Covid-19, Global Left and Politics in Pakistan

Tariq Ali

Ammar Ali Jan, Zahid Ali and Ziyad Faisal sat down with political activist, writer and public intellectual Tariq Ali for the Left-wing Youtube show The Muqaddimah. A number of topics came under discussion – from the COVID-19 pandemic to the new Left emerging in Pakistan, to the crisis of capitalism. PLR is reproducing an extract of this conversation.

Transcribed by: Zaighum Abbas and Raza Gillani

Edited by: Aima Khosa 

Muqaddimah Interviewer (MI): How can we analyse the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused a global emergency in economic and political terms?

Tariq Ali (TA): The first question we must ask is: why has this particular epidemic received so much attention across the globe? There is only one reason for this: the fact that it has affected Europe. Had it remained in China, Asia, or Africa, then the hysteria around it would not have been more than that caused by the SARS pandemic. People forget that for a number of countries in Africa, the malaria pandemic is far deadlier than COVID-19. This hysteria exists because the virus has wounded Europe and the USA. Even the work that we have been doing is merely our attempt to copy them.

Such epidemics have broken out in the past and this will eventually die down, that much I am sure about. In Wuhan, where all of this started, the authorities have managed to take control. We have to see Wuhan as the arc of the future.

But, for us in Pakistan, doing the same is difficult because for the last 25 years, no attention has been given to building state infrastructure. Everything has been privatised and only those who can afford private healthcare are safe. Exceptional voluntary work is always carried out by doctors, but the state is doing absolutely nothing. I have been saying this since long, that we have had so many opportunities since Bhutto’s era. Something had to be done about the poor!

I used to say this whenever I met Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto that revolution might be difficult for you to bring, but you still must do something. “What should we do?” Benazir Bhutto once asked me. “Let me tell you what to do,” I said. “Establish a clinic in every village and five or six state-of-the-art hospitals in every city. The government should allocate money for them. Spend on education, specifically education for girls. No one will stop you from doing this and if anyone tries, you should come on television and tell people the truth.”

“Who will do this?” she asked.

“This is your government! You should be doing this,” I replied

“You should come and do this,” she said.

“How can I do this?” I answered. “I am just an individual. This is something for the state to do.”

But they could never do anything. There was never any will.

So, the political lessons from this pandemic are clear. Private enterprise, or private healthcare structures, cannot deal with such a pandemic. State intervention and national healthcare is of prime importance if we are to save people’s lives.

MI: How do you see the COVID-19 situation in Britain, especially after Prime Minister Boris Johnson was taken to intensive care? What is the situation of the NHS and the healthcare systems of the UK and the US?

TA: In Britain, the NHS has been continuously downgraded over the last 20-25 years. Hospital beds were reduced and spending was cute down. The main policy for Britain towards the NHS, which started under Blair’s Labour government and since carried on, is to introduce Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) for the NHS. Many had warned them that if PFIs were introduced, people would spend their lives paying their interests, which turned out to be true.

This is why the British healthcare system was not prepared for the COVID-19 outbreak. The NHS hospitals did not even have protection kits or masks. Protective equipment was then imported from China and Cuba. As we speak, the first thing they should be doing is to nationalise all private hospitals. They could have given them some compensation if they wanted to, but they had to take control of all hospitals. On the contrary, thousands of pounds are being given to private hospitals every day. The government had initially thought that this virus would run its course and there was no need for mass testing. They just wanted to compete with Germany.

The reason why Germany saw a low infection and mortality rate is not because they are healthier than others. My comrades in Germany tell me that the reason behind a relatively safer situation is because they have a high number of nurses and because of that, they are able to keep people in homes and send nurses to test them there. Only in severe cases are people brought in hospitals and people with mild symptoms are being treated at their homes. This is something that France is beginning to do, but Italy and Britain have not been able to do this and, therefore, they are suffering.

In the USA, the situation mirrors hell. Medicines are expensive and if you are not insured, you are almost doomed to die at home. This is the reality for many immigrants. Trump, however, lives in his own imaginary world – one that is filled with complex speculations. You could not have a worse president to deal with such a crisis. Some people say that the USA is eventually getting what it deserved, but I think that it is important to recognise that such pandemics not only affect the state, but a lot of poor people in the USA as well. We have to care about them and support them. I get calls from friends in New York, who tell me that the situation is very bleak.

