Pakistan: Musharraf rule shaky as poverty rockets

Travelling from Malaysia to Karachi in Pakistan is to go from the ‘Second World’ to the ‘Fourth World’. Malaysia is certainly no showcase for Asian capitalism, as the apologists for the Kuala Lumpur regime argue. Indeed, it is no paradise for the working class and the poor, who are ruthlessly exploited and kept divided by a combination of state repression and the age-old ‘divide and rule’ methods inherited from British imperialism. But nothing can prepare you for leaving the quite modern Karachi Airport to confront for the first time the living hell of the sprawling conurbation of Karachi.

Transport of all kinds, from public taxis to motorcycle rickshaws, spew out their noxious gases going the wrong way along the ‘motorway’. There are more flies than I have seen in my life before, buzzing around the waste that litters the streets. I was no normal tourist, whistled from the airport to an ‘upmarket’ city-centre hotel. I was here at the invitation of the fastest-growing organisation of the left in Pakistan, the Socialist Movement Pakistan (SMP). I was taken to a ‘two-star’ hotel, which at first glance I took to be another of the slum dwellings that I have observed on the short journey from the airport. This residence, whose poorly-paid staff were extremely polite and helpful, would certainly not make it onto the guest house list of a British seaside resort!

While I was there, I had a glimpse of the nightmare for the masses which ‘modern’ Pakistan involves. In the baking heat, both during the day and at night, the electricity and with it the fans, not to say the battered television, could suddenly cut without warning. Just after I left, the city suffered a power cut for three days, which left no water for washing, sewage disposal, etc. Lenin once described capitalism as a “horror without end” for the working class and the poor. Pakistan is a living example of this and Karachi, once the industrial centre of Pakistan and still the fearless centre of working class resistance, gives a face to this horror.

I spoke at meetings in Hyderabad and Tandojan, moving successively from the ‘fifth’ world to the ‘sixth’, in terms of the conditions of the masses and the degradation that capitalism means for them. It is difficult to take in the Pakistani reality of Marxism’s ‘law of combined and uneven development,’ as we hurtled at breakneck speed in a ‘taxi’, when I feared I would literally break my neck or my back, past camel-drawn wagons.

It is eight years since I was last in Pakistan and the deterioration in conditions was palpable. One journalist described “guys who have not seen a good meal for days”. A minister in the regime of Musharraf admitted while I was there that “63 per cent of the population are on or below the poverty line”. Behind these horrific bare statistics is terrible suffering mixed with despair.

The newspapers were full of accounts of people committing suicide, the number of which is burgeoning; one woman in Tandojan while I was there was reported to have killed herself and her five children by throwing herself into the river because she had not eaten for a number of days. Another unfortunate Pakistani man, tried to escape this hell for a job in Malaysia, which is now short of labour because of the policies of the government in persecuting and deporting ‘illegal’ immigrants. He was refused entry, returned home and, according to his sister, decided to end it all.

Pakistan is a byword for poverty, disease and suffering. Recently, outside Lahore Press Club, for instance, 20 kiln workers lifted their shirts to display savage scars on their bodies. This was the result of their ‘donation’ of a kidney for money in order to pay off the crippling loans to their kiln bosses. A member of the Pakistani Human Rights Commission said: “The very arduous work for a labourer is now harder than ever before.” In one Punjabi village, a total of 3,000 people have donated their kidneys. Contrary to the impression given in the Western press, most of these ‘donations’ don’t go to rich Westerners but to rich Pakistanis. Their kidneys have been damaged beyond repair because of the poisoning of the water supply – itself a product of the capitalist system – with all sorts of rubbish mixed in, which tends to disintegrate the effectiveness of their kidneys. Eighty-three per cent of the water supply in Lahore, for instance, is polluted. There is no salvation for the poor whose kidneys fail; they face a lingering and terrible death.

Even an Islamicist, writing in the Daily Times, comments: “For 57 years since the foundation of Pakistan this country has been a paradise for the rich.” Despite these horrors, what is lacking in the situation is a clear consciousness of the potential power of the working class. It is the lack of this broad ‘subjective’ factor, particularly in the form of a mass, radical socialist party that can act as a pole of attraction, which can delay a revolutionary explosion. However, such is the potential in this society that an ‘accident’ could ignite an explosion from the masses.

Capitalism booming?

Yet, Pakistani capitalism is supposed to be booming. Khalid Bhatti, one of the leaders of the SMP, commenting at its Congress, pointed out that this economy is not so much an “Asian ‘Tiger’ but more of a goat”. Even government institutions admit that the results are entirely disastrous for the masses: “The State Bank of Pakistan said on Monday that the unemployment rate in Sindh and Baluchistan has risen considerably in the 2000-2004 period.” {Daily News, Pakistan, 22 March 2005.] In the country as a whole, 7,500 industrial units have shut down; over half a million jobs have been lost, a lot of them in industry, in the ten-year period 1995-2005. In some districts, the unemployment rate is 85 per cent.

