With just a few days remaining before voters go to the polls, it is hard to beat the feeling that May 11 may not be D-Day after all. Campaigning in many parts of the country—including large areas of Punjab—remains rather subdued, and incidents of violence are increasing on a daily basis.
That having been said, every big political event in Pakistan is preceded by uncertainty, trepidation even. It is pointless speculating on whether or not the election will take place because, ultimately, it is not ordinary Pakistani citizens that will make the decision to put off the polls in any case. It is always possible, in this land of the pure, that our holy guardians find themselves compelled to act in the ‘greater national interest.’
In truth, it is only commentators and arm-chair critics that spend a great deal of time hypothesizing about such eventualities. Working people and those who seek to represent them in the elected institutions of the state—at whatever level—do not subscribe to grand conceptions of history, or how it might play out. The everyday business of politics is characterized not by any pretensions about what should be, but about what actually is.
This actually existing reality is complex and multi-dimensional. At the apex of the political and electoral system, there is the deeply embedded fact of class; across the length and breadth of the country, the divide between those who own and control the social product and those who survive by selling their labor power is as stark as ever. The reasons for the persistence and deepening of this class divide are more complex than society being static, rural and ‘feudal’–the caricatures proffered by a large majority of the urban intelligentsia.
In recent decades, an increasingly urban, commercial, and culturally assertive middle class has emerged as a major political and economic player across much of the country, and particularly in the most developed regions of Punjab. This middle class has not so much displaced the landed oligarchy as adapted the particular mode of politics that the latter championed throughout the colonial period and the first few decades after the country’s creation.
In other words, the notion that Pakistani politics revolves around the prototypical feudal who is ‘corrupt’ to the core is woefully inadequate. Significantly, the middle class is part and parcel of this country’s patronage networks, operating through a system that has its roots in the colonial period. To understand how patronage works today—and how it has extended beyond the aristocracy to the middle classes—we have to begin with how it worked yesterday.
Patronage under British rule
The political-economic order that the British fashioned was founded upon a property rights regime in which those who owned land and other natural resources, such as forests, were empowered to act as patrons who mediated between the property-less and the colonial state. The latter itself controlled substantial productive forces, most notably through its building of massive perennial irrigation networks in Punjab as well as upper Sindh.
This political economy of patronage was all-encompassing insofar as the state and landed class exercised decisive influence over most aspects of social life, including basic livelihoods, dispute resolution, and social services. That is how the hallowed institutions of thana and katcheri came to acquire their everyday significance. After the British arrived, the power of ‘traditional’ patrons was further entrenched through the legalization of private property–the legal frameworks of the colonial state sought to ‘legitimize’ their power through the formation of the state as we know it today. The landed classes were able to secure the long-term consent of the property-less mass as a result of a peculiar colonial mix of economic and extra-economic (or other forms of) coercion.
The parochial identities that the colonial state happily institutionalized—particularly religion, caste and biraderi—came to be cast as markers of ‘native’ culture. Patrons in turn invoked any number of these identities to retain control over their economic dependents. That was how the system held together, even if variation existed. (In Punjab’s canal colonies, for instance, the beneficiary of colonial paternalism was not the prototypical big landlord but a more modest individual peasant proprietor.)
And, patrons ruled in accompaniment with local thanadars, magistrates, patwaris and the head of the fiefdom himself, the district commissioner. To quote Ranajit Guha:
“It was thus that the hitherto discrete powers of the landlord, the moneylender and the official came to form, under colonial rule, a composite apparatus of dominance over the peasant. His subjection to this triumvirate–sarkari, sahukari and zamindari–was primarily political in character, economic exploitation being only one, albeit the most obvious, of its several instances.” – Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, 1999.
What happened after
The enormous upheavals of Partition kick-started a process of change so rapid that it has yet to be acknowledged by a majority of analysts. The demography of the new state, Pakistan, only a few years after 1947 was indistinguishable from what had existed through the British period. Class and social structures were also radically transformed by migrations both into and out of the country.