MI: How do you see the recent defeats of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders after having created hope of an alternative? Would it not have been better to have people like Sanders and Corbyn at the helm in such times?

TA: It is important to recognise how American politics works. There are only two parties which are not very different from each other, even under Trump. Their policies are directed towards supporting the Wall Street and its bankers, owners of hedge funds and basically supporting capital. They cannot look beyond it. There can be multiple reasons behind this, but one fundamental reason is that people do not see any alternative to this reality.

Cuba is a small island, but they have hundreds of thousands of doctors. Their doctors go to Africa for free and their arrival in Italy made a big impact. People wonder if a small island like Cuba can do such a thing, why can’t their country? The USA is the world’s largest imperialist country. They have military bases across the globe. Earlier their power was based on their military, but now they use economic sanctions to exercise it. They have sanctioned Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba just to keep their power. Their policies and politics are determined by their imperialism and their internal policy is also directed at protecting billionaires. This is why what Sanders says – controlling corporations, having a state-led single payer healthcare system – haunts them: if the USA has a single payer healthcare system today, the influence and power of insurance companies would go down. The USA’s health spending is higher than Europe, but it never goes to the people, it only goes to insurance companies.

We need a mass movement to challenge this power. There was a mass campaign against Bernie, who should have been the candidate. If Biden runs, he will lose to Trump, surely. But they even then chose Biden because for them, Trump’s victory is still better than having someone like Bernie in power. This is the politics of the Democratic Party.

MI: You talked about China and described Wuhan to be the arc of the future. Many western analysts are now wary of the authoritarianism that will eventually rise as a result of this pandemic, especially in China. How do you see this perspective?

TA: I regularly read their essays in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other American newspapers. I think they have panicked. They have panicked because they feel that China is apparently looking better than them. If China were the USA’s satellite state, then such propaganda wouldn’t have been carried out against them. It is true that China has a specific form of authoritarianism and there are a lot of contradictions in their structure and politics, but this is not about authoritarianism. This is about state institutions, about building a large hospital in two weeks in Wuhan. If China can do it, can we Pakistanis or Indians not do it? We can. But for that, we need a strong state which can take the initiative. We can, of course, talk about a lot of other harms that such a power generates, but in terms of medicine, it is extraordinary. This is why they’re being attacked.

If there were more accountability in their system, if it was more flexible and open to people’s concerns, they would have done better and taken care of the virus even earlier than that. It is not that they’ve done it because they’re authoritarian, but I see that, on the contrary, authoritarianism is their biggest hurdle. If there were people’s councils and democratic accountability, they could have stopped the virus before.

After 9/11, in the USA and in Europe, laws have been passed which allow agencies to pick up a person from the streets and keep them without trial. Obama signed the clause which allows the president to authorise the execution of a citizen deemed a threat to national security, within the USA or outside. You know how national security threats are formed.

MI: Many are writing that we cannot go back to the world before COVID-19 and that we will see a new world after this pandemic ends. How do you such a forecast? Also, what do you think about state intervention and its use to fight such pandemics?

TA: I think that both the conservative and social democratic parties of today have very short memories. One central characteristic of neoliberalism is that they have shortened the lifespan of historical memories.

They will use these conditions and anti-democratic laws. They might keep some of them out but these laws will surely be used in the future to repress mass mobilisations. Britain has a long history of controlling and managing crowds, masses and newspapers. News management, in this country, is an art form. We must never think that newspapers were free in this country, ever. They might have been freer than Pakistan, but there was always control. In propaganda, they have no match. Look at BBC – their propaganda is now extremely open. There was a time when you could see more news on a Pakistani news outlet here than in BBC because of its state control and propaganda.

So, anti-democratic measures and post 9/11 laws will be used for sure against people in the future and we have to struggle against that. It is a peculiar characteristic of capitalist countries that they never let go of these laws once they are passed. Even if they put them down for a time, they stop using them but they never completely wipe them out, because they want to keep them so that they can use them in the future. Like the use of Section 144 in Lahore, in Delhi. It is an out-dated colonial law, but it is still being used.

