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Sarwar Bari |

Recently a factory worker suggested to me passionately to take part in the next general election as a candidate. A close friend also gave me almost a similar advice. But consider this difference. While my friend wanted me to get a ticket from a major party, the worker thought a separate party consisting of NGO walas, intellectuals, labor unions, youth and women activists etc. should be first formed. This difference reveals a tale of Pakistan’s polity and society. While the worker seems to be completely disillusioned from major political parties, the middle-class friend isn’t.

This was not new. Similar advice has been given to me in past general elections too. This always puzzled me. Perhaps, they think political power is the ultimate power. That may be true for them, I am not convinced. I have worked with hundreds of communities across Pakistan in the last 25 years. In the aftermath of disasters, I worked with them while they were desperate to rebuild their lives. I assisted unorganized labor of brick kilns and power looms when factory owners refused to pay laborers officially announced the minimum wage rates and denied them social security cards etc.

Pakistan is one such country. But unfortunately, after the overthrow of each military dictator, the political leadership fails to strengthen the relationship with civil society and thus paves the way for another military coup

I silently stood by those women whose rights; bodies and souls were crushed either by their own families or by their own communities. While quietly assisting them, I also tried to raise my voice for their rights through op-ed articles and electronic media. I also comment on politics and conduct of elections. And very often, I say what I see. This has definitely sent ‘wrong’ signals to some of my friends and comrades. Some of them might have thought I am doing all this for political gains and others might have wanted me to articulate these aspirations through politics.

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When I would say NO, then they would ask me whose party ‘we should vote for?’ I would tell them to vote a candidate who has five qualities: accessible, honest, kept his/her promises in the past, reached to you when you were in serious trouble and belongs to a party whose leader is incorruptible. Now I tell them this: I am intellectually convinced that our political class is rotten to the core. Just consider, how shamefully our Senate let convicted people lead Pakistan’s political parties. Many well-intentioned people who joined political parties have either got corrupted or became disillusioned.

In my view, this has taken place because the political society has gradually damaged our civil society. Therefore, if we really want to reverse the situation for genuine social change then we must work with those who are left behind, both by political and civil society elites. Act upon the factory workers’ advice and beware of the Modus Operandi of the corrupt elitist structures.

Since the imposition of the neo-liberal regime across the globe, two major pillars of the civic and political arena have been severely damaged. First, as business elites capture political space in many countries including Pakistan, membership of political parties and voters turnout has sharply declined and the relationship between political society and labor has broken.

Instead of creating linkages with existing associations, political parties tend to establish their own labor wings, which are often marginalized within parties. Political parties who aspire for social democracy can join hands with the marginalized associations

Second, as NGOs’ dependence on state funding increased, and donors including UN agencies introduced the so-called public-private partnership concept, accountability of officials and private sector has virtually disappeared in most of the developing countries.  This has severely skewed the relationship between civil society and political society. My contention is that the quality of the policy of a country is largely determined the way these forces align and de-align with each other and what kind of relationship they have with political society.

Civil Society and nature of its relationship with the Political Parties

Pakistan’s civil society can be divided into three broad categories: special interest associations (SIAs), social movements, and, NGOs. Special Interest Association (SIA) is defined as an association of members having common interests because of common trade and agreed upon common method to articulate, to influence and to achieve their purpose. Though there exist no reliable data about the size of SIAs in Pakistan, according to some estimates there are about 250,00 -300,000 SIAs. From sweepers to barbers’ and from owners of sugar mills and textile mills to owners of tankers and factory workers, everyone is a member of some association.

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Special Interest Associations

The SIAs could be further divided into three categories. First, Highly Powerful SIAs, such as Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA), Pakistan Sugar Mills Association (PSMA), and Pakistan Farmers’ Association etc. Second, Moderately Powerful SSIAs like Supreme Court Bar Association, Pakistan Engineering Council, Wifaqi Madaras Board, Pakistan Medical and Dental Council etc. The third category consists of Marginalized SIAs- trade/labor unions of Bhatta and factory workers, All Pakistan Barbers’ Council and All Pakistan Clerks’ Association etc.

