Ethnicisation of politics
THERE are many ways to read the results of the national elections of February 2008. They have been widely perceived as a rejection of the policies of Pervez Musharraf as well as the repudiation of religious militancy.
However, there is one aspect of the results that has not received much attention even though it signifies an important dimension. This is the ethnic dimension of the results — a feature that seems to have sharpened over time.
A broad overview of the results suggests that the February 2008 vote is an ethnically split vote in which interior Sindh has been won primarily by the PPP and urban Sindh by the MQM. Central and upper Punjab have voted decisively in favour of the PML-N while the Frontier Province has mainly supported the ANP.
While each of the main parties has won some seats in other provinces, this is not necessarily an indication of a vote across ethnic lines. The PPP has won in all the four provinces but its stronghold remains interior Sindh and southern Punjab. The results have also been influenced in part by other factors such as the boycott which has mainly influenced the vote in Balochistan and some of the religious vote of the Jamaat-i-Islami. Apart from the boycott, traditional factors of caste, clan, tribe, biradari and powerful candidates in certain areas have also influenced the outcome.
Nevertheless, the ethnicisation of politics seems to have increased simultaneously with the politicisation of ethnicity.
This element of politics was less visible in the earlier elections when broad-based parties were able to articulate economic and political agendas that transcended the narrow bounds of ethno-nationalist identities. In the elections of 1970, the PPP was able to win a substantial number of seats in Punjab and Sindh although not in Balochistan and the NWFP. Through an appeal to the populist and economic issues of food, clothing and shelter the party managed to capture the imagination of a large number of West Pakistanis who gave it around 80 seats at the time.
In East Pakistan, the Awami League won overwhelmingly and while this may seem like an ethnically inspired vote by the Bengalis, the appeal to the masses was made on the basis of economic exploitation and denial of provincial autonomy by the West Pakistani ruling elite. In the 1970s, issues of class, social discrimination and economic deprivation could unite diverse ethnic groups into articulating a common political agenda.
This trend became progressively weak in the 1990s at the end of a long period of martial rule. Partly in response to a highly centralised state structure and partly as a result of the manipulation by the establishment and its agencies, ethnic groups began to claim a stake in power by expressing their fears and demanding their rights through ethnically-constituted parties with whom they came to identify.
Although the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs felt threatened by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s urban/rural quota in jobs and college admissions, the political articulation of their demands through the MQM emerged in the 1980s and 1990s when the establishment encouraged an urban anti-PPP organisation to diminish the PPP’s hold in Sindh.
Similarly, the establishment helped create the PML-N in Punjab to neutralise the influence of the PPP in the province. Religiously inclined outfits, such as the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) in the early 1990s and MMA with the advent of the new millennium, were also the brainchild of the establishment and its divide and rule policy in which political parties and outfits like the PML-Q were fabricated to diminish the influence of either one or another party.
Since the establishment was viewed as heavily aligned with the Punjabi ruling classes, ethnically-based and/or separatist parties began to garner support in the other three provinces. The Balochistan National Party, Awami National Party, Jeay Sindh Mahaz as well as efforts such as the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM) came to represent the voices of the suppressed, excluded and discriminated people of the smaller provinces.
The more centralised the state, the less its capacity to respect the principles of federalism. The promised provincial autonomy never materialised. Conflicts over the National Finance Commission Award, the distribution of the river waters and the long Concurrent List were never resolved democratically as the nature of the state was highly authoritarian.
The tendency of the state to use military force against any ethnic group or province that demanded its just share and fundamental rights, led to further alienation of the different ethnic groups from the centre.
The result of the anger and resentment against the centralisation of power and resources is the gradual politicisation of ethnic groups leading to the current ethnicisation of politics that is evident today. Punjab, the erstwhile favourite of the establishment, is also on a collision course with it, having voted overwhelmingly for a party that despises all vestiges of the establishment. Military operations in Balochistan and the Frontier region have already led to massive bloodshed all over the country.
The assumption underlying liberal democracy was that it would help erase the narrower, sub-national loyalties of caste, ethnicity, sect or religion and usher in the modern identity of the citizen. Pre-modern identities would slowly erode in the face of the modern identity of citizenship which offers a future of equality to all citizens irrespective of any difference. Ironically, it is democracy itself — especially its mechanism of electoral politics — that has engendered deep fissures as vote banks have come to be based on the very identities that were to be challenged.
