Unity through diversity

Published May 15, 2016

The Politics of Ethnicity and Local Government

The 18th Amendment is by and large conceived formally along provincial lines but substantially along ethnic lines. Federalism in Pakistan remains ethnic in both substance and style. As a general rule the politics of ethnicity has also been spearheaded by the urban middle classes, although not the commercial segments. Sindhi, Baloch, Pakhtun, Saraiki, and increasingly Gilgiti/Baltistani writers, artists, intellectuals, and whitecollar professionals, including those in the state services, have been flagbearers of their respective ethnic groups since virtually the inception of the state. Some of them may have been coopted into the formal patronage networks of the state, including through various local government experiments, but the pull of ethnonationalism has remained quite strong even within the mainstream political parties such as the PPP and Awami National Party.

The fact that the politics of ethnicity has remained so resilient has to do at least in part with its institutionalisation at the provincial level, which has been the tier of government to have suffered most due to the emaciation of the polity by the military establishment. Even provincial bureaucracies have tended to at least silently endorse ethnonationalist demands, particularly when local government initiatives have threatened the powers of these bureaucracies. More generally it is worth noting that progressive ideologies have continued to influence the nonPunjabi middle classes. Until the 1980s, as I noted earlier, leftists were amongst the more vocal proponents of provincial autonomy and the rights of oppressed nationalities within Pakistan. This also meant that a number of ethnonationalist movements were heavily influenced by leftist ideas. While these ideas have retreated to the margins within Punjab, they have remained influential within the nonPunjabi professional middle classes, and by extension ethnonationalist movements. This has not prevented political parties such as the National Awami Party from falling by the wayside, or Sindhi, Baloch, Saraiki, Pakhtun, and other nationalists from preferring to articulate their politics independently of one another, but it is nevertheless an important explanatory factor in the politics of ethnicity remaining a powerful current outside Punjab.

There is another factor that must be borne in mind when considering the evolution of the politics of ethnicity over the past two decades. Local government under Gen Ziaul Haq was an exercise in coopting the urban middle classes and by extension the subordinate classes as well. I have already noted the growing scholarly consensus that even ostensibly rural areas in central Punjab are better thought of as a series of contiguous urban settlements. However, urbanisation in other provinces and regions has not been as intense. Rural populations in peripheral regions have benefited from the fruits of the state’s patronage distribution functions much less than in Punjab. Looked at from another angle, limited capitalist modernisation in, as well as the relative lack of public resources channelled to, rural Sindh, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, GilgitBaltistan, and the Saraiki belt of Punjab have provided sustenance to the ethnonational narrative in which Punjab is depicted as a monolith depriving the underrepresented nationalities of their rightful share of power and resources. With exception then, the politics of ethnicity has considerable appeal in rural areas, even though the leadership of ethnonational movements and parties tends to be urban, educated, and occupied in professional sectors.

It is against this backdrop that the last and arguably most comprehensive institutional initiative in local government — undertaken by the Musharraf military regime from 2000 to 2008 — must be appraised. Scholars who have studied the Local Government Plan 2000 have confirmed that it represented on paper at least a substantive attempt to reform the longstanding administrative/political order at the local level. Of particular significance as far as the argument of this chapter is concerned was the increase in reserved seats for workers, peasants, and women in local bodies.

Electoral outcomes have confirmed that established structures of power in virtually all parts of the country have remained, to a large extent, intact in the wake of the Musharraf regime’s selfproclaimed ‘silent revolution’. The bureaucratic apparatus, while not unaffected, has retained a great deal of power. In rural areas, landed power in particular has proven to be a major determinant of success, and more generally those of wealth, status, and power have been able to influence the operation of union council, tehsil, and district level committees, either directly or indirectly.

Having said this there can be no question that the local government exercise provided a first opportunity for thousands of peasants, workers, and women to run for elected office, and for some of these to actually hold positions of authority in government. This was the case across Pakistan, and a number of longstanding taboos with regards to the most downtrodden segments of society have arguably been broken, even where women or men from lower castes or classes have ostensibly been ‘put up’ by established power brokers.

As was the case with the previous two experiments in local government, a premium was once again placed by a powerful centre on consolidating a constituency of supporters at the local level. Importantly however, the central government did not necessarily dole out favours to all local councillors, tending to discriminate against those that were not affiliated with the ‘king’s party’, PMLQ and the key Musharraf ally in urban Sindh, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). In other words, inasmuch as this last experiment in local government reinforced the ‘localisation’ of politics, amongst political workers and in regions not loyal to the PMLQ and MQM, patronage networks were sparse. In effect, by isolating its political opponents, the regime impeded its own ability to extend its sources of support outside the cocoon of central Punjab and MQMdominated Karachi.

When the postMusharraf government of the PPP put into practice a model of devolution in the form of the 18th Amendment in which the incumbent local government regime was left to die a slow death, it was in central Punjab and Karachi that the most resistance was voiced. In contrast, in the traditional strongholds of ethnonationalist politics there appeared to be little concern for the fact that the lowest tier of government was being abandoned. On both sides of this divide is a perception of a zerosum game: empowering the provincial tier of government whether in the form of the 18th Amendment or otherwise implies the elimination of the patronage networks linking the central with local governments.

What I want to emphasise here is the contrasting reaction of at least some worker, peasant, and women councillors in central Punjab and other relatively affluent regions with that of the majority populations outside these dominant regions to the decision to discontinue the local government scheme. As I noted earlier, in central Punjab and urban Sindh at least, the latest incarnation of local government was viewed quite clearly as a means of social and political mobility by relatively underrepresented classes, as well as women more generally. Whereas in regions where the politics of ethnicity maintains popular roots, local government continues to be seen as a threat to a process of genuine devolution visavis the province. This is not to suggest that relatively underrepresented classes and other social groups in Sindh, Balochistan, and KP alongside the Saraiki belt of Punjab did not engage with the local government initiative during the Musharraf years, but simply that the predominant political sentiment in these regions appears to be antilocal government and pro-provincial autonomy. There lies the rationale for political and constitutional initiatives such as the 18th Amendment.


It goes without saying that, in principle, democratic political forces around the globe concur that devolution of power to the local level deepens democracy and allows for the direct participation of ordinary men and women in the political process. In Pakistan, however, local government has been tainted by repeated experiences with military rule. I have argued here that the primary objective of local government experiments undertaken by military dictators — an objective which has been relatively successful — has been the consolidation of vertical networks of political patronage that allow the central government to maintain a loyal support base through the exercise of discretionary power to allocate state resources to its preferred networks. This politics can be called ‘localisation’ or centralization in the same measure, as it features both tiers of government while eliminating the province.

Crucially, Gen Zia’s regime was able to use local government and the politics of patronage more generally to coopt subordinate classes that in the preceding period had been drawn to a radical politics of class, and particularly so in the rapidly urbanising belt of central Punjab. In this regard, the urban middle classes in trading transport and small industrial sectors became crucial cogs in the patronage machine. However, in regions and amongst populations that have historically confronted the Pakistani state on the grounds that it is a vehicle for ethnic dominance, the urban middle classes prioritised a political idiom of ethnonationalism and resource transfers from the centre to the local level. Subordinate classes were therefore, to a significant extent, still mobilised effectively by ethno-nationalist parties.

The above excerpt is taken from the chapter ‘The Making of a Divided Polity’.

Excerpted with permission from
Making Federation Work: Federalism in Pakistan After the 18th Amendment
By Asma Faiz
Oxford University Press
ISBN 978-0199401857



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