IT is a measure of the primacy of politics in this country that intrigue and sensation actually increases during ‘interim’ periods as compared to ‘normal’ circumstances.
Since the dissolution of the national and provincial assemblies less than two weeks ago, the captive public has been treated to one high-profile happening after another. Rest assured, there will be many more ebbs and flows.
Amongst the bigger talking points currently are the returns of Pervez Musharraf and Akhtar Mengal, the appointment of Najam Sethi as caretaker chief minister of Punjab and Imran Khan’s latest gathering at Minar-e-Pakistan. Meanwhile, the race to secure nominations for party tickets has reached fever pitch and behind-the-scenes negotiations between parties about seat adjustments and potential post-poll alliances are heating up.
Yet, even as the media circus intensifies, meaningful public discussion about Pakistan’s existing political economy is conspicuous by its absence. A large number of ordinary people are players in everyday political-economic contests at the local level. Yet even these participant-observers (as anthropologists like to call them) often do not make the link between the specific political economy issues with which they are familiar and the intrigue that the corporate media privileges.
Let us take the example of Balochistan, where the very holding of and legitimacy of elections is under question. It is worth bearing in mind that even while a wide cross-section of Baloch society is alienated from the mainstream — as Akhtar Mengal has been at pains to point out — there are still many political and economic resources at stake in the upcoming elections, and there are many Baloch from dominant, intermediate and subordinate class backgrounds that will potentially be vying for these resources.
The political economy of smuggling (and transport) is, for instance, a complex matter that involves hundreds of thousands of Baloch. Many of the licenses and permits needed to facilitate the trade and transport of a host of goods are issued by government officials. The Baloch people might be loath to make any kind of ideological commitment to the Pakistani state, but the reality of economic integration means that elections are nevertheless an important exercise that affects the lives of many who otherwise might politically support the separatist movement.
The situation in conflict-ridden Pakhtun areas and Karachi is perhaps even more telling in this regard. The situation has provided further impetus to a burgeoning informal economy that has no real geographical limits and definitely no guiding ideological content. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s concern with the delimitation of constituencies in Karachi has more than a little to do with the demographic changes in urban Sindh and the wider informal trade and transport networks in which many ethnic groups — but Pakhtuns in particular — set the rules of the game.
Indeed, the electoral game in Sindh in general cannot be understood without reference to a number of other major political and economic trends, including the rather unprecedented fact of massive Sindhi migration from the rural interior of the province to Karachi over the past decade.
Then there is Punjab, where development and the ability to deliver it is arguably the major determinant of electoral outcomes, and by extension, political alignments. The astonishing outlay of funds by the now ex-chief minister of the province over the past year or so just for the building of roads, underpasses and bridges is testament to this fact. Opponents have rightfully been identifying the costs of the development binge, both to the rest of the country, and to underdeveloped regions within Punjab.
In a nutshell, the electoral contest is much less about the drama to which the media has us hooked and much more about everyday political economy and state practices that fall into the category of the mundane. The same chattering classes that otherwise bash democracy and politics to no end are actually most attracted to the intrigue that does the rounds on cable television. The truth is that there is nothing romantic or particularly compelling about modern democracy, and things are not likely to get better soon.
Yet we know that there is no better option than for this highly compromised idea of popular sovereignty to be allowed to take root. There is no guarantee that the playing out of the electoral process will necessarily enhance the quality of democracy, but there is also no guarantee that it will not.
Rather than speculate on the inherent goodness or badness of democracy, however, what we should be aspiring to is a state of affairs in which the long-suffering people are freed from the structural violence imposed upon them by the Pakistani and global elite.
One of the major structural constraints to change is the fact that elections are dominated by those with money and/or abiding social power and prestige. In other words, is the system of representation that exists in this country actually a genuine measure of popular will, or is it in fact — as Friedrich Engels said more than a century ago — only a “gauge of the maturity of the working class”?
Given the complex and variegated political economy to which I made reference above, it is undoubtedly true that the electoral process has almost nothing to do with empowerment of the people in the absolute sense. Struggling to make this electoral process more equal and accessible to those without money and power, whilst reintroducing political agendas such as land reform, the nationalisation of basic services and controls on multinational capital, is what genuine democrats and progressives should be doing.
The first step in this regard is challenging the one-dimensional media discourse about Pakistani democracy and establishing the links between this democracy and our actually existing political economy. This is to say nothing more than that we need to remind ourselves about the mundanity of it all.
The writer teaches at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.