Urbanization and Political Change in Pakistan | Daanish Mustafa

May 2013

Traveling overseas and meeting old friends in the Pakistani diaspora, one is struck by their angst and curiosity about Pakistan. How much worse is the chaos going to get in Pakistan? Can Imran Khan save Pakistan? Who will win the next elections? Is there any hope? Are some of the questions that one is bombarded with by well meaning and concerned Pakistanis living over seas. I am no sage, but typically I do become my insufferable academic self when engaging with such questions. I have never been a fan of the popular Pakistani conversational sport of matching or upping the doomsday prognosis for the country and formulating a more intricate conspiracy theory to explain that prognosis. Pakistanis of the drawing room variety are champion pessimists when it comes to their country and one can’t blame them. There are good reasons to be pessimistic, but to buy into it whole sale is to imply that Pakistan is one freak of a country and its society somehow living outside of history—unchangeable, incorrigible and forever poised on the edge of a precipice.

It shouldn’t be news that Pakistanis do live inside of history and their society does undergo, at times, profound changes that might be imperceptible to our short attention span, sound bite obsessed, mediatized consciousness. In this essay I would like to talk about some of the changes with regard to urbanization that have happened in Pakistan and their possible implications for the upcoming elections and the next two three election cycles which will hopefully follow the one on May 11, 2013.

Pakistan has the highest urbanization rates in South Asia. Beyond the simple physical relocation of people from rural to urban areas is the almost universal penetration of the phenomena of mixed rural urban livelihoods across the rural urban divide in Pakistan. The term desakota (an Indonesian term meaning city and village) is used to describe this phenomena. Across Pakistan even in officially rural areas, households more often than not have family members working extra locally to supplement local based farm incomes. For example even in remotest Balochistan one would find a household with one brother working the land, the other brother driving a truck, a third one running a tea stall in Karachi and a possible fourth one working as a laborer in Dubai. Technically the household is rural but given the urban and transnational basket of livelihoods it can best be described as both urban and rural. The social implication of this phenomena is the greater monetization of traditional barter and reciprocity based rural economies. Also given the penetration of urban and international values that this phenomena facilitates there are greater expectations on part of households for services from the state and in terms of consumption patterns.

Traditionally, with the exception of the 1970 elections, electoral politics in Pakistan have been local constituency based, where patronage networks cultivated by pressure groups deliver votes, to whoever can mobilize those patronage networks most effectively. With greater urbanization and desakotaization many of the customary patronage networks have been replaced by the labour contractor types of patronage networks. In an industrializing society like Pakistan labour contractors deliver temporary labour to small and medium sized industrial, retail and service based business, who are in turn tied into vertical trade guild (anjuman-e-tajiran) type patronage networks that try to pressure state into delivering services and providing protection. It is these patronage networks that are mobilized by more urban middle class based parties such as PML (N) to mobilize votes come election time.

The little known but important nuance in urbanization in Pakistan is that it is also being largely precipitated not only by search for livelihoods, but also by search of services such as health care, education (especially for girls), roads, electricity and cultural amenities. The younger better educated demographics of Pakistan may very well be ensnared in assorted patronage networks, but it is not going to be beholden to those indefinitely. The social contract between the state is persistently being renegotiated by millions of actors, with higher expectations from the state and an increasing confidence to enforce its claims.

An urban party like MQM, despite its almost mafia like control of Karachi’s teeming neighborhoods, is mindful of that reality. This is also why MQM is most keen to resurrect the representative local government system in Sindh, which would give it the levers of power to develop services to its urban lower and middle class constituents. People’s Party and PML (N), which have traditionally relied upon patronage networks to deliver their votes are indifferent if not hostile to the local government because that would compromise their tried and tested mode of vote delivery.

For now the militarist ‘national interest’ idiom continues to inform the dominant national narrative suppressing the ‘public interest’ idiom that may characterize democratic expectations of the urban or desakotized youth. But that suppression cannot continue indefinitely. Imran Khan is betting that he can mobilize the socially liberal but politically conservative urban and desakota constituency in this election. The middle class in Pakistan has traditionally abhorred People’s Party and its leftist politics and PML (N) is counting on its demographic expansion to propel it to victory. PPP on the other hand is counting on the persistence of patronage politics to help it keep its vote bank intact.

The reality is that electoral dynamics in Pakistan are going to change. Whether they change dramatically in this election cycle is difficult, to tell. At the moment none of the political players have an idea and an idiom that can address the expectations and ambitions of the 95% of the Pakistanis who do not have a degree past high school. Mr. Bhutto had such an idea back in 1970 and he was rewarded with a victory in defiance of all the traditional patronage networks by the highest voter turn out ever. A political movement that mobilizes an indigenous alternative narrative that puts social justice and economic empowerment for the disempowered 95% of the Pakistanis could yet lead to the type of political anomaly witnessed between 1967-75. For now neither Imran, PPP, PML or the old left have that narrative. So wait we must, but not just sit around while waiting this May 1st, but instead be agents in finding and defining that narrative—we owe it to the working people to Pakistan!

Daanish Mustafa is a Reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. He spends his time contesting the despostism of the reader over the message of the Author.

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