Electoral politics can stimulate fragmentation along ethnic and religious lines thereby provoking conflict. With broad-based parties premised on economic and political concerns having ceded space to regional parties arising out of ethno-nationalist sentiments, one wonders whether bourgeois democracy will create space for diversity to be expressed, or mask all social difference under the guise of equal citizenship.
It is in this context that the principle of federalism can help accommodate the tensions between equality and difference, between universal and particular interests.
The economic crisis
LIKE a mirage, Pervez Musharraf’s much-vaunted economic miracle has come and gone. Shaukat Aziz’s claim that he doubled per capita income from $400 to $800 in four years may go down as one of history’s shortest-lived boasts.
For that statement to be credible, per capita income would have to grow at roughly 25 per cent per year and national income would have to grow at that rate plus the rate of growth of population of some two per cent. A growth rate of 27 per cent per year in national income would be hard to visualise, even allowing for the significant inflow of foreign remittances that took place after 9/11.
For a moment, let us assume that Aziz’s comparison was meant to be in nominal dollars. Subtracting an average inflation rate of seven per cent per year still leaves us with a growth rate of 20 per cent per year, much too high a number since it is double what China achieved during the past two decades.
Even if we throw in the one-time mysterious upward adjustment in GDP of 30 per cent that reportedly took place during the Musharraf administration, we come up short.
The economic and financial advisors in the new government will have to work hard to unravel these and other myths of the period.
It is true that million-dollar homes and Porsche cars first appeared on the scene during that period. But such vapid developments simply conveyed to the world that some people had become very rich. They did nothing to enhance the wellbeing of the common man.
The biggest disappointment is that the structure of the economy did not change much during the past eight years. The problems that plagued the economy in October 1999 are still very much there in May 2008.
Thus, the new government has to tackle multiple economic crises, not just one. First and foremost, there are the near-term crises related to the twin deficits in the fiscal and trade accounts and to the accelerating inflation rate.
Secondly, there are the medium-term crises related to the chronically low domestic savings rates, an undiversified source of foreign direct investment which largely consists of money from expatriates (and the US government) and a chronically low income tax base.
Finally, there are the long-term crises related to rising income inequalities, a stubborn poverty rate and a rate of population growth that ranks among the world’s highest for well-populated nations like Pakistan.
A few of these stand out and are worthy of comment. The budget deficit is expected to come in higher than six per cent during the current fiscal year, 50 per cent higher than the threshold deemed safe by international lending institutions. Subsidies for food and energy products account for a good portion of the deficit but chronically high spending on defence, some of which is published in the budget and some of which is hidden under other categories, continues to exacerbate the problem.
The trade deficit during the first nine-months of the current fiscal year has come in at $14.5bn, up 44 per cent over the corresponding year-ago period. At this pace, the deficit will hit $19bn by the end of the fiscal year, setting an all-time record. The deficit is being driven by rising imports of consumer goods, such as mobile phones, luxury vehicles including bullet-proof cars, perfumes and cosmetics.
Not one of these purchases is going to enhance the productive capacity of the economy. In fact, by their conspicuous nature, they will heighten the tensions between the proverbial ‘haves and have-nots’ and further inflame inter-class tensions.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) estimates that trade deficit will continue to be about eight per cent of GDP during the next five years, up from six per cent in 2007. This will put further pressure on the value of the rupee and deplete foreign exchange reserves.
Inflation is making serious inroads into consumer pocketbooks. While some of it is undoubtedly due to the rising world price of oil, much of it is due to a lax domestic monetary policy which has financed the budget deficits.
According to the State Bank, inflation may reach nine per cent during the fiscal year ending in June, almost a third higher than the target rate of 6.5 per cent. And it is the inflation trend that is even more disconcerting. In February, inflation crossed over into double-digit territory, coming in at 11.3 per cent. Shortages of key food items, such as flour, have affected the population in both urban and rural areas.
It is clear that a strategy of economic growth premised largely on American military and economic aid has failed. The domestic savings rates remain low, leading to an investment rate of about 18 per cent. To achieve growth in the seven to eight per cent range, this rate would have to rise by 10 percentage points.
The Musharraf government had predicted an annual growth rate of seven per cent for the current fiscal year but the actual number may come in below six per cent. EIU estimates that the annual economic growth through 2012 will average around five per cent, attributing the slowdown in growth to tepid investment rates.
The international credit rating agency, Standard & Poor’s, downgraded the outlook on Pakistan last November when Musharraf suspended the Constitution and imposed emergency rule. It has given a B+ foreign currency rating on Pakistani debt, four levels below investment grade. This makes it very expensive to borrow money on world markets and further worsens the budget deficit.
