw a champion of the liberal cause. In Benazir Bhutto’s return many saw liberal messianic second coming. With her tragic departure the community got officially orphaned. Her successors had the intellectual depth and range of a road accident. And that is precisely how they treated this delicate balance of aspirations and impulses. Now the members of this community are strewn across the political spectrum in unimaginably inferior positions. Asif Zardari’s singular achievement was to convince this lot of it total and absolute helplessness. His first premier and close associates had a very different understanding of the word liberal.
And if truth be told the Pakistani liberal community defies any attempt to define it. It was in 2003, if my memory serves me correctly, that an office-bearer of the Liberal Forum told a hall full of audience, including this scribe, that the Pakistani liberals were not to be confused with the liberals in the West. The Western liberals were organising million marches against impending invasion of Iraq, in those days the forum didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But it was not merely a circumstantial choice. The disassociation was not merely from the activities of the Western liberals. It was a clean break from the western ideology as well.
It is important to track this community’s evolution from the Cold War’s leftwing politics. In Pakistan, the left-right polarity was not primarily about economic system but about the religious politics. The Cold War-era right wing was dominated by clerics and god men. The left which was mostly a reaction to this right wing also had the trappings of the socialist ideology. This continued until the end of the cold War, and with the fall of the USSR, the community had to be rebranded. It did but today’s liberal class also features some philosophical overtones of the hard left.
Apart from those who still believe in a bare minimum socialism-inspired agenda, there are various subgroups which promote certain disparate ideals. One group wants, or at least wanted in the pre-Trump world, to promote better relations with the Western countries. Another still wants improved relations with India. Change the name of the other country and the list goes on. The pro-USSR group is trying to rediscover itself in the age of a resurgent Russia.
Then there are those who are tied to one party or the other. Some allowed themselves to be enticed by General Musharraf’s military regime. In political parties, the largest group is associated with the Pakistan People’s Party. Other notable mentions include the PTI, the PML-N and various small leftist parties. In politics whatever they are, however, is not good enough. Their strength or weakness lies on the proximity with the leader at the top. Even then they find themselves in a significantly weaker position than the right-leaning party members and are the first to be thrown under the bus.
With the mistreatment at the hands of society and often the state came a resentment of authority. With the ebb and flow of their tribal political loyalties came more fractures and victimhood. They acquired a cynical tone. You will too if you feel nobody cares about you and the nation has the knack of hitting the target but missing the point.
But if they are such disparate forces why call them a community? Because they share a common ground. Even in their minimalist commonalities they are exceptionally humane, tolerant, in most cases very inclusive and contrary to what many think patriotic. Yes their interpretation of patriotism may differ from you but they want this country to progress from strength to strength. And with every passing day their vision allies with the state’s needs.
I made this argument many a time before and especially after the APS Peshawar incident. But then Asif Zardari’s ‘eent se eent’ speech revived tribalism within their ranks. It has been bedlam since. But here is the deal. If this class overcomes and starts to work with the state, a lot of good can come out. Many have not forgiven themselves for supporting Musharraf. But the truth is they managed to get rid of Hudood Ordinance. How many of us can say that. Tribalism may deliver at some baser level but if we overcome it, a far better society can be built and a lot of good may come out. The tribal leaders and pranksters will not be pleased but what liberals have got to lose? This timely leap of faith may help them restore the lost space and dignity of the liberal class. They fight for everyone else. About time they fought for themselves too.