It is also important to mention here that their system rests on a very narrow social basis. What we called the industrial bourgeoisie, in Marx’s time and afterwards, have been almost completely wiped out. For neoliberalism to flourish, they allowed China to retain and continue to industrialise until it became a giant. They used China against Russia in order to break it up. Now, they have panicked from the large support they had given to China and they are trying to stop it. But their own system is resting on a very narrow base, socially. This is why they are always wary of any mishaps or eruptions. They see any form of alternative and they try to put it down as fast as they can. Even people like Jeremy Corbyn, a leftist social democratic, who was not even as big a force in terms of threatening their structures, brought out the worst in them. Large campaigns were carried out against him, at every level of government and even within the Labour Party.

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour party leader, I remember watching breakfast news that day. For the first time ever, I saw the UK chief of army staff on TV. The BBC interviewer asked him extraordinarily, “What does the army think of Corbyn’s election?” Who even thinks of such a question? BBC.

The general responded that there was a lot of panic in the army about the effect Corbyn’s election could have on the country’s security. “I would not rule out mutinies in the army,” he said. This is the mother of democracy!

Such a thing is commonplace in Pakistan, but here in Britain, the military does not involve itself in politics. Corbyn even induced the military to come out.

MI: A new Left is emerging in Pakistan. People usually discredit them by using examples of places like Venezuela where they say the Left has failed the people. How do you see the experience of Latin America? What lessons should we should learn from it?

TA: In 1999, Hugo Chavez was elected for the first time as the president of Venezuela. Here, using the word ‘elected’ is extremely important, since all of Latin America’s new wave was centred on elections – every single one of them. It had its own strengths, in terms of legitimacy, but it also had a weakness.

I met Chavez quite a few times and talked to him about philosophy, politics and economics. He used to say, “We are seeing that nationalising every single thing leads us nowhere. We have to stop nationalising small scale industries.” He also used to say, “We cannot isolate ourselves, especially after witnessing what happened to Cuba during its isolation.” His plan was to have three or four countries in Latin America joining hands to resist the USA. And this was already beginning to happen, for example, in Bolivia. Magazines like The Economist or The Financial Times panicked after seeing this. They used to say that Latin America had two models; the Chavez model and the one led by Lula in Brazil, which was initially a very weak neoliberal sort of a government. 

Let me tell you an interesting event about Venezuela. From the start, the opposition parties in Venezuela were extremely vicious and even racist. I accompanied Perry Anderson, Susan, and Robin Blackman as part of a delegation of the New Left Review in Venezuela. We met a Left intellectual. He asked us why we had gone there, since he felt Chavez had nothing to do with the Left. He said that his mother had warned him to never trust the Zambos, which is a race with both indigenous and slave blood. Chavez was a Zambo. I lambasted him for saying that, and he had nothing to say in response. Even Chavez told me that most of the Venezuelan Left intelligentsia didn’t back them. We could go there to talk and support him, but in terms of economics, there were issues. But till the day he died, Chavez was firm in his support for the poor, regardless of the issues and consequences. Thousands of Venezuelans had gone to Cuba to become doctors and get trained in medicine. 

It was no wonder that Americans opposed him and continued to fight him till the end. They backed strikes of elite labourers of the oil industry who had been under the control of the previous regime. They opposed his constitution but used it to support a referendum against him when he was a sitting president. 

I once asked Chavez what was the toughest challenge he had faced. He said that the time when white colour unions went against him and doctors, oil workers and engineers refused to work. This was the toughest moment for him as he feared that the USA might be able to put his regime down by backing this opposition. 

He also recalled the time when he went out with one of his bodyguards and saw the enormous support he had on the streets. People came to greet him, shake his hands and hug him. Even gang leaders came up to him and told him that the supply of beer had been halted. “We will stop having beer but we will continue to fight them, no matter what!” they said to him. A woman held his hand and took him to her home. The house had two rooms; they slept in one and cooked in the other. The woman told him that they don’t have a sofa in their room because they had burnt its wood to cook food. She said to him, “Tomorrow we will burn the bed to cook because we have complete faith that you will not let them win.” Chavez said that these events gave him the resolve to keep on fighting despite the odds against him. 