The Marginalised SIAs could be further divided into two sub-categories: self-employed (small shopkeepers) and employed (factory workers). Therefore, despite sharing some similarities, both categories are unique due to the distinct nature of their production relation. Hence, it determines their civic attitude and alignments.

Social movements

Unlike SIAs social movements are loosely organized, informal in nature, but believe in sustained campaigns to achieve their goals. A social movement may consist of individuals, SIAs, political parties and NGOs etc. In other words, a social movement could be a coalition of diverse ideologies and groups united for a common cause. Movements launched to end child labor, slavery, human trafficking, forced conversion, extremism and terrorism and to restore democracy and human/women rights are considered as social movements. In recent years the lawyers’ movement for the restoration of the judiciary (2007-08) could be exemplified as a social movement in Pakistan.

This extremely lopsided configuration of civil society in favor of a Highly Powerful SIAs seems to be exceedingly threatening for democracy, human rights, peace and good governance in the country. In my view, this is not an outcome of a natural process

It was a sustained movement; its leadership consisted of diverse people and it achieved its goal and then disappeared. Anjuman Muzaareen Okara may also be included in the list. Though there are a number of individuals and organizations who have been steadfastly keeping its cause alive, the leadership could not transform the issues into a sustained movement. I would also like to mention here the Labour Quomi Movement founded in Faisalabad, is now spread to neighboring districts.

This is perhaps the only movement of neglected and oppressed workers which has successfully transformed unorganized laborers of power looms and brick kilns into a formidable movement in recent years. Sadly, trade union movement has lost the vigor and their membership has declined steeply. Similarly, there appears almost a complete silence on the intellectual horizon too as we have no intellectual activism in the country as intelligentsia appears to be reluctant to take part in or to build any kind of movement. Exceptions aside, it may not be wrong to conclude the country lacks sustained social movements.

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Non-governmental Organizations 

The third category of civil society consists of NGOs and CBOs. There is no definition of NGO in Pakistan’s law. However, NGO is defined as a non-governmental organization and it must be not-for-profit and non-partisan. In recent years, the term Civil Society Organisation (CSO) has replaced NGO.

According to some estimates there are about 100,000 registered CSOs/CBOs in the country and their work could be divided into five major categories: advocacy and lobbying on public policy and implementation; mobilisation of marginalised groups for collective action; campaigning for rights; provision of relief in emergencies and rehabilitation and services; and implementation of development projects.

Since almost all NGOs are heavily dependent on foreign funding, they tend to perform any of the above-mentioned works. Therefore, it seems wrong to categorize them on the basis of their work. In short, multiple tasking has become a norm. Despite this criticism, it is absolutely beyond any doubt that NGOs’ have kept human/women’s rights, democracy, and environment issues alive in the country, in addition, the role of media must be acknowledged.

A non-governmental organization is defined as not-for-profit and voluntary citizens group, which is task-oriented and run by people with a common goal.  ‘NGOs perform a variety of services and humanitarian functions, bring public concerns to governments, advocate for and monitor policies and encourage political participation through provision of information.’ In Pakistan, there are about 75,000 registered NGOs and CBOs. Approximately, 600,000 people work for them.

Through this mechanism, they have been made junior partners. Just recall, how former convicted Prime Minister Mr. Nawaz Sharif tried to divide and use lawyers’ bodies

The NGOs may be further divided into three sub-categories. Advocacy and rights-based, service delivery and welfare-oriented, and third are a hybrid, a combination of the first two. Most of them believe in the empowerment of the marginalized groups or helping the poor. Like political parties, most NGOs have no proper membership base and lack internal democracy. However, most of them believe in and adopt participatory approaches, which ultimately inculcate some democratic values among NGOs’ work [ers].

