Stagnant politics

Published April 24, 2018

A REVIEW of our history reveals a curious anomaly. Political change usually follows societal change. Our society has seen much social and economic change. Population, urbanisation, people’s mobility, flows of information and market reach have all increased. National social and economic integration have picked up and industrial and service sectors have expanded.

Yet, our politics remains stagnant. There is the stagnation in the quality of governance. Many say it has even fallen since the 1950s/1960s. But while the ’50s-’60s governance provided quality elite urban services, it had limited outreach to rural masses. In the Bhutto era, its outreach increased but quality fell and it has improved little since then.

Furthermore, a review since 1947 shows stagnation in intermediate political processes too, especially the balance of power among powerful societal groups. Until 1951, the main problem was the centre not sharing power with regions and dismissing provincial setups. After ’51, national politicians themselves were marginalised by bureaucrats. And given the law of the jungle about bigger predators eating smaller ones, bureaucrats were pushed aside by generals in 1958, with the judiciary and opportunist politicians supporting these power grabs.

The ’71 tragedy brought the rule of politicians back but it too saw the centre dominating regions. The decades since then saw a cyclical pattern with the security establishment repeatedly grabbing power with the support of a pliant judiciary and opportunist politicians, and manipulating politics and elections even when politicians were ruling.

Our politics fails the minority urban middle class.

Some encouraging patterns emerged in the post-2008 electoral era which reflected democratic consolidation but not improved quality of governance. The security establishment adopted a hands-off policy during the 2008 and 2013 elections and in ongoing political matters (but not in security policy matters). Key political parties, especially the PPP and PML, eschewed dog-eat-dog politics and largely respected the mandates of others nationally and provincially. The judiciary also seemed able to stand up to both the executive and the security establishment.

But most of these gains have been lost since the emergence of the Panama Papers. The documents and the failure of Sharifs to give a credible defence heightened suspicions about their financial probity and highlighted the need for a fair and independent trial. But the much-debate verdicts de-seating Nawaz, removing him as party head and barring him for life are seen to have furthered not accountability but political intrigue. Many have asked if the goal, instead of the pursuit of the rule of law, is to marginalise a corrupt but popular politician not inclined to meekly follow the diktat of the security establishment.

With the mysterious change of rule in Quetta, the controversial Senate polls and the rise of fringe religious groups, it seems the establishment is no longer leaving politics alone. The judiciary has come under criticism from many well-respected legal experts for its iffy verdicts against Nawaz though obviously as good citizens we must criticise verdicts and not judges. Major opposition parties have also behaved opportunistically. And there are fears that the 2018 poll may be manipulated to weaken the PML-N. Thus, we are back to the 1990s.

This brings us back the original issue of why politics has not changed with society. When the two become delinked, revolutions often occur, and many do keep raising their spectre here. But that is a faulty analysis. Revolutions normally occur when politics fails the majority. Oddly, despite its flaws, our politics serves the masses in a crude fashion via corrupt patronage politics. But it fails the minority urban middle class, which despises it. This is why we don’t have popular revolutions but coups and palace intrigues instigated by key state bodies run by this minority. That is why popular mass mobilisation occurs more against dictators than corrupt politicians.

One key change in politics forced by increased urbanisation is that urban politicians now dominate politics instead of rural ones. But urbanisation has also made the minority urban middle class and its ability to checkmate politicians stronger. Still, the frequent coups and intrigues by the middle class and its rule via non-elected regimes worsen things since the most powerful middle class group, the army, is less concerned about broad-based progress and more about regional tussles.

This shows that not all societal change causes political change. Many now pin hopes on the rise of the youth bulge and social media to alter politics. But these likely are false hopes. Social scientists must develop better and more nuanced understanding of the type of societal change that can precipitate political change.

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

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2018


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