Chavez also remembered that during the doctors’ strike, when he was extremely worried, Castro called him from Cuba. When Chavez expressed his concerns about people starting to die due to the doctors’ strike, Cuba sent as many as 10,000 doctors within a week, along with large tents, medical equipment and medicine. They established clinics and medical centres in the poorest towns, where there were no doctors present before. 

When the Americans saw this, they said that they weren’t doctors – they were terrorists! People responded by saying that if they were terrorists, they demanded more terrorists to be sent to them as their lives were being saved! Even poor supporters of right wing parties opposed terming them as terrorists.

I feared for Chavez’s life after the coup d’état in 2002. I feared that they would do with him what they did to Che Guevara. We were fortunate that it didn’t happen because even the army had an internal disagreement and soldiers refused to support the new president because they had no voice in electing him. They even warned their superiors that a mutiny will be on the cards if he becomes the president.

People from Caracas came down and surrounded the Miraflores Palace while chanting “Chavez is ours!” A general asked the band at the Miraflores to play the national anthem in honour of the new president. One of the members of band asked who this new president was and why hadn’t he been chosen through an election. The general responded by telling him to just obey orders. An 18-year-old farmer boy, who played the trumpet beautifully, said to the general that this answer was unsatisfactory. When the general shouted and ordered them to obey for the third time, the boy put down his trumpet and said, “You look quite passionate, perhaps you should play it for him.” 

It was this level of political consciousness that gave Chavez the courage to fight. It was basically through a combination of the poor and the soldiers that Chavez came back.

In terms of economics, I think they made a few mistakes and corruption had also gone too high. In Maduro’s time, they took the decision of paying the army more to maintain their loyalties. This wasn’t such a bad line of thought since it helped them keep the Americans away after generals refused to support the Americans because their own government had been giving them enough. But this policy allowed the army to carry out large scale corruption, which was a big price to pay. They stole money, made business and caused a lot of demoralisation. 

I don’t say now that Venezuela is a model. It would be wrong. But I think it is very important to take lessons from it. 

To all the people who say to me that socialism or communism has failed, I usually respond by saying that what you call socialism, or communism, has failed only once. But capitalism has failed some fifty times. So we will rise again and this system will bounce back. I don’t know when, but it will.

MI: A lot of literature is being produced now about the student movement in Pakistan in 1968, which acted as a catalyst in the larger movement against Ayub Khan. How do you remember the workers movement of that era and what do you think we can learn from the experiences from 1968?

TA: It was a unique era – the 1960s and 1970s. Not just in Europe but in Pakistan as well. I have written and talked about it a lot because people tend to forget the Pakistani movement when remembering the 1960s. Although, if we look at it, we only had one victory in bringing down a dictatorship and that was in Pakistan. It couldn’t happen in Mexico, they were close in France, but it didn’t happen. 

It was a very interesting time. On one hand celebrations of Ayub’s ten golden years were going on. We used to read Jalib’s poetry which used to criticise those celebrations. Jalib reflected the mood, especially after China lent support to Ayub for their own interests against India – with words like cheen apna yaar hai, us pe jaan-nisar hai, par vahan hai jo nizam, us taraf na jaiyo, us ko duur se salaam. So the mood of the movement was different. People wanted him [General Ayub Khan] to go, 10 years were more than enough for them.

It is also important to remember that in those years, even though the levels of oppression weren’t as high as Zia’s period, it was brutal nonetheless. You could also say that even though liberals don’t like it, but it is the truth: that he was a secular dictator. He had nothing to do with religion. He used to come down on Jamaat-e-Islami hard when they menaced. His Family Laws Ordinance was very progressive, even more than India’s, with women’s right to divorce, etcetera. Having said this, there was a lot of violence against the Left, trade unions and students. People died less, but there were a lot of repression and arrests. Since repression was continuous, the 10-year celebrations aroused hatred among people, especially students. In Dawn’s celebration edition, there were more than 40 photographs of Ayub which enraged the students.