A little comparison is imperative here. Unlike SIAs, NGOs don’t hold internal elections, as most of them are not membership based. Though they preach participatory approach, their management style remains heavily top-down and their boards consist of close blood relations and the members mutually sit on each other’s boards. Similarly, most political parties don’t hold intra-party elections and lack proper membership base. From the above discussion, we can draw this conclusion – SIAs are the only category of civil society that is inherently democratic. Neither NGOs nor political parties have any internal democracy.

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Some scholars define political parties as institutionalized mediators between civil society and those who decide and implement decisions – public policy. Political parties are also defined as organized bodies, that aggregate and articulate opinions and aspirations of certain sections of society.

About, 350 political parties are registered with Election Commission of Pakistan, but only 15 have some representation in assemblies. Many studies show that most of them don’t fulfill the definitional requirements. They lack internal democracy (Charter of Democracies acknowledge this fact too), formal membership base and internal structures. The leadership of most major political parties comprises big business, industrialists, landlords, tribal chiefs, land mafia and religious elite.

This extremely lopsided configuration of civil society in favor of a Highly Powerful SIAs seems to be exceedingly threatening for democracy, human rights, peace and good governance in the country

They promote their dynastic and class interests by inducing powerful people in their parties and nominate candidates in the election who belong to their own class or subservient to their interests. In short, most parties have virtually become conglomerates of the rich and corrupt dynasties, which deter other social classes from joining political parties. Subsequently, a huge gap exists between them and the public.

Interestingly, during the British colonial times, all major parties including All India Muslim League would hold an annual convention, keep a record of its members, hold regular elections etc. And almost all top leaders of the Congress and the Leagues were lawyers and professionals. No wonder, there were a significant number of trade union leaders in the first parliaments of Pakistan and India. Today there are none.

Relationship between civil society and political society

Now lets look at the relationship between civil society and political society. First, It is an established fact that a large number of leaders and members of central decision-making bodies of major political parties belong to Highly Powerful SIAs like Chamber of Commerce and Industries and APTMA etc. Despite being members of different political parties, they remain united for their economic interests – the best example of ‘unity in diversity’.

Highly Powerful SIAs remain in power and being in governments perpetually, they steer public policy in favor of their business and manipulate labor policy against the working classes

It is worth stating here that as many as 85% of Pakistan parliamentarians belong to a business or landed elites. As the public-private partnership policy is being aggressively implemented in countries including Pakistan, to separate the two (public from private) is impossible. Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, ministers, parliamentarians own private firms, the privatization, the setting up of joint ventures are decided by those who already own them. This is scandalous as it is the height of the ‘conflict of interest’. Shamelessly, some NGOs’ in violation of their mandate (to empower the marginalized and to improve governance and democracy) have inducted on their boards those (members of Highly Powerful SIAs) who are directly responsible in causing the harm – the large landlords/businessmen on their boards.

In order to consolidate these gains, it became imperative to cleanse parties from the influence of other social classes and to weaken rest of the civil society – social movements, Marginalised SIAs etc. However, it was also necessary to keep social activists engaged.

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For this purpose a very wicked strategy was evolved and aggressively implemented – separate wings for known activists belonging to social movements and Marginalised SIAs like laborers, women, youth, minorities etc. were formed. They were individually picked up, inducted in the wings and through them corrupted the social movements and SIAs they belonged to.

Highly Powerful SIAs remain in power and being in governments perpetually, they steer public policy in favor of their business and manipulate labor policy against the working classes. They also don’t hesitate to violate legal rights of their employees. Resultantly, we have been experiencing a breakdown of governance, rising poverty, and disparities between classes and regions.

They draw this shameless confidence by being in control of incumbent governments. No wonder, today we don’t find assertive social movements i.e. trade unions and no wonder labor department doesn’t perform and the labor policy remains on papers.

On the contrary, though NGOs are supposed to empower the marginalized social groups, hardly any meaningful collaboration between them and the Marginalized SIAs exists. Similarly, political parties’ relationship with marginalized labor unions has also disappeared in the last three decades. As the far relationship of Moderately Powerful SIAs is concerned, it appears that they have no formal organizational relationship with political parties but we witness leaders of these SIAs, members of executive bodies of various political parties.

