Unrooted politics

July 15, 2019


The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

RECENT events concerning an accountability court judge and the trial of Nawaz Sharif have thrown a couple of aspects of Pakistan’s political sphere into sharp focus. The first is that it confirms a headline lesson learnt from a particular brand of anti-corruption interventions in other parts of the world: mainly that if ‘exemplary punishment’ is the major pillar on which anti-corruption reform is going to rest (rather than changes in law and shutting off of loopholes), then the entire edifice is going to be deeply politicised and will result in unintended political consequences.

The second aspect of Maryam Nawaz’s press conference shows another long-standing feature of Pakistani politics: the overwhelming impact of elite factional intrigue and murky happenings on the political sphere. This is not to suggest that Pakistan is somehow unique in this manner. Shadowy transactions and tussles tend to shape legislation, decision-making, and who controls state power and who doesn’t the world over. What makes it particularly pronounced in Pakistan is the continued regularity and centrality with which these patterns emerge and play themselves out.

Let’s take recent events as an example. An allegedly compromised accountability judge was apparently being coerced to give out a decision that impacted not only the fate of a former three-time prime minister, but ultimately the contours of political/electoral contestation in the country. Regardless of whatever version of the coercion story you buy, it’s hard to shake the fact that those in power, responsible for governing the fate of over 200 million people, would be facing different circumstances if some alleged video hadn’t been leaked or some blackmailing hadn’t been done, or speaking historically, if a set of uniformed officers hadn’t decided they wanted to ‘fix’ the country in a way they alone deemed fit.

Ultimately, what we’re left with is a situation in which control of the state is being determined by hidden transactions.

Ultimately, what we’re left with is a situation in which control of the state (from who gets to call the shots over economic policy, the actual content of policymaking, and who gets to stand for office) is being determined by hidden transactions, chicken-games, media deflections and so on. To borrow a word used to describe contemporary politics in countries like Egypt, all of it feels entirely unrooted. Unrooted from the constitutional design, which lays out a fairly straightforward form of republican parliamentary-democratic government. And unrooted, in a sociological sense, from the people upon which this state and its politics exercises power over.

Even the exercise of voting, perhaps the most direct way people can exercise opinion, is conditioned by all the shadowy intrigue that goes before and after it, which ultimately decides who gets to stand for office and who goes to jail, as well as whose persona gets extra coverage in the media and whose interviews get shut off.

To give an even more acute example that illustrates this unrooted-ness, at a time of heavy taxation and rising inflationary pressures, of a contracting economy and the threat of heightened unemployment, our politics (and accompanying political discourse) is not being determined by public pressure or perceptions, but instead, overwhelmingly, by who all has a copy of some video of an allegedly crooked judge.

There’s one obvious and one less-obvious explanation for this unrooted-ness, for why murky, conspiracy-laden intrigue between different sets of elites dominates Pakistan’s political happenings, outcomes and discourse. The obvious one is the power of unelected institutions, primarily the army, but, since 2007, the judiciary as well. These two institutions are not directly answerable to the people in any procedural or constitutional form. As much as they like to claim that they are serving (some vague definition of) the people, and both have done so vociferously over much of recent history, they are seen as more often serving to expand the political and policy space they possess.

The less-obvious explanation centres around the weakness of the political parties themselves. This is something that is (understandably) ignored in the primary way of looking at things from a civil-military imbalance perspective. Pakistan’s mainstream political parties are categorically unrooted. They have no organised ties to any social group. Yes, they claim to speak for some demographic or the other — the PML-N for the Punjabi middling sorts, the PTI for the youth and the educated middle class, the PPP for the Sindhi rural populace, etc. But none of this is borne out in the way these parties are organised, how they compete during elections, or how they interact with their voters.

When Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) says it speaks for the conservative Anatolian marginalised by years of chauvinistic republicanism, it is able to count on (and demonstrate) the support of thousands of community groups, hundreds of religious neighbourhood associations, the Muslim businessmen forum MUSIAD, conservative trade unions and so on. These groups, in part, have been organised by the AKP, and in part, they have helped raise the AKP to its current position. Despite the country’s praetorian past and increasingly authoritarian turn, the success and longevity of the Turkish ruling party now rests primarily on its ability to keep its constituents and its coalition of supporters satisfied. Failing to do so will change its political fortunes. In other words, politics is firmly rooted within society.

Now contrast this with Pakistan where even the supposedly new-age PTI is unable to organise its support in any meaningful form and where political discourse around a government’s health remains fixated not on public opinion of its performance, but on whether it’s kept the military happy or not.

The long shadow cast by powerful unelected institutions is undoubtedly overwhelming. But simultaneously what political elites have been unable to appreciate so far is that the country’s political fortunes will remain tied to factional intrigue and murky conspiracies unless a more robust relationship, ie one based on organisation and mass contact, with the electorate can be forged.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.


Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2019