It started off with a very small event. Some students from Rawalpindi went to Landi Kotal to buy some things from the black market. On their way back, they were stopped by the police, their car was searched, they were arrested and beaten up at the police station. The next day, Raja Anwar called a meeting at Gordon College Rawalpindi and the whole college came out in their support. When they were met with violence, students from other colleges came out. This was the trigger. Who would’ve imagined that the country would light up from a simple smuggling charge?

The government also underestimated the situation. The fire spread from Rawalpindi, which we termed as the least political city, to Karachi, Peshawar, Sahiwal, Lyallpur, Sheikhupura and Lahore. In three weeks, it became a nationwide movement. Then it spread to Dhaka, Chittagong, and in East Pakistan. This was the moment when Pakistan was unified in the truest sense; when people from below united across the 1,000 miles-long divide. When a student was beaten up or killed in Karachi or Lahore, women in Dhaka used to march in rallies barefoot in white saris. 

Then, slowly, workers also joined the movement. But it is important to remember that mobilisation in peasants was not very high, and they never came out in good numbers. Organisation in farmers increased after the movement, not during it. The movement was largely urban. Workers came out and so did the Railway Workers Union, which had a strong political history and organisation under Mirza Muhammad Ibrahim’s leadership from even before the Partition. Women, sex workers, lawyers and junior civil servants also came out. There was also some disgruntlement in the ranks of the army as well, where junior soldiers refused to open fire. The unity was simply outstanding. We must recognise that this wasn’t just class solidarity. Of course, there was a good amount of that, especially after the workers came out, but this was a movement which was initiated by students and eventually it captured the whole of society. 

It must be remembered that in any revolutionary movement institutions emerge which do not possess power themselves, but they challenge the structures of power – such as the relationship of the party and Soviets following the Russian Revolution, which we tend to forget. It was after the Bolsheviks had won the majority in Moscow and Petrograd Soviets and defeated the moderates that they decided that it was time for insurrection. In Pakistan, there were no Soviets, or something similar, because no effort was made for it. The closest we had for Soviets were street demonstrations, which have their own limitations. We could not make these alternative institutions of power. 

Resultantly, the state made Ayub resign and announce elections. From those elections came large political parties – Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party and Mujibur Rehman’s National Awami League which came out with its six points for regional autonomy. The Maoist Left, however, in both west and the east, failed to support the movement.

I asked Maulana Bhashani why they had not supported the movement. He used to take me to Kissan meetings in Bengal. I told him that because of his position, Awami League had formed hegemony in East Pakistan. He responded that he had met Zhou Enlai during his visit to China who had assured him that China would support Pakistan since it was an anti-imperialist country and that they would support the current regime to their full potential. 

I told him that this was a lie, and that he should have known that as opposed to being anti-imperialist, Pakistan and the current regime were basically owned by America. Pakistan and China are friends only because of their own interests with respect to India, but I told Bhashani that he shouldn’t have listened to the Chinese. 

The situation in the western part was similar. The Maoist faction of the National Awami Party, people like CR Aslam, did the same. They didn’t support the movement and, therefore, the presence of the Left was minute. This is why the PPP gained support. Left wing students joined the PPP in large numbers. I remember that Bhutto came to London with JA Rahim and called me. I went to him and he gave me the party’s manifesto which Rahim had written. He asked me to read it, which I did, and then told me that they wanted me to become a founding member of the PPP. 

I politely declined and said that this was not my manifesto, as I was a socialist revolutionary. I told him that he was making a mistake by adding religion to this manifesto because the National Awami Party had taught us that not only was it necessary to keep religion out of politics, it was doable us well. I told him that he was taking on a fight that we could not win. 

Bhutto had actually played an integral role in the movement as well. He was there on the streets, he made speeches everywhere and went to jail as well. He knew that jail had in-house tape recordings, of which he took great advantage. When his lawyer Mehmood Kasuri used to go interview him, he would say rhetorical things because he knew that he was being heard and recorded. 

I remember in one instance when he bashed the appointment of General Musa Khan as the governor of West Pakistan. He said that when he would win over power, he would “make him wear a gharara and make him dance on the streets!” It was due to such actions that he gained a lot of support. The entire base of PPP in its formative years were radical students.

MI: Bhutto generally stands for socialism in Pakistan. Other than the fact that the PPP was not secular, what do you think should be the Left’s criticism of the party’s manifesto?