It is a ‘boom’ that primarily lines the pockets of the bosses and the landlords. It is based upon a big increase in loans, which the regime has encouraged to stimulate purchasing power, not for the working masses, but for the ‘new middle class’, who speculate in property, buy the latest motorcycles, vans, and electronic goods, which have flooded the market. This disguises the fact, however, that the economic decline has destroyed the old middle class. In Sindh, for instance, 80 per cent of the population live on £30 a month.

Part of this economic catastrophe is due to the introduction of the Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA) by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which has slaughtered the already weakened textile industry. In Faisalabad, a major textile production centre, 400,000 jobs have been lost in the textile industry. The MFA under the WTO will destroy a lot more jobs.

A savage reduction in industry feeds into all aspects of the lives of the workers and peasants. For instance, of the four thousand health units in Punjab, 70 per cent have been closed down. 74 per cent of the population have no health care at all. Alongside this, the national question has been enormously aggravated, as evidenced by the escalation of the civil war in Baluchistan in the last week. Pakistan is a powder keg ready to explode at any time.

Ruling class split

Some of the objective prerequisites of a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation not only exist but in a sense are overripe. The Pakistani ruling class is riven with hesitation and is split from top to bottom. Musharraf is besieged by a rising tide of mass discontent and is hesitant on how to deal with this. He has attempted reforms from the top, a ‘democratic’ opening, resulting in the establishment of a fig leaf of a ‘parliament’. Real power is wielded by the bloated military caste which has ruled the country for the majority of the time since the formation of Pakistan 57 years ago. According to Assad, a telecommunications trade union leader and an SMP member, the military has amassed immense wealth as well as power. It is now probably the biggest industrial conglomerate in the country, with investments in sugar, coal and land, where it has a virtual monopoly and where prices have been rocketing. A worker in Islamabad commented: “The Pakistani people since 1947 were told to respect the army, but that has all gone, there is now a hatred for them and the police for in perpetuating our misery.” In other words, the Pakistani people have lost their fear of the military.

The skids are under Musharraf as he desperately searches for points of support because of the failure of the military’s political face, the governing Pakistan Muslim League. The Islamic ‘fundamentalists’ in the coalition, whose largest component is Jamaat Islami, which up to now have supported the government, have now deserted it. This right-wing party – with 34 of its Central Committee members millionaires or billionaires – has been forced to seek its distance from Musharraf because of the growing mood that we must “get rid of the army”. The mullahs that dominate Jaamat Islami are trying to convince the capitalists that they can do a better job than Musharraf with the same policies. They have launched a ‘million march’ with the aim of removing the military this year.

The other major parties have joined in, in words at least, with this aim. Prominent amongst them, of course, is the Peoples’ Party Pakistan (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto. However, the ‘Peoples’ Party is prepared to do anything except mobilise the people on a radical, socialist and revolutionary programme. Its two demands on the military are: 1) Bring back Benazir; 2) Bring back her husband. Shamefully, through the ‘good offices’ of British foreign secretary Jack Straw, Benazir has been involved in discussions with Musharraf’s government, with a view to the PPP participating in some ‘transitional’ arrangement with the regime of Musharraf. A cynical comment in the Daily Times underlines the character of the current PPP: “The PPP’s access to state power through partnership with the President-army chief can… stem internal disarray in the party caused by the long period of denial of power. It can thus reward its activists and win over opportunists from other parties.” [21 March 2005.]

Military hated

The Pakistani landlords and capitalists, from their press comments, see that the military is on its last legs and are urging it to stand down. The PPP is no longer the radical, ‘socialist’ or populist party of the past, but is just another bourgeois party, full of careerists, capitalists, feudals and place seekers. It is discredited amongst the most politically developed sections of the working class. They see no hope in a PPP government. This does not mean that the masses, or a significant section of them, more in hope than expectation, will not vote PPP to get rid of the military. But the belief that anything can be achieved from this party is misplaced. Only ossified ‘Marxists’, who are incapable of recognising the real change in the situation, hold much faith in the PPP as a vehicle for socialist change in Pakistan.

Musharraf has been warned by the bourgeois press that unless the mood of opposition is channelled into a ‘democratic’ parliament convened by elections, it will take an extra-parliamentary form, with “dangerous” implications for the system. Musharraf, however, is desperately seeking to produce his own counterweight to this by touring the country to speak at “mass” meetings, where people are dragooned to attend.

While I was in Pakistan, one such meeting took place in a stadium where adults and children were kept for hours waiting for Musharraf, who had been delayed, to arrive. When they tried to leave to seek water or go to the toilet, they were prevented from doing so by the police and the army, which resulted in the deaths of some of the adults and children. All of this at the state’s ‘expense’. In all this, however, the poverty and the frustration of the masses, the political level of the more developed sections of the working class shines through. Pakistan may be poor but its guiding layers of the working class are very rich in ideas, confidence and preparedness to struggle to change society.

This is where the SMP comes in. The Congress produced a series of documents and demands which can rally the best of the Pakistani working class, the exploited peasantry, the youth, the national minorities and the viciously oppressed women in a movement to change society. It has set itself the task of building a viable revolutionary organisation. The framework for this is already in place. This is the only hope for showing the oppressed Pakistani workers and youth a way out of the terrible morass which is Pakistan today.

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March 2005