The British had managed to insulate their patronage-based political order in the face of emergent contradictions but they never faced the magnitude of changes with which their Pakistani successors had to contend. That may partly explain why the post-colonial military-bureaucratic combine that inherited the reins of state power decided to dispense with the political process altogether. But, the Green Revolution of the late 1950s and 1960s precipitated a popular political explosion, the anti-Ayub movement, which extended to a stunning anti-establishment outcome in the country’s first general election in 1970.
For a decade between 1967 and 1977, the patronage-based order teetered on the brink of collapse, with leftist and nationalist political formations able to generate mass support amongst the subordinate and segments of the middle classes. The rise of General Zia-ul-Haq put an end to that. That era saw the beginnings of a refurbished and far more resilient political economy of patronage that continues to survive through to the present day.
The Zia regime deliberately cultivated a new class of political entrepreneurs, particularly in urban areas, that were happy and willing to banish the anti-systemic left politics of the previous years to the dustbin of history and reduce politics to a competition over the distribution of patronage at the local level. For eight years after taking power, the regime held only local body elections, thereby providing an opportunity to this new brand of politician. Meanwhile the state’s coercive apparatus was on hand to ‘convince’ working people to abandon their dreams of a new social order and instead learn how to navigate the system by partaking of this highly localized and increasingly cynical politics.
The middle of the middle
The project of political engineering was sophisticated inasmuch as the Zia regime took the commercial middle classes that had emerged in the aftermath of the Green Revolution, seriously. This process received a boost from the Gulf migrations that started en masse in the 1970s and explained much of the social mobility of rural Punjabis and Pashtuns in the following decades. The middle classes, once associated with the secondary and tertiary sectors of the agrarian economy, have since branched out into sectors as diverse as transport, real estate and construction (the latter two in particular have boomed around the world in the era of neo-liberal financialization).
These middle classes aspire to political power to match their growing economic clout and have no pretensions to being democratic, anti-establishment or secular. In fact, with the passage of time it has become clear that Pakistan’s middle classes—particularly those who have gained power and money over a reasonably short period of time—are content to take on whatever political ideology or party affiliation as is necessary to facilitate their continued accumulation of power and wealth.
This is why the caricature of the feudal is misleading. Succeeding within the incumbent political-economic system is based on the cultivation of patronage networks and currying the favor of state institutions—which the middle classes are prone to do as intensively as the so-called feudals.
The elections now
It is during elections that this political economy of patronage is most evident. But what one sees in the days leading up to the polls is only a microcosm of an everyday power game in which the winners and losers are still determined to a great extent by their class.
This is not to suggest that ideological battles do not take place in what is a vast political field. Nor do I seek to down play the importance of, say, ethno-national identity, in conditioning the structure of power (and movements of resistance). To be sure, the once-hegemonic structure of power in Pakistan is now reeling from innumerable contradictions.
Yet, even while the larger structures are creaking, everyday political practices remain largely unaffected.
The mass of working people often appear to be passive participants in this system. In fact, the rehabilitation of a waning structure of power by the Zia regime was a direct response to the consciousness and political threat of the subordinate classes. More than three decades later, a much more diverse ruling bloc continues to wonder if and when the working people for whom survival is a daily feat will stop acquiescing to the rules of this game.
In the final analysis, there is no shortcut through which such an entrenched system can be magically waved away. By continuing to depict Pakistan’s political economy as unchanging, we fail to recognize the dynamism (and cynicism) of the middle classes, the changing composition of state institutions, and the sociological links between those who exercise power and those on the receiving end of it. Ultimately ordinary people will determine the fate of this system and the contours of what may come after. It is up to those who want radical social transformation to take to the people a politics of change that can displace the deeply-rooted logic of patronage.
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is the secretary general of the Awami Workers Party Punjab, and Assistant Professor in Political Economy at the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.