TA: Some things in that manifesto would have surely taken Pakistan forward, as it was actually progressive. One main thing which was mentioned in the manifesto – but very poorly – was land reform. It was in the 1970 elections that we witnessed for the first time that peasant consciousness had drastically increased. PPP’s candidates had defeated landlords in many areas and we used to joke that even a dog with PPP’s colours would defeat any feudal. They should have introduced radical land reforms at that time, since the situation of peasants was extremely devastating, especially in Sindh where feudalism resembled old-age slavery. I think that Bhutto couldn’t entirely move past his Sindhi landlord mentality because many feudals from Sindh joined the party after his victory. 

This is how the cycle repeats itself in Pakistan. There is a specific layer of the rich who change their party allegiances as the governments change. Same happened with the PTI, which aroused hopes of modernity in students, but eventually fell victim to the same cycle. So, in a way, PPP started that cycle, which was initiated in Sindh but soon spread to the Punjab as well. Big feudals of Multan joined the party as they realised that they had to go with him. 

I must acknowledge here that PPP’s victory in elections greatly affected and increased the consciousness of the people. It is a fact that land evictions were completely halted in PPP’s government. 

However, when farmers used to visit Bhutto after he won, they were made to wait outside for a good amount of time, which is a way of showing who was truly powerful. Yet, when Bhutto finally did meet them and listened to their various concerns, he would concede that he had done nothing about their issues and used to ask them if they had ever had a leader who talked to them about their concerns the way he did. All farmers would say that they hadn’t. And that was all.

The most important thing to remember is that for the first time in Pakistan’s movement, a political organisation and its leadership got a chance to implement large scale reforms. I won’t say revolution, because they never believed in revolution to begin with. But they had the opportunity to introduce large social and economic reforms. They could have confronted large industries and families and even the army, especially after the defeat in Bangladesh. The army could have been reformed and cut down to size. Generals used to fear Bhutto. 

What Bhutto did was to say that he would address soldiers every week, which was complete vanity. Even the generals felt that though he could talk to the soldiers, the army would still be run by them. When they got a hold of themselves, they stopped those addresses, even during the time when he was prime minister…but Bhutto was always more consumed in the politics of which general was with him, and which one was against him.

When I visited Pakistan in January 1977, he misbehaved with me. When I was finally able to come back after that visit, I was invited to a debate at the Oxford Union. Benazir was the union’s president at that time. Prior to the debate, Bhutto ringed Benazir up and asked her why she had invited one of his enemies to the debate. He also asked her to find out what I thought about the situation back at home, as I had just come back. 

When Benazir asked me, I told her that I was pretty clear that a coup d’état was being prepared against him and it was only a matter of months. I told her that there had been assassinations attempts as well, to which she said that they knew that it was going to happen, especially seeing Kennedy’s fate. But her response also reeked of arrogance. She said that they weren’t worried about any coup because the generals were “in their pockets.” I asked her to tell him, even quote me, that in Pakistan, no general is in the pocket of any politician and if this lesson has not yet been learnt, only God knows what will happen.

And this is what happened. General Ziaul Haq was a master of flattery. When Bhutto used to walk into the room, and Zia had been smoking, he would immediately put the cigarette away and stand in his honour. When Bhutto visited Multan, where Zia had been the Corps Commander, he ordered soldiers to put down their uniforms and welcome Bhutto as civilians. This was why Bhutto made him the chief while five generals were over him in the pecking order. He thought that Zia was one of his own.

MI: You spoke about class in the context of the 1968 movement. How do you analyse the rise of the PTI in recent times? What classes do you think have played a role in its rise to power? How do you characterise the PTI’s politics in general?

TA: First, I want to say with full disclosure that I have known Imran for a very long time. We used to meet when he was a cricketer. I was quite fond of him, if I speak with honesty. Once he called me for lunch before he retired. I went and he said he had an important question to ask. “You will continue to do what you do – write books – but us sportsmen have a very short lives in our careers. So, what should I do after retirement?” 

I responded that there is something that is not there in Pakistan but very much needed. “We need a national film institute through which we invite people from all over the world to train us how to make movies – this is how the art film industry has grown in India. Even though we cannot compete with Bollywood, we still need to develop this industry.”

