My cousin is contesting a Union Council election in a rural constituency in southern Punjab — my family’s first foray into any kind of electoral politics.
Over the years, I have encountered deep cynicism about the viability of electoral democracy in South Asia. You know the mantra:
Who needs the right to vote when people do not even have enough to eat.
The illiterate masses opt for venal politicians to make a fortune for themselves. Elections do not do much for the poor and at its worst, it may reinforce the hold of the already powerful.
Over the years, political scientists have used terms like patronage politics, vote banks and biradari system to implicate elections in South Asia as not quite as ‘democratic’ as in liberal democracies, where presumably rational voters exercise their individual right to choose their representatives.
So here is what I have learned so far from this election fought in the constituency of about 20,000 voters in three economically robust and socially vibrant villages in southern Punjab.
Biradaris do matter.
But not in the static way most observers fear. My cousin is fighting on a ticket that pivots on the alliance between the Arain and Awan clan but one of their rivals also comes from the Arain biradari so they have to work hard to court that vote.
Collective identities — race, class, ethnicity, religion — matter in any election and as a result in rural Punjab where the biradari, not the state or the civil society, will come to your aid when you need it most, it is logical for people to vote along biradari lines.
Vote banks exist but they do not ‘shore up’ the votes as concretely as the term implies. My cousin was nervous right up until the very end because even though he had the backing of locally influential families and the two main birdaris in his constituency, he felt that the support could evaporate quickly and thus, till the very end, he was campaigning hard.
Also read: Villagers offer deal for votes to candidates
Yes, patronage politics is the driving force in this election but it isn’t as rotten as you might imagine. The campaign season has upended the social hierarchy in our village. The candidates, generally from more influential families, have to humbly woo the votes of the underprivileged and apparently it is no easy task.
The value of vote is not lost on these villagers who depend on the largesse of their patrons ranging from fodder for their meagre flock of animals to new clothes for their children for Eid.
“I cannot wait for this damn election to be over,” I heard a candidate’s wife say, “the lower castes have become so uppity, reminding us of insults they suffered in the past and brazenly asking for all kinds of favours.”
It seems to me that the dispossessed are the most rational voters in South Asia because they know the value of their vote and use it to the best of their capacity.
Voters like religious piety but they want worldly benefits from an election.
My cousin is a pious man who devotes a considerable amount of time to the Tablighi Jammat. Initially, his speeches at campaign rallies were a bit too preachy; eventually, he was advised to talk about how he would help people in this life because he was not contesting the seat to become an Imam for the local mosque.
His potential voters appreciated his honesty and piety, but first and foremost, they wanted to know if he could help them with their cases pending in local courts or to bring a pakki road to their deras.
If you look at the public face of my cousin’s campaign, it was a very male affair. The posters were all about the influential male members of the community supporting his candidacy.
One poster was particularly annoying to me, at least initially. It contained all the family supporters including the infant son of another cousin, but no women.
But of course, if you know anything about rural life in southern Punjab, it would be downright silly to think that pictures of women would be put on posters, unless they are running as candidates.
That does not make women irrelevant to this election. I was told that it came down to women’s turnout.
Women were actively campaigning and debating the merits of various candidates but it was occurring in their homes, not in the village square. I do hope that in the future more women will contest these elections but let’s not fool ourselves by assuming that women do not matter in elections.
Local elections are better laboratories for the civic education of people and the strengthening of democracy. I came to this conclusion reluctantly because local elections have a bad history in Pakistan as favourite instruments of authoritarian governments to bypass national political parties.
Also read: The power of the vote
Everyone contesting this election is not a professional politician. It is heart-warming to see an average person overcoming their fears of public speaking, standing up in front of a crowd of fellow villagers and promising to make their collective life better.
Those standing have to be schooled in the difficult art of campaigning. They learn about campaign finance and apparently, printing posters and feeding potential voters is the largest expense.
They are trained to monitor polling stations and to watch out for fraudulent ballots; they are trained to mobilise the voter. One hard working but sharp-tongued cousin was left out of campaign because she was alienating more supporters than gaining votes.
We tend to have unrealistic expectations that particular elections will change the destiny of the nation and when that does not happen we get sour on democracy.
The Union Council election in my village will not change the destiny of the people but thus far it has shown to me that, even if momentarily, the elections empowered the most disempowered, it inculcated civic spirit among many, and it is a good way to move towards that elusive civil society we talk so much about.