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Political chessboard

July 28, 2015


The writer is a political and development economist.
The writer is a political and development economist.

PAKISTANI politics has changed dramatically recently. In 2014, the conservatives were badly fractured, with Pakistan’s three biggest conflicts raging among social, political and economic conservatives (PML-N vs. the army; the army vs. TTP; PML-N vs. PTI).

Since then, the army has largely vanquished the TTP and tamed the PML-N. Nawaz Sharif, who famously refused dictation in 1993, is accepting dictation today. The PTI-PML tussle has ebbed. Thus, Pakistani conservatism has become far more cohesive today — under army leadership as in the 1980s. Rawalpindi, Aabpara, Raiwind, Muridke, Akora Khattak, D.I. Khan and perhaps even Jhang are cooperating, with Bani Gala and Mansoora waiting wearily for a nod from Rawalpindi.

Conservative parties like the PML-N, PTI, JUI-F and JI won 90 per cent plus of Punjab and KP’s national seats. Centrist parties like the PPP, MQM, NP and PkMAP won 80pc plus of the national seats in Sindh and Balochistan. Except Karachi, poverty in Sindh and Balochistan is higher than in Punjab and KP. Punjabi, Pakhtun and Hazarawal elites dominate Pakistan’s politics, military and bureaucracy while southern Sindhi, Mohajir and Baloch groups remain marginalised there.

Travel from Islamabad to Peshawar, Abbottabad, Faisalabad and Lahore can be done easily within a few hours mostly on good motorways whereas travel to Karachi and Quetta depends on unreliable PIA flights. This geographical distance creates mental distances too. Thus, there is much greater cohesion and interaction among northern elites and masses while southern elites and masses are less powerful and also highly divided.

Tensions have increased between northern and southern elites.

Cushy jobs, lucrative contracts and profitable permits flow much more easily among northern elites compared to southern elites. The electoral competitiveness federally of the PPP-led centrist coalition till recently provided some sense of political inclusiveness to southern groups. But with the PPP’s decline federally, the chances of southern centrist parties coming to power centrally soon are non-existent. American conservatives dream of a permanent conservative majority; Pakis­tani conservatives have already achieved it.

Of late, tensions have increased between northern and southern elites. The army had already been fighting Baloch militants for over a decade. Now, it is also targeting leading Sindh-based political parties, seemingly beyond targeting corruption and violence. With a second strong conservative party having emerged for the establishment to play off against the PML-N, the centrist PPP and MQM have lost their political value for it, and can now be squeezed.

Perhaps more common than battles between right and wrong in life are dilemmas creating battles between two rights or two wrongs. There is firstly the undeniable wrong represented by the PPP’s monumental incompetence and corruption and MQM’s violence. However, most Sindhis and Mohajirs still support them. Ethnic groups in KP and Punjab higher up in the pecking order in the federation support parties promise narrow, technically-defined good governance which ignores ethnic and class inequities underpinning the federation.

Those in Sindh and Balochistan rightly recognise that improvements in their group pecking orders will provide greater pay-offs to them than this narrowly-defined good governance. They support the PPP, MQM and nationalist Baloch parties, which champion ethnic rights. In reality, the promises of all parties are largely false.

The second, equally undeniable wrong is represented by those who control and perpetuate an inequitable federation and who are now aggressively targeting all southern ethnic representative groups. Who should one oppose in this battle of two wrongs: both or the greater of the two wrongs? The latter, according to Italian Marxist thinker Gramsci, are those controlling the rules of the overall unjust system rather than those scavenging its corners for personal benefits. Those controlling systems can set rules which enrich them, without committing crude and visible corruption. Those scavenging the system can only do the latter.

There is, of course, the third alternative where both the federation’s inequities and corruption and violence are addressed together. However, such superior alternatives do not germinate easily in conservative minds given the fundamental intellectual coordinates of conservatism: parochialism, greed, limited perspectives and dubious ethics.

While this north-south divide in Pakistan will never reach the epic proportions of the East-West divide earlier, given geographical proximity and internal southern divisions, it may continue plaguing Pakistan in the future. However, if history is any guide, this latest attempt by Pakistan’s conservative establishment to subjugate weaker groups — under the glossy and seductive cover of targeting corruption and violence — will likely fail too.

The writer is a political and development economist.

Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2015

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