Will Pakistan see its own Trump?

November 21, 2016

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THE rise of xenophobic populism across the world has made some wonder if a similar surge will hit Pakistan as well. The rise of Modi, and the accompanying band of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chauvinists, in particular, raises speculation over a countering force emerging on this side of the border. Will Pakistan see its own variant of the movements that have placed Trump, Le Pen, Modi, Erdogan, and Duterte in positions of political prominence?

To answer this question, it’s useful to put together a hypothetical blueprint of what contemporary populism would look like in 21st-century Pakistan. Common amongst most populists elsewhere is their appeal to an identity segment that commands sizeable votes, but is imbued with a sense of resentment or marginalisation. This is true for middle and upper-caste Hindus aggrieved at quotas in India; white people angry at immigration, economic slowdown, and cultural change in the US, France, and Britain; and conservative Muslims weary of state-sanctioned secularism in the Anatolian heartland of Turkey.

Given Pakistan’s history, there are two potential social groupings/identities that provide the raw numbers for a populist takeover of the state. I say potential here because while they may add up on paper, they have only partially existed as self-aware political communities over the past 70 years.


There are some inherent failings in Pakistan’s political system, which may act as an inadvertent bulwark against populist frenzy.


The first of the two would be a conscious Punjabi ethnic grouping, composed of north and central Punjabis, and post-partition settlers in south Punjab. If, by some miracle, a nationalist leader was to capture the province’s imagination and votes on an explicit agenda of Punjabi nativism and supremacy, he or she would control roughly 40pc of the total electorate. That would be enough to garner a plurality under our existing political system, but probably not an outright majority.

There are several obvious impediments to a Punjabi populist emerging in the present. The first is that Punjabi cultural identity has few takers in Punjab. The language and any attendant cultural artefacts are usually ditched in the process of urbanisation and upward economic mobility. Second- and third-generations belonging to the middle- and upper-middle class are especially quick to adopt English and Urdu. Consequently, there is no widespread understanding of what constitutes Punjabi culture in urban Punjab, except for some adherence towards kinship/biradari-based marriages and a vague sense of entitlement over residential land.

The other obvious impediment is that Punjabis have no reason to feel marginalised or excluded. Apart from their strong representation in the state, the province outstrips all others in terms of development indicators. Successive governments — civil and military — have built on a favourable colonial endowment and invested heavily in its economic well-being. Poverty rates are low, and constant reminders of how bad things are elsewhere in the country makes Punjabis feel secure about their own position. Finally, as of this moment, two major political parties provide strong representation to the interests of Punjab’s elite and middle class, and so there is little need for an outsider to protect and further their agenda.

The second potential grouping for a populist upsurge is Pakistan’s Sunni population. At around 80pc of the total electorate, this particular group is numerically sufficient to mount a complete takeover of all political institutions. However, there are obvious impediments to this theocratic fantasy as well. The first is drastic internal variation with regards to belief, ritual, and orientation towards clerical authority. If a Sunni upsurge were to take place, how would it reconcile Barelvi practices with Deobandi orthodoxy? What role would a growing Salafi following have in its overall construction?

In Pakistan’s history, the only time Islamists have shelved their theological and organisational differences is when faced with a common enemy. Good examples of this include the JUP-JUI-JI alliance against Bhutto in 1977; the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal’s rise against American presence in Afghanistan; and most recently, a Hurmat-i-Rasool combination in defence of the blasphemy law. Providing a proactive, rather than reactive, narrative for the voters has eluded Islamist politicians so far, and this is visible in the low seat and vote totals accumulated by religious parties in successive elections.

Another strong impediment is that the state has already co-opted an agenda of religious chauvinism and xenophobia. The Constitution is laced with Islamic rhetoric and places clear distinctions between Muslims and non-Muslims. Similarly, various amendments to the Penal Code create some semblance of an Islamic legal system. The army regularly presents itself as a defender of true faith, and the country is projected as a fortress of Islam. Essentially, the cultural agenda of Islamists has been fairly successful over the past 70 years, which is partially why its political agenda is less attractive in the present.

Finally, there are some inherent failings in Pakistan’s political system, which may act as an inadvertent bulwark against sweeping mobilisation and populist frenzy. Across the country, the bulk of the electorate is tied in hierarchical, personalised relations of patronage that form the basis of their political participation. Voters access state resources and largesse through local elites and strongmen, and their subsistence and survival is often based on this access. In most cases, these elites operate along tribal and ethnic affiliation, thus adding another layer of difference within the voting public. Even during the height of Pakistan’s populist phase (1968-1972), Bhutto’s anti-India nationalism and left-wing rhetoric could only capture the imagination of voters in two out of five provinces

For an ideologically motivated project to succeed today, it would have to supersede ties of patronage and undercut the ethnic, caste, kinship, and tribal distinctions which define them. At this moment, this appears to be an improbable task for a country in which ideology, other than ethnic or provincial, has played little role in determining peoples’ political participation over the better part of four decades.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

umairjaved@lumsalumni.pk

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2016