Through this mechanism, they have been made junior partners. Just recall, how former convicted Prime Minister Mr. Nawaz Sharif tried to divide and use lawyers’ bodies. The Marginalised SIAs have been virtually kicked out of political society. It is not an accident. It is an outcome of a sustained mischief.

No wonder, people distrust politicians. Voters’ turnout does not touch 50% mark. And, ruling parties only obtain between 12% and 16% of the registered voters. The Global Peace Index 2017 (cited by the Friday Times) shows the extremely low rating for Pakistan’s political parties and parliament, with higher ratings for the judiciary. In my view, peoples’ low trust in political parties is due to two factors – narrow social base and corruption.

Surprisingly, both the CSOs and the Moderately Powerful SIAs have a very weak relationship with the Marginalised SIAs at best or no formal linkages with it at worst. One would hardly find any labor leader on any NGO’s board.

This extremely lopsided configuration of civil society in favor of a Highly Powerful SIAs seems to be exceedingly threatening for democracy, human rights, peace and good governance in the country. In my view, this is not an outcome of a natural process. It has been nurtured and promoted through a sustained policy. This quadruple monopoly of the elites inherently contains severe conflict of interest and is unhealthy and therefore will not survive. A majority can’t be cornered and humiliated for a long time. Thus, it is imperative to take remedial action.

First, isolation of the Marginalized SIAs must be addressed on a priority basis. The presence of tens of thousands of marginalized SIAs do not only provide a great potential to democratize our polity but also improve our governance should their potential is comprehensively tapped. There are hundreds of such associations in most districts. Instead of forming new community organizations, NGOs should identify and collaborate with them.

Caution 1: NGOs must not try to take the lead role in this case. Their role must be a catalyst and not of a ‘driver for a change’. Caution 2: while working with them, the role of money should be nominal. Their associations may be helped to form federations at the district level. Also, where possible, Marginalized and Moderately Powerful SIAs could form a united platform. I witnessed such cooperation during the restoration of judiciary movement.

They promote their dynastic and class interests by inducing powerful people in their parties and nominate candidates in the election who belong to their own class or subservient to their interests

Instead of creating linkages with existing associations, political parties tend to establish their own labor wings, which are often marginalized within parties. Political parties who aspire for social democracy can join hands with the marginalized associations. Leaders and activists of the Marginalized SIAs may be inducted on the boards of NGOs or vice versa. Second, they should build capacities, skills, and knowledge of each other through mutual learning.

Third, NGOs who agree to this analysis should join hands for public advocacy in order to weaken the monopoly of the powerful rich dynasties. Fourth, the Competition Commission or Supreme Court of Pakistan may also be approached to look into this atrocious monopoly. Read article 3 and 38 of Pakistan’s constitution.

Democracy without civil society is not possible and democratization is almost impossible without a strong relationship between civil society and political society (parties). Nations, which have/had strong social movements progressed democratically e.g. Korea, India, UK, Sweden etc. and where this organic relationship remained weak, military generals sacked elected governments with no resistance. Whenever civil society and political society joined hands, they overthrew the military regimes.

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Pakistan is one such country. But unfortunately, after the overthrow of each military dictator, the political leadership fails to strengthen the relationship with civil society and thus paves the way for another military coup. Pakistan experienced civil-military switching four times since independence. Rumours are spread against established by some powerful politicians. That may be partly true but by keeping the SIAs isolated no one can push back the establishment.

Should our political leadership want to remain in government, they must let Marginalized SIAs and social movements play their due role. Will they? Though there is a vast variation, a crude conclusion could be drawn that politicians of most countries are and will remain subservient to the dictates of their economic interests. Therefore, Marginalised Associations and social movements have no option except to join hands nationally and globally in order to recapture their lost space.

Instead of listening to my middle-class friend, I better act upon my factory worker’s advice.

Sarwar Bari is a social activist and analyst. He can be reached at sarwar.bari@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

Sarwar Bari is a social activist and analyst. He can be reached at sarwar.bari@gmail.com

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