POOR countries can be divided into those that have achieved economic and political stability despite widespread poverty and ethnic diversity and those that continually experience major economic crises and/or violence.
The Crisis States Research Centre at the London School of Economics explains these differences by using the concept of elite political bargain which is an unwritten, relatively stable informal agreement among national elites about the access of different ethnic groups and economic classes (i.e. landlords, industrialists etc.) to national political and economic resources.
The elite bargain embodies the pecking order among different ethnic groups and classes in terms of their access to government and non-government economic resources and opportunities (e.g. government expenditures, subsidies and licences) and the tax burden on different economic classes.
It also embodies the means of pacifying non-elites, which generally include, provision of broad-based, plentiful meritorious economic opportunities, personalised patronage distribution, indoctrination about the virtues of docility — and outright repression.
Countries where elites fail to reach an agreement themselves or pacify non-elites face continual economic and/or violent political crises once marginalised groups become organised enough to resist the elite bargain.
Such resistance usually takes three forms: organised crime, secessionist movements by ethnic groups and ideologically driven insurgencies aiming to capture power nationally. Since the collapse of communism, religious fundamentalism has become the main form of ideologically driven insurgencies.
The concept of elite bargains provides a powerful lens for understanding Pakistan’s frequent forays into economic and violent crises.
Soon after Independence, a coalition of elite economic classes struck a political bargain which remarkably has endured until today despite the mutual distrust among member classes.
Under this bargain, the military and bureaucracy assumed coalition leadership, while marginalising the political leadership and co-opting landlords, capitalists and religious leaders in return for low tax burdens.
The limited state resources available due to low taxes under this bargain are largely spent on oversized military budgets, lavish perks for the military and bureaucracy and generous subsidies and other support for landlords and industrialists while social- sector expenditures for non-elites are minimised.
Non-elites are pacified mainly through personalised patronage distribution by elites to their respective networks of non-elite supporters.
Additionally, religious leaders have been used, mostly unsuccessfully, to encourage people to ignore their class- or ethnic-based grievances in the name of Islam-based national unity. Finally, violent repression has also been used in the face of serious resistance.
Since the formation of this elite coalition, there have been two occasions when some members of this coalition have attempted to significantly alter the terms of the bargain. Thus, landlords under Bhutto and industrialists under Nawaz Sharif unsuccessfully attempted to wrest overall coalition leadership from the military, instigating military coups which soon re-established military dominance.
However, even these challenges merely aimed to change coalition leadership rather than the basic exclusionary nature of the bargain.
But, violent resistance in Pakistan has often resulted from rebellions by aggrieved ethnic groups poorly represented within elite classes. After independence, all elite classes (i.e. military, bureaucracy, landlords and industrialists) were largely dominated by Punjabis and/or Mohajirs, which understandably created serious grievances among Bengalis, Pakhtuns, Sindhis and Baloch.
While Bengali grievances remained unaddressed until East Pakistan’s secession, many of the other aggrieved groups were gradually co-opted into the elite coalition. Pakhtuns found their opening under Ayub while Sindhis found it under Bhutto.
Their ascension came largely at the expense of the Mohajirs, who consequently became an aggrieved group by the 1980s. Since then, they have made a partial comeback into the corridors of power through the MQM.
Punjabi and Pakhtun elites remain the most secure members of this elite club since their ability to access state resources is largely independent of the fortunes of particular political parties (e.g. PML-N and ANP) while that of Sindhis and Mohajirs is tied to the fortunes of the PPP and MQM.
Unsurprisingly, whenever these two parties come under pressure, grievances among those ethnic groups re-emerge. This elite configuration excludes religious minorities and numerically small ethnic groups e.g. the Baloch. Thus, violent resistance has often resulted from the grievances of these groups and less frequently from those of less secure elite coalition members (Sindhis and Mohajirs).
Violence has also increased as non-elites, often well educated ones unable to advance under this elite bargain, have increasingly joined criminal and militant fundamentalist groups since 1980 in the absence of well-organised progressive movements.
Ironically, both these categories of violent resistance reputedly have strong links with members of the elite coalition, e.g. criminal gangs with mainstream political parties and militant groups with security agencies, As such, they often are not genuine challenges to the elite coalition but part of their underhand strategies for accumulating power and money.
Beyond causing continual violence, this exclusionary elite bargain also perpetuates a low-productivity, patronage-driven economy given the reliance of industrialists and landlords on generous state handouts rather than innovation and economic dynamism.
Continuing violence further undermines economic performance.
However, compared globally, Pakistan has escaped the massive economic collapses and complete breakdown of state authority that countries like Zimbabwe and Somalia have experienced. Nor will it face such collapses in the future in my opinion although this exclusionary elite bargain is reaching the end of its shelf-life given the increasing expectations of non-elites.
Nevertheless, urbanisation, education and per capita income trajectories suggest that such groups are still a couple of decades away from becoming strong enough to wrest power from the narrow elite. In the interim, a genuine transformation of the current elite bargain is unlikely. More likely are incremental, piecemeal changes initiated by the elites in response to periodic economic crises and violent upheavals.
The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.