Pakistan is in a serious need for ideas. What it gets, instead, is a state ideology, which has harmed the country more than it has helped it. The May 11 election has made things even worse. No party has come up with ideas to bridge the multiple fault-lines dividing the country: between the centre and the provinces and among the provinces; between Muslim and non-Muslim Pakistanis (and among Muslim Pakistanis); and between the rich and the poor (or among the rich).
Questions such as these belong to the realm of ideas, not the territory of campaign slogans–or at least not the slogans being touted in this election cycle.
A skewed federation lies at the core of the conflict in Balochistan and is the main reason for political disquiet in Sindh. Despite its importance in Pakistani politics, there is no serious discussion on addressing the geo-political imbalance among the main parties contesting this election. The 18th amendment to the constitution was a historic effort, aimed at taking care of some of the glaring inequalities in the relationship between the centre and the provinces. But, it seems to have been lost in noise created by subsequent events. The champions of the amendment have been put on the defensive after Punjab’s complaints that the constitutional changes are being used as an excuse to subject the province to more electricity load-shedding than its neighbors. Civil society, the media and the judiciary have also exhibited a certain level of uneasiness, even anxiety, over the decentralization of subjects like education.
The effects of the amendments have, also, been rather uneven. While Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have largely been able to assert their ownership over natural resources, including natural gas and hydro-electric power, there are still many unanswered questions about the role of federal institutions like the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) and the Oil and Gas Development Corporation (OGDC). Balochistan’s case is even more peculiar. The provincial government there does not even have the capacity to claim ownership over the province’s natural resources, let alone explore them, without the support of the federal forces–including the army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps. Has any party taken up these questions in the election? Is the media paying any attention to them? Is civil society forcing the parties and the candidates to come up with an election agenda that includes an answer to these issues? Clearly, the answer to all of these questions is no.
Some parties, on the other hand, are playing up these problems to maintain their hold on what can be called an “ethnic vote”–rather than seriously attempting to address them. The idea of a balanced federation (as opposed to an imbalanced one) should have been a major part of the election debate–but is not. Clearly, the problem is seen from the prism of winning and losing electoral contests in one province or the other, rather than as the need to overcome a flaw plaguing the polity.
Ignoring divisions between Pakistanis
Mainstream parties seem to have come to a tacit understanding when it comes to relations between Muslims and Non-Muslims in Pakistan: Discriminatory laws shall stay on the statute books. There is absolutely no political space for any debate on the legal and constitutional distinctions among Pakistanis professing different faiths. There have been news reports and civil society advocacy campaigns for increasing the representation of non-Muslim Pakistanis in electoral politics – for example, through increased party nominations for general seats – but none whatsoever about the nature of the state, its constitution, and the laws that clearly put non-Muslim Pakistanis at a massive disadvantage in political, constitutional and electoral terms. These laws have often been the fundamental driver of deadly violence perpetrated against non-Muslims.
Among Muslim Pakistanis, gender imbalances in education, unemployment and politics stem from a cultural conservatism that no political party has dared to challenge or change. There is, of course, a lot of furor over the low number of women contesting election, and the attempts to stop them from voting in certain parts of the country. But, perhaps, it is already a foregone conclusion among political parties that raising the “culturally sensitive” subject of gender balance at this critical juncture will lose them votes.
The other intra-Muslim divide is among people belonging to different sects. The discourse, on this count, is all about violence and the number of casualties rather than on the openly Sunni-Deobandi bias of the state. Neither political party, nor any other actors or onlookers of the electoral process, have raised the question of sectarianism as a necessary byproduct of the state’s religious nature. Sectarian violence may be overcome in the short term through stringent administrative and judicial measures, but if the fundamental nature of the state remains unquestioned, it will certainly not be overcome in the medium or long term. In the 1990s, when the then Punjab government took action against sectarian outfits, sectarian violence dropped for a few years. But, by ignoring the fundamental driving factors behind the violence, sectarian attacks have bounced back with a vengeance.
We need a deeper debate on the economy
Lastly, the entire debate about the economy is all about who will raise more taxes, bring in more investments, create more jobs, and build the shiniest pieces of infrastructure. The extremely skewed nature of the economy — which favors cities over villages or certain regions over other regions, while offering no social safety networks to those falling on the wrong side of the market economy – is not even a matter of discussion among those participating in the election. An equitable distribution of wealth across the multiple divides in the country is a challenge which no political party has taken up in its election campaign.
It can easily be argued that politics is all about local and personal issues–bread and butter matters. To a large extent, that is correct. People who do not have basic amenities available to them cannot be expected to vote on the basis of abstract ideas on the changing the nature of the state, or the restructuring of the system. Voters vote for a candidate or a party when they think either intervene and change their immediate personal circumstances.
But, this is where the challenge lies for the political leadership. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto campaigned on the slogans of democracy, socialism and people as the source of power, these were clearly abstract ideas for almost everyone in the electorate. The first was about the nature of the state, the second about the nature of the economy, and the last about addressing a culture that values authority over equality. But then, Bhutto successfully married these abstract ideas to a program that appealed to voters at a more personal and local level.
When the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) were fighting it out in the 1990s electoral arena, three fundamental issues determined their politics: Can a woman become the head of the government (a cultural question). Should Pakistan become friends with India (essentially a question about the nature of the state)? And, should Punjab dictate terms to the rest of the federation (an issue concerning the federal or unitary structure of the state)? Yet, the two parties could go into elections, attracting millions of voters, though with varying degrees of success.
In the early 2000s, the idea was as simple as it was urgent: Democracy versus military rule. Since then, however, mundane number games have bogged down politics to an extent that macro-level political and ideological debates about the nature of the state and society have been put on the backburner.
The real question is: Have we resolved any of the crises that our state and society are beset with? In the 2013 election campaign, it seems we have, though in a way that accentuates the disease afflicting the state and perpetuates divisions within society. The religious nature of the state is beyond question, as are the subordinate status of non-Muslim Pakistanis, women and those belonging to certain Muslim sects. Ethnic politics and ethnic restructurings of the state and society are seen as a solution to issues of regional and provincial autonomy.
Those talking about “change”, a “new Pakistan”, a “revolution” and “transformation” work within these already set boundaries. In many ways, therefore, the May 11 election is more about a small change, tinkering at the margins, rather than a focus on the main ideas that have and will continue to determine the course that the society have and will continue to take in Pakistan.
These polls, essentially, are about numbers. Who has nominated how many non-Muslim or women candidates; who will spare how much budget for which sector, region, or group; who will increase revenues by raising taxes; who will curb corruption; and how much time it will take for one party or another to end energy shortages? No outcome in the 2013 election seems to pave the way towards a meaningful debate over ideas. The failure to address more fundamental questions is now the most obvious symptom of the debilitating disease eating away at the body politic.
Muhammad Badar Alam is the editor of The Herald.