The population of Pakistan continues to grow much faster than that of any other country in South Asia. In 1971, East Pakistan accounted for some 55 per cent of the population of Pakistan. Today, Bangladesh accounts for only 45 per cent of the combined population of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
If current trends continue, by the year 2050, Pakistan will become the fourth most populous nation in the world. This is not a cause for celebration but alarm, since it will slow the growth in per capita income, raise poverty rates and heighten income inequalities. This ‘demographic bomb’ poses a bigger threat to regional security than the nuclear bomb.
Finance Minister Ishaq Dar needs to come through with a new approach that will stop the economy from melting down, an event that will have horrible political consequences.
The writer specialises in defence analysis and energy economics.
THEY say that if you can remember the 1960s you weren’t there, but everyone seems to remember 1968.
At any rate, you will find plenty of decrepit old soixante-huitards gathering round this May Day, wheezing and arthritic, to recall the days of our hot youth. For some of my contemporaries, that year remains what the Spanish civil war was said to have been for an earlier generation, the emotional experience of their lifetime. Even for those of us who sat on the touchline watching the political turmoils of that summer with ironic detachment, 1968 is still a sharp memory, and there’s no doubt that it had profound and lasting legacies.
But they were not the ones expected or intended. In France, where it really did seem for a moment as though the foundations of society were shaking that May, one of the rebel leaders was Andre Glucksmann. He now sees les evenements de mai as “a monument, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury”, which is one way of putting it. Another is that 40 years ago were sown the seeds of the story since, when “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally”. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but not for long.
Another rapturous revolutionary moment in 1848 had led to years of reaction, and the brief orgasmic thrill of 1968 was followed by years of post-coital depression. Even at the time, as Paris was brought to a halt by rebellious kids, there was an awful lot of play-acting. We should have remembered what AJP Taylor said about 1848: it’s a sure sign of political backwardness when any movement is led by students.
When the horrible old Stalinists of the French Communist party said this was “street party, not revolution”, they had a point — as one more of those rebels, Daniel (Dany le Rouge) Cohn-Bendit, may have conceded with his bons mots as they tore up the street: “Under the cobblestones, the beach.” No, the evenements de mai weren’t the June days, and if Marx thought Louis Bonaparte’s coup was history repeating itself as farce, what words would he have found for those spoiled children, with their all-too-accurate slogan, “Je suis marxiste, tendance Groucho”.
At the time, let alone now, it was hard to listen with a straight face to Street Fighting Man — “Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy, / ‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy” — sung by Sir Mick Jagger, as he now so appropriately is. Tariq Ali echoed that song in his memoir of the 60s, Street Fighting Man. Oh, come on, old boy. Back then one could already descry in Tariq the lineaments of the mild and venerable literary gentleman we now esteem.
A full “where are they now” catalogue of soixante-huitards would be most amusing, if unkind. Christopher Hitchens proudly tells us that “Old leftist friends of mine from the 1960s are now on Labour’s frontbench and staunchly defend the overthrow of Saddam Hussein”, which I think may definitely be called an unforeseen outcome; and Dany le Rouge himself is today an MEP unpopular with his fellow Greens for supporting military intervention in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
What were the actual political consequences of those heady months? The copains believed they would bring down Charles de Gaulle, but they didn’t. When he did resign the next year, he was succeeded by Georges Pompidou, and the Elysee palace has been occupied by the right for 26 of the past 40 years, with the interregnum of Francois Mitterand and his unfulfilled promise of radical reform very much the rule-proving exception. Likewise, British kids jeered at Labour premier Harold Wilson, who was duly replaced two years later by the Conservative Edward Heath, and the Tories were in power for 22 of the next 27 years.
Across the Atlantic, 1968 saw assassination, riot and antiwar protest; the year ended with Richard Nixon’s election, and Republicans have been in the White House for 28 of the 40 years since. It’s true that the US eventually left Vietnam; that country now has an explosive capitalist economy — not quite what those who chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, We will fight and we will win!” had in mind.
Just as 1968 foreshadowed the political and economic victory of the right in the form of Margaret Thatcher (not to mention Tony Blair), Ronald Reagan and the implosion of Communism, it also foreshadowed the cultural — or emotional or sexual — victory of the left. The only serious legacy of the Wilson government in the UK may have been the libertarian reforms of the laws on homosexuality, divorce and abortion; and the dramatic changes in society since, for good or bad, really did stem from those times.
