NationalVOLUME 14 ISSUE # 23

Ideology and identity in politics

Once there was a time that ideologies dominated the world of politics and each single political movement was driven by a consistent and coherent set of interrelated ideas.

While it is quite debatable whether that time when different political ideologies dominated the political scene was good or bad, but without any doubt at least the rivalry had a ground. Rivalry itself is not at all a good phenomenon whether it is due to any reason but animosities and conflict based on ideologies, while on the one hand, used to be sources of balance, if not stability. On the other hand, they have been great sources of death and destruction.

Today, many well-known political scientists argue that we are living in a “post-ideological” world. Politics of ideology dominated the national life across countries as well as the international sphere in the 19th and 20thcenturies. Classical ideological political movements called for sacrificing the present for the attainment of grand goals in the future in a “perfect” society. The fall of the Soviet Empire, as a symbol of socialism, in 1990 marked an end of ideological politics. This is evidently true as politics of ideology, which calls for the creation of a “perfect” or wholesome society and political-economic system have failed to achieve their objectives. This is irrespective of the argument of influential political scientist Francis Fukayama, who believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union had proved the success of western capitalism and liberal democracy and as there was no rival ideology and political system to challenge them, therefore, capitalism and liberal democracy were the ultimate fate of the world.

Looking deep into a range of political struggles, movements and groups in Pakistan, the region and the world today reveals that the politics of identity has been on the ascendance while the politics of ideology has increasingly become irrelevant.

For instance, in Afghanistan the recent issue of the provision of computerized national identity cards and mentioning of the word “Afghan” as the national identity of people has been vociferously contested by non-Pashtun citizens of Afghanistan. This has resulted in the reemergence of deep ethnic conflicts as Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen and other ethnic groups of Afghanistan have refused to be referred to as “Afghan” in the new national identity cards. The issue has seriously affected the efforts of building a modern, developed country and has raised critical question marks on the statehood of Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, on the one hand, just before the July 2018 national elections, a group of parliamentarians of then ruling party, the PML-N, from the southern Punjab had resigned and have renewed stalled efforts to create a Seraiki province in the province. The parliamentarians were led by former Prime Minister Balkh Sher Mazari. The parliamentarians and the proponents of the Seraiki province in the Punjab have been complaining of a bad treatment in resource allocation and development funding to the Seraiki-speaking south Punjab region for the last several decades. But noticeably, it has been the Seraiki identity of the south Punjab that resulted in discrimination from the Punjabi-dominated federal and Punjab governments. Thus, the movement for the creation of a Seraiki province has fundamentally been motivated by the politics of identity.

Then, the so-called Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), led by a firebrand Manzur Pashteen, is a typical example of the politics of identity, replacing the politics of ideology. The PTM has been arguing that Pashtuns in Pakistan, particularly belonging to the tribal areas, have been discriminated against due to their ethnic identity.

Even in Syria, the violent conflict between pro-Bashar Al Assad forces and the opposition, mostly Sunni groups, has been fuelled by the feeling of identity, in this case sectarian in nature. In Iraq, the politics of identity has been adding to the ethnic and sectarian conflict between the Shiite and Sunni on the one hand, and Kurds and non-Kurds, on the other.

Now when it is more than evident that the politics of ideology has become irrelevant and that the politics of identity has become dominant, it is important to understand the main difference between the two set of political phenomena. Ideology-based politics has been broader and more sweeping in its scope. Main features of liberalism, socialism, conservatism and other grand ideologies have had relatively general objectives. In case of liberalism, the freedom of an individual is the ultimate aim, whereas socialism aims at a classless and stateless society and conservatism has always wanted a “stable” society for the benefit of all.

Insofar as the meanings of the politics of identity are concerned, it isbound up with the ideas of dignity, recognition, and authenticity. So, the political life of contemporary “developed” societies, and perhaps the world-wide, is dominated by a struggle for recognition and respect, rather than the creation of a perfect society. Against this backdrop, the Pakistani political arena is not an exception. A deeper look would reveal that the politics of identity has overridden the politics of ideology. In this context, it would not be a misstatement that ideology has become obsolete in Pakistani politics, claims to the contrary notwithstanding. But the exponents and proponents of various political ideologies have themselves to blame for this state of affairs. This can be gauged from the fact that leaders of the two biggest political parties are in jail, not for any political or ideological struggle, but for their involvement in financial bungling and misappropriation as well as abuse of power. Some people may argue that it is fundamentally due to ideological reasons that PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif and PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari are incarcerated but the facts are to the contrary.

The aim of the politics of identity is that one’s culture, religion and customs (considered as authentic and thus standards to evaluate other cultures, religion and customs) are provided accommodation and given respect. The contemporary Pakistani political scene, on the one hand, is dominated by religious groups and on the other, ethno-nationalist political parties. The confinement of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), formerly a countrywide political entity, to one province, Sindh, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)’s inability to establish a solid footprint in the rest of Pakistan evidently proves the demise of the politics of ideology. The steady rise of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), a party without an ideology, also corroborates the point that the politics of identity has replaced the politics of ideology. However, Pakistan’s case is somewhat different as even the so-called “national” parties hardly ever have had a vivid ideological foundation. For instance, the PPP, which rose as a leftist-revolutionary group in 1967, soon claimed to struggle for the implementation of “Islamic socialism,” an ideological misnomer, in Pakistan. Today, its leaders take pride in calling itself a “liberal” political force while socialism and liberalism are polls apart. Identical is the case of the Awami National Party, a Marxist-Leninist group, now calling itself a “secular-liberal” party. Thus, ideology has never been a strong feature of Pakistani political parties. Therefore, only those political groups in Pakistan have any future which transform themselves with the spirit of time and stick to the politics of issues than an ideology or identity. Because the politics of identity is full of troubles and tribulations, therefore, in Pakistan people should support groups whose focus in not identity but issues and good governance.