He said that I was right, but what was in there for him to do? I said, “Become an actor.” 

He said he could not act. “But that’s not a disqualification!” I said. “Look at Amitabh Bachchan. Who says that he is an actor?” 

He thought I was making fun of him, but I was serious. Then I asked him what he wanted to do. He said, “I want to join politics.”

I warned him that Pakistani politics was a dirty world, but he said wanted to bring change in our society. He spoke like a liberal. He told me his plans about the cancer hospital. I eventually said to him that if that’s what he wants, he can surely give it a go.

When the PTI was founded, this was his mood. He just wanted to modernise the country…but ideas like socialism were too far from him. He attracted support from a particular social layer in universities and from largely well-off middle class families. People liked his dynamism and the fact that their generation knew who he was. 

People were hopeful and so was I, because I truly felt that it was extremely important to eliminate dynastic parties in Pakistan, both the Sharifs and the Bhuttos. I thought of them as really unhealthy to our democratic social order. 

So I thought that the PTI might modernise and eventually rid us of these families. But that didn’t happen and it couldn’t have happened. Because those who run politics – the little social layer of the rich – (like Jehangir Tareen and his ilk) joined the party and eventually started to do all that they used to do in Sharifs’ time. 

A direct consequence of this is that hatred for such politics will emerge very quickly. People will grow tired of them. We, therefore, need a movement-party, not in the traditional sense but one that can make people believe in an alternative.

This is why I always say that the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement is a great and noble development. Pashtuns have been living in constant war for over 40 years. The oppression against them has been devastating. This movement is a big development…we cannot repeat the same strategy again and again, but this is how the work is done and movements are run. 

As for the PTI, they’re done. The chief minister they have appointed in the Punjab is completely silly and witless. Who takes him seriously? A donkey could have been better in his place. And this is not even a joke. 

During Zia’s era, an activist wrote Zia’s name on some donkeys and the donkeys were arrested by authorities. It is an actually true event!

MI: Young people are now becoming interested in Leftist ideas. How do you see this new youth as a part of the global discontent? What is your message to them?

TA: I tell them two things: first, that whatever is happening in Pakistan is not the Left’s fault. Left was never strong enough to even make those mistakes. Nawaz Sharif’s party was formed by the army to challenge the PPP and Bhutto. PPP has degenerated to an extent that the only thing they can do now is to make money. Now that the people see what is happening to the PTI, they tell me that they feel sorrow. They say that they thought that a new government might just come and change things around by ending corruption. But the truth is that they have declared that only the corruption carried out outside this party will be prosecuted. 

Hopelessness is like a virus because it makes you passive. It is very important to keep hope alive, even if on a low level and to start working, regardless of how small the scale is. 

Once I went to Cairo, a year after the Iraq War. Muslim Brotherhood was banned but was in opposition. I went to my Marxist friends and told them that I wanted to meet them no matter what. I went to a health clinic whose owner was a leader of the Brotherhood. He knew of me and decided to meet me. 

I asked him that Iraq was facing war, Palestinians were being wiped out but you do nothing. You can do something by taking Islam’s name! 

He told me that hell would break loose if America takes a step forward. I asked him how his party was able to form such a strong base. It was then that he became interesting. He said that in the last 25 years, since this neoliberalism came to their land, they had started to go to poor neighbourhoods and began building health clinics there. They gave free medical advice as well as medicine. He said that this is something they were not able to do in Nasser’s time. It is due to this work that the doctors’ union is theirs today. The Jamaat-e-Islami tried to do the same in Pakistan on a very small scale. 

I think that such tactics are very important for the Left to establish contacts. A lot of Pakistani doctors go abroad for work. More than 2 million Pakistani doctors are working in the USA. We have to work with political education. This is one thing to be done. 

Secondly, it is extremely unfortunate that the new generation of the Left is not passionate about reading. They’re so used to social networking that it has become a substitute to books. Therefore, it is very important, even for movements like PTM that they read, and they read together. We have to inculcate in the newer generation that reading is necessary not only for our careers but for us to understand our history, our politics, and our economy. 


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