And yet even there, the story is ambiguous. If one was clearheaded at the time, it was notable that the old left hated 1968 even more than the right did, and they may well have grasped events correctly from their own perspective. Those youthful frolics elicited a stern rebuke from Eric Hobsbawm, under the memorable headline, “The revolution is puritan”. He meant that the sex-drugs-and-rock hedonism of the 1960s was not only not the same thing as changing the foundations of society, it might be actively inimical to doing so.
Was he wrong? Since 1968, the West has grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed, and even that cultural victory of the left hasn’t turned out as intended, especially in terms of the sexual revolution that was arguably the true legacy of the age. The “bourgeois triumphalism” of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos which even the governor of the Bank of England now condemns, and our materialistic individualism, might just have had their roots 40 years back.
But then the sexual revolution has had its own unintended effects. Civil partnerships could be one inheritance of the 1960s, and another might be the way that, as a parliamentary committee learned on Tuesday, employment offices have been offering 17-year-old girls work as strippers and lap-dancers. The latest issue of Prospect magazine has a symposium on 1968 in which Josef Joffe says the real revolution was the pill, which has “changed the world more profoundly” than any invention since the steam engine. But the other side of that coin is what Jean Seaton, in the same colloquy, calls the damaging consequences of 1960s individualism today when “everything is sexualised”.
At the time, 1968 seemed like fun. But maybe Orwell got it right again when he said gloomily: “Plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying ‘I told you so’ than the optimist.”
—The Guardian, London
Getting to true democracy
I HAD struggled with understanding the notion of true democracy in the context of Pakistan politics for years and finally it has become a little clearer.
What did it was the Economist’s description of the new prime minister as a nondescript feudal landlord and the immediate retort in the Pakistani press that the magazine got it wrong because the prime minister’s lineage goes back to the Imperial Legislative Council.
The point is general so there is no need to personalise it in Mr Gilani’s case. But the inference clearly is that someone who belongs to a ‘respectable’ family that can trace its ancestry back to, say, Bukhara, becomes eminently qualified to assume the reins of leadership in the country.
My mind shifts immediately to cricket because cricket provides the best mirror in which to see the idiosyncrasies of our politics. Imagine a gentleman turning up and announcing he had been appointed captain of the national team because he comes from a respectable family of saints that can trace its lineage to Balkh. Or that his great-grandfather was captain of the Sepoys’ Eleven in Meerut. Or that he was the most loyal supporter of the previous captain having fasted almost unto death on the latter’s dismissal. The nation would be in an uproar.
So why isn’t there a similar uproar in politics when qualifications are poorly matched to needs? I guess the reason is that cricket is a modern, internationally competitive game to which we have learnt to apply modern measures of evaluation because we can instantly observe the results.
We don’t care whether the captain is from Balkh or Bukhara or Burewala as long as he has a track record of leading with competence and giving us the best shot at winning the World Cup. We are even willing to support him by hiring the most competent international expertise with more care and at more cost than we allocate to selecting the vice-chancellors of our leading universities.
But representative government is also a modern institution to which we still apply the pre-modern, non-competitive, feudal and monarchical templates of respectability and loyalty. We don’t discriminate between the qualities needed to run the naqshbandiya silsila and those needed to manage a government in a globally competitive economy. We have yet to make the transition Deng Xiaoping made when he said he didn’t care what colour (or breed) the cat was as long as it could catch mice.
I couldn’t help my mind drifting back to cricket with the depressing thought of how we had allowed even our cricket to degenerate with the mixing of sports and religion, how we had negated the best technical expertise with the most ill-matched management appointments based on loyalty and patronage, and how Pakistan had fared in the last World Cup.
It is odd how one thing leads to another. It was the thought of religion in Pakistan that flipped the switch and made everything seem a whole lot clearer. It occurred to me that there was a real test we could apply to our progress towards true democracy. I realised that the day I see a Pakistani representative stand up in a forum and begin his or her remarks, confidently and unselfconsciously, with a namaskar or a prayer to the Lord, I would know a giant step towards true democracy had been taken in the country.
Merit and equality are the touchstones of modern democracy. It shouldn’t matter whether my grandfather was from Balkh or Bukhara. What should matter is whether I am the most qualified person to do the job that is assigned to me.
Carry that thought to its logical conclusion. The day a member of our discriminated and decimated minorities whose grandfather was just an ordinary citizen from Khanewal makes it to captain or prime minister, without feeling like a second-class citizen, we would have crossed a psychological barrier and made the transition towards a true democracy.
The writer is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC. She writes at