“To identify politics [merely] with the exercise of, and struggle to possess, power is to do away with politics altogether.” – Jacques Rancière.
‘We want change!’ – Every PTI supporter, ever.
The residents of France Colony, F-7, Islamabad are not part of the economic or social mainstream in Pakistan by any measure. They are poor, Christian slum dwellers and hence, tenuous claimants to equal citizenship in a society brimming with economic, religious and institutional inequalities. On election day however, they will, as in the past, throw their electoral weight behind a man who appears to epitomize the very basis of their economic and social marginalization—the multi-millionaire Mian Aslam of the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).
Aslam, a seasoned constituency candidate with a good reputation for voter contact, offers the residents no ideological message or hopes of emancipation. His promises are far more pragmatic: access to state services, protection from harassment and the possibility of future employment. For an impoverished community at the margins of society, the need for a reliable patron who helps ensure the provision of immediate needs tends to override any prevailing concerns of ideology or class.
Stories like these inform the consistent refrain in political commentary within Pakistan about the dearth (or death) of ideological politics in the country. There is considerable worth in this hypothesis, and it has served as an explanatory framework for Pakistani politics for decades.
The question now is whether the upcoming election represents a continuation of the same patronage logic. In my opinion, not entirely.
The basis for this assertion lies in a series of transformations which are re-shaping client-patron politics that deserve attention. Before discussing these, however, it is worth discussing why the system of patronage has persisted in this manner in the first place.
The institution of apathy
The received wisdom on the logic of patronage goes something like this: with the exception of the 1970 election when there were clearly defined ideological divides between left and right, electoral politics in Pakistan has become a largely localized and pragmatic affair, based on candidates’ individual clout and voters’ communal loyalties to clan, caste and ethnicity rather than fidelity to any ideology or even party. The central problem identified by many is the existence of an overriding network of state patronage employing politicians as distributors, access to which has become the basis for political competition.
Analysts often cite traditions of ‘dynastic politics’ as the principal reason for the perpetuation of patronage politics, but the bulk of the blame for this state of affairs has to be laid where it is most deserved: at the feet of the military. While others (like Akbar Zaidi, Ali Cheema, Aasim Sajjad and Shandana Mohmand) have written on this issue with greater depth, evidence and eloquence, the damning centrality of the military to perpetuating the logic of patronage deserves some attention. Each military intervention has been accompanied by attempts at centralizing authority while instituting de-politicized, non-party systems of local government in order to provide a veneer of legitimacy and prevent mass challenges to military rule. The result has been the fragmentation and localization of political issues and the loss of more universal bases of political participation.
Those measures, coupled with brutal crackdowns on political parties, student unions, ethno-nationalists and organized labor and peasantry, has resulted in a militarized political culture and the damagingly widespread association of politics with violence. With its allies on the religious right, the military has also waged a concerted ideological campaign against all spheres of thought deemed threatening, from subversive art and literature to alternative history and substantive social scientific inquiry. In doing so, it has succeeded in limiting the possibility of a political sphere characterized by the exchange of ideas rather than the naked exercise of money and temporal and religious power. Of course, the military has always found willing collaborators among the bureaucracy, judiciary, political class, religious right and the middle class for its institutional experiments on Pakistani society. Lost in their own myopic considerations, significant segments of these groups have supported the periodic attempts by military usurpers to provide quick fixes to Pakistan’s frequent crises.
The consequences of this excessive institutional adventurism are all too clear: a localized model of informal patronage, an insecure political class lacking the capacity for effective national governance, the broad absence of substantive political debate and a largely apathetic citizenry.
However, significant changes have taken place in state and society since the mechanisms of patronage were established, and looking forward things may look quite different.
Change we can believe in
Pakistan has undergone an immense transformation since the 70s, including unplanned urbanization and the emergence of an urban middle class numbering in the tens of millions. The ethos of this class is much more individual-minded, upwardly mobile and fragmented than the collective decision-making traditions on which patronage subsists. The current population is also young: 103 million people are under 25. And, it is under-employed with a youth labor force participation rate of less than 50%. Consequently, it is de-linked from a state apparatus increasingly subject to more demands than it can now absorb through its patronage structures.
For decades, state power in Pakistan was heavily centralized. That power is now much more dispersed, both horizontally, due to the emergence of an assertive judiciary and private media, and vertically, with the enactment of provincial autonomy. With the ever-increasing threat of public accountability from zealous judges and journalists, the dispensation of informal patronage has become a significantly riskier exercise. At the same time, the provincial decentralization of the 18th amendment has expanded the space for politicians to exercise legislative power, thus increasing the likelihood that resource distribution will be addressed beyond the ambit of patronage.
Information technologies and social media are also changing the political landscape. The online community is still hardly more than a sixth of Pakistan, but as the widespread demonstrations against the killing of Shias earlier this year showed, communication technologies can affect the wider political landscape. Protesters used their social media networks to spread information, messages and images adding momentum to the initial protests by family members of the dead in Quetta, which ultimately led to the dismissal of the provincial government. The protests were an example of what these technologies can help facilitate: spaces with an unprecedented degree of horizontal integration where people from different classes and social sections of society can meet, share information, grievances and organize collectively. Such networked interaction can facilitate new self-reflexive and multi-layered political identities, and it can make a political system more susceptible to individual points of instability.
