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Punjab contests

October 10, 2017


THE big battle is over: Punjab will rule Pakistan. But winning wasn’t easy. It took several armed forays over 70 years in Balochistan, urban and rural Sindh, and Fata to end revolts by irked minorities. Sans India, even ’71 would have been won at any cost to the locals. But even that loss produced profit as post-’71 demographic destiny slowly became democratic destiny. So, both ways, Punjab has won Pakistan.

But this isn’t the end of history. Societal tussles are mainly about class, ethnic, ideological and institutional sway. Ethnic and ideological ones are, for now, over: Punjab conservatism has won big. The issue now is: who exactly from the province will rule Pakistan. Punjab has now turned on itself as its elites fight bitterly for class and institutional sway. Not even all of Punjab is involved, but mainly its northern urban conservative elites: industrialists (PML) vs institutional (army, bureaucracy and judiciary), private (PTI) and jihadi middle classes. But stay calm. The war is non-violent.

The 2013 polls routed the centrist Sindhi PPP and made two Punjab conservative parties the key national foes. The dharna was the first salvo. The gloves again came off recently in this squabble. Panama gave easily what the dharna couldn’t: the head of the head of the industrialists. Whether Punjab middle-class groups contrived this is unclear, but the verdict was glaringly weak and fanned gossip and turmoil.

Some of those who lost from Punjab, ex-defenders of Pakistani ideology but floored by more potent others from there, are now talking about ’71 like minority leaders. Nawaz retook the party head post with legislation as iffy as the judicial verdict unseating him. In this war, there are no principles, just crude interests and tactics. Some want Imran barred too. They don’t trust his past: player, playboy, philanthropist and now politician.

Conservatism in Punjab has won big.

Even the opposition head post may go from a centrist Sindhi to a Punjab conservative, now or in 2018. In fact, even the spoiler jihadi groups will now mainly be Punjab conservatives after the shock betrayal by Fata jihadi ex-allies. Milli (cynics call that short for military) is now into politics. The DG ISPR supports its move. Its flag vividly displays its aims. It’s a redo and negation of the national flag, with the green making deep inroads to sharply shrink the white minorities’ space. All these tactics have roiled Pakistani polity and economy. But the elites are too busy fighting to care. So politics is now mostly an all-Punjab conservative affair. It also runs KP politically, whose politics is with urbanites too. Once part of Punjab, KP is dominated by the two Punjab parties.

Despite taming others, can Punjab’s elites coexist given conservatism’s flawed DNA? It defeats enemies but soon gets divided and creates new ones from within given internal rifts. The main goal for both middle and upper class conservatives is economic. But industrial conservatives don’t need merit but allegedly thrive on fraud. The middle classes survive only on merit.

The middle class too is divided. Pindi institutional elites are driven by power and prefer conflict with alike regional foes. This irks economic conservatives, who want regional economic ties. To sway society, the Pindi boys employ jihadis, which fill it with hate and violence. But the patrons lack either the intellect to see this or the ethics to care. Even this alliance is shaky. The high zeal on faith of the clients irks patrons, whose opportunism on faith irks clients.

The battle now is about 2018. It will likely remain political as the Pindi boys can achieve their aims without taking over. Some among Punjab’s divided middle-class conservative groups may ally against the PML-N then. But Nawaz is still popular and major rigging too tough and risky now.

Some think Plan A may be to quietly fix enough swing seats to help the PTI win overall: so not match- but spot-fixing. Even if they win, the middle-class groups will soon start infighting. If the PML-N wins, there may be an impasse. But Nawaz and the Pindi boys will likely compromise eventually. After all, they’re all conservative and have learnt their lessons. So the fight will resemble that of early-morning irritating cats perched on a wall eyeball to eyeball, which growl, scowl and half-punch for long, but then back off seeing that small mice make easier prey. Civilian sway may go up a bit, if we’re lucky.

Meanwhile, minorities and masses, mere spectators here, can only watch with awe as the titans of Punjab clash and wait with bated breath to discover their own fate. But patriotism, faith, CPEC and end-to-sleaze, the competing conservative slogans, cannot truly solve their problems.

The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2017