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Back in town

August 30, 2013

ONE of the most defining features of the neo-liberal epoch is the shift in ideology and practice of mainstream parties to the right.

All around the world, political organisations that once took pride in their links with organised labour and a form of Fabian socialism are now keen to prove that they are just as committed to the ‘free market’ as the most unapologetic conservatives. ‘New Labour’ in Great Britain is arguably the most prominent example in this regard.

The situation in this country more or less mirrors the global trend. The PPP famously made its name by invoking socialism and developing a base within the labouring classes. The PPP has since ventured far from these beginnings, and during its latest term in office confirmed that it wants to be considered just as loyal a servant of global capital as any other contender for power.

The party now in power has a long history of unabashedly supporting private business, and, relatedly, turning a blind eye to the rights of working people.

The Sharifs represent the brand of urbanised, commercially oriented politician that came to prominence during the Zia years by drumming up opposition to Bhutto’s left-wing populism. While the PPP has changed colour in the subsequent period, the PML-N and others of its ilk have very much stayed the course.

These divergent historical trajectories at least partially explain why there are still differences in the focus of both major parties at the micro level, even while their macro policy commitments converge.

For instance, the PPP relies heavily on the rural voter and concentrates on regions outside of the Punjabi heartland whereas the PML-N focuses on the largely ‘urban’ tract between Rawalpindi and Multan.

More generally the PML-N looks to pump money into cities, develop roads and other macro-infrastructures, and provide opportunities to technocratic elites in metropolitan centres to generate both knowledge and profit.

The PPP is rather more old-fashioned in its approach to politics, and arguably will pay the price in votes as urbanisation and neo-liberalisation deepen.

Among the more obvious indicators that the PML-N is in power is the threatening language being directed by government functionaries towards the urban poor. In the name of beautifying the city, katchi abadi residents are being warned to look for alternative, ‘legal’ abodes. The warnings will likely soon give way to planned eviction drives.

The government has already violently expelled rehri-wallahs and other informal vendors operating on roadsides in a number of urban centres, including the federal capital. Aside from providing an indication of what is to come, these evictions represent punishment for a class of subsistence hawkers that clearly never votes for the PML-N.

These anti-poor initiatives of the PML-N are all cases of déjà vu. A little before it was unceremoniously dumped out of office in October 1999, the PML-N had bulldozed a number of katchi abadis in the federal capital and some other cities in Punjab under the pretext of freeing up valuable real estate to be used for more productive purposes.

During Shahbaz Sharif’s most recent tenure as chief minister of Punjab, the PML-N was seen to regularly invoke the threat of terror to target Pakhtun daily wage workers in Lahore.

The federal government in Islamabad has learned from the younger Sharif’s example; the interior minister has suggested that katchi abadi dwellers in the federal capital — particularly those of Pakhtun lineage — are aiding and abetting ‘terrorism’ across the country.

These examples do not necessarily suggest that the PML-N is in a league of its own. As I mentioned at the outset, invoking the need for speculative investments in financial assets (such as land in metropolitan centres) and labelling the poor who obstruct such profiteering as security threats are strategies befitting any good neo-liberal government.

However, the PML-N distinguishes itself by its ruthlessness towards ‘expendable’ social elements and its ability to bring together technocratic and business cliques to produce the required results. It would not be incorrect to suggest that the Sharifs are better placed to put Pakistani capitalism on the global map than any of their contemporary political rivals.

The MQM and PTI might argue to the contrary, the former having done its best to ‘modernise’ Karachi along neo-liberal lines, and the latter convinced that it has the best selection of ‘experts’ at its disposal to genuinely bring ‘development’ to Pakistan.

Regardless of whose claims are the most viable, the point is that all of the contenders think almost exactly alike. To the extent that any of our mainstream parties concerns itself with the housing, employment and other welfare needs of the majority of the urban — not to mention rural — population, they do so instrumentally.

There are upwards of 30 million Pakistanis living in ‘illegal’ katchi abadis across the country, and many millions more living in settlements that may be formally recognised but resemble katchi abadis in virtually all other ways.

I do not know of any mainstream party that has made substantive efforts to understand the complex political economy of urban squatting and/or slum development. Neither have any efforts been made to think about generating livelihoods in rural and peri-urban locales so as to stem the steady flow of low-income migrants coming into cities that cannot absorb them.

Having said this, such policy research is conspicuous by its absence (or sparseness) within ‘civil society’ circles too. Just as mainstream parties cannot think beyond the immediate imperatives of political and economic profits, the so-called development sector is motivated less by concern for working people’s needs and more by the funding portfolios of international donors.

The anti-poor brigade is back in town. Or perhaps it never left? Either way, there is no silver lining for the working people who build the shiny buildings and pave the steaming roads that make our cities into the neo-liberal havens our rulers, and their external patrons, seem determined to create.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.