Finally, the hegemony of the state, which provided the overarching ideological perimeter and coercive guarantee for the exercise of patronage politics, also now lies severely weakened. The military-bureaucratic apparatus of the state no longer enjoys supreme authority on setting the parameters of public discourse as it once did, facing as it is, challenges of insurgencies, domestic criticism and crises of resource mobilization. While the immediate fallout of this weakening of hegemony has been immensely destructive (in the shape of violent challenges to state rule), it nonetheless, represents a rupture in systemic continuity, one whose long-term consequences are not yet entirely clear.
Pakistan is in violent political flux—characterized by insurgencies, riots, terrorism, emergent populisms and identity-based violence—but that flux is itself evidence that the old assumptions about the primacy of patronage no longer completely hold. And, while the practices of traditional politics still reign supreme in large swathes of the electoral landscape, they are being complicated by other overarching contradictions.
Increasingly, new ideational divides between political actors are crystallizing. Consider, for example, the question of extremist violence. It is an issue that has spawned wide-ranging debates on sovereignty vis-à-vis the US, the position of Islam in state and society, the role of the military and whether one ought to fight or dialogue with insurgents. The discussion, so far, remains painfully simplistic, but it’s notable that the positions of political parties on these issues are clearly discernible—sometimes to the physical detriment of those parties. The ANP, for instance, has suffered heavily for its views, and ideological and material position opposition to the Taliban. Its stance is increasingly the basis of violent opposition as well as popular support for the party, distinct from their patronage-based electoral considerations.
Meanwhile, the urban populism of the PTI is increasingly shaping the development of political discourse, particularly in Punjab. While the party has increasingly engaged with traditional political networksto maximize its chances as it edges closer to the elections, its primary popular appeal lies precisely in its professed break from the political ways of the past. It is significant that the PTI has relied heavily on communication technologies and social media in its model of organization. The socioeconomic heterogeneity of its support base (which I have written on elsewhere) is, in part, a reflection of the party’s use of spaces of horizontal integration offered by ICTs and social media. The ripple effects of the PTI’s employment of communication technologies on politics are evident from the other parties’ reactive adaption to such organizational tools in recent months.
The party’s moralist critique of corruption in the prevailing system has also attracted a significant number of fervent supporters who appear to base their preferences on a broad agreement with the party’s anti-corruption agenda rather than hopes of informal assistance. Although such anti-corruption rhetoric has been employed by political and military actors in the past, PTI has managed to transform it into a popular symbol of ‘change.’ That may be far from a structural program of transformation and it is bound to face contradictions in the messy course of formal politics. But, the PTI’s moralism and its anti-corruption discourse reflects, the prevailing anti-elite yet ideologically-undefined ethos of collective action globally. (Think of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.) Regardless of the party’s electoral success, the affective ideational canvas of ‘change’ and ‘justice’ that it has created is now a political force, and it will likely witness considerable ideological contestation in the years ahead—one hopes, from a revived left as well.
What may lie ahead
Other substantive debates—from the basis of the economy to the environment to women and workers’ rights—still remain conspicuously absent from electoral discourse. However, as space for participatory political decision-making expands, these underlying sources of contradiction are likely to fully express themselves in the political sphere in due course.
There is little chance of a return to the ideological politics of the 60s and 70s, nor is there much point in such nostalgic yearning for an idealized past. The new ideological divides that have yet to fully take shape, will likely be on a different axis and employ different modalities of organization. They are also likely to involve a more heterogeneous set of classes than before. If the process of instituting democratic procedures continues uninterrupted, the structural transformations of the recent past may gradually begin to fully reflect themselves in the political domain in the shape of competing, complex worldviews on the organization of society.
Regardless, unalloyed assumptions about collectivist communities voting in the thrall of powerful patrons and the state can no longer be considered accurate understandings of political reality.
This is not to argue that revolutionary political shifts have taken place in Pakistan or that they are about to happen. By most measures, political institutions in Pakistan continue to provide for inadequate representation, sustain socioeconomic structures of mass exclusion and retain features of institutionalized class, religious, sectarian and ethnic discrimination. However, it is undeniable that irreversible and transformative socioeconomic forces are also in motion, often in direct competition with the forces of reaction.
Therein, perhaps, lies the significance of this particular electoral exercise: that it may signify the peaceful re-affirmation of the social and political contract between various groups in society, based on choice rather than coercion, on consensus rather than conflict, and on plural co-existence rather than totalitarian exclusion. Even as the body count rises, this ostensibly banal and imperfect exercise of suffrage may be where any remaining hope of a progressive and egalitarian future lies.
Ammar Rashid is an independent researcher based in Islamabad, who is interested in political theory, populism and social movements.