The Punjab card

Nov 01 2019


The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

IT’S as close to a truism as possible in Pakistani politics: Punjab was, is, and presumably will be, for the foreseeable future, the heartland of the establishment-centric structure of power.

The British made Punjabis the dominant component in the army, transformed its ecology and society by building the world’s biggest perennial irrigation system and also introduced a uniquely authoritarian method of government known affectionately in the annals of colonial bureaucracy as the ‘Punjab school of administration’.

When Pakistan came into being, Punjab became a hegemon for these interrelated reasons: first, it supplied the majority of both the rank and file and officers of the emergent Pakistan army; second, Punjabis, alongside Urdu-speakers, dominated the civil bureaucracy; and third, Punjabi landowning politicians at home with the authoritarian ‘Punjab school of administration’ put their lot in with the civil-military state apparatus to thwart democratic rule.

This hegemonic bloc offset East Pakistan’s demographic majority with the refrain that democracy could wait in lieu of defending the country from India and Afghanistan. Landed and other influential politicians in Sindh, Balochistan and then NWFP who sided with the Punjabi and Urdu-speaking combine were given a share of the proverbial booty, while others were deemed seditious and criminalised in the ‘greater national interest’. The charade was christened by Western imperialist powers who wanted a garrison state in southwest Asia to safeguard their interests in the Cold War.

Counter-hegemonic social forces in East and West Pakistan demolished both the material and discursive foundations of the oligarchic project in the 1970 election. Yet even after the eastern wing seceded, the Punjab-centric establishment refused to budge, now armed with demographic power whilst continuing to be the ‘guardian of the country’s physical and ideological frontiers’.

So Balochistan, Sindh, the NWFP and other peripheral regions continued to be coerced and cajoled, with the junior partner of the military establishment now a more urbanised and vernacular ‘bourgeois’ politician that reflected socioeconomic changes in Punjabi. Cue Nawaz Sharif. More than 30 years after his emergence, Mian Sahib is now biting the hand that once fed him. So, is the ‘Punjab card’ being played against the establishment that has always employed it to perpetuate its own authoritarian project?

Only time will tell, and otherwise counter-hegemonic political narratives proffered by Pakhtun, Baloch, Sindhi and other ethnic-nationalist movements would benefit from thinking more deeply about internal cleavages within Punjabi society to help make the prospect of a ‘Punjab card’ a reality.

Mian Sahib is now biting the hand that once fed him.

Sharif illustrates that even bourgeois politicians can turn against their masters, let alone the working masses. Pakistan’s first counter-hegemonic uprising against the establishment-centric structure of power at the tail end of the Ayub dictatorship had a significant Punjabi worker-peasant component. It is true that Punjabis generally tend to be less politicised and more loyal to statist narratives than Pakhtuns, Sindhis, Baloch, Seraikis and other ethnic-linguistic groups in Pakistan, but class contradictions within Punjab must not be understated.

The PML-N never represented the class interests of working people in Punjab, and the PPP does not any longer. The reception of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s long march in Lahore and other parts of Punjab clarifies that the PML-N leadership did not mobilise its cadres to heed Nawaz Sharif’s call to support the march. In short, a counter-hegemonic secular politics appealing to Punjab’s ordinary people is conspicuous by its absence. It is partly because of this reason that flash-in-the-pan populist religious movements like the TLP make inroads into Punjabi society from time to time.

It is amongst more upwardly mobile segments of society that the hegemonic project is under question. Remember that it was vernacular middle-class elements in small towns, even big metropolitan areas, that Nawaz Sharif and the PML represented. These elements now understand that perennial enmity with India and pandering to the establishment is not the best business strategy. Yet another segment of the urban middle class is still propping up the establishment-centric structure of power as manifested through Imran Khan.

The urban middle-class is relatively fickle, and so it is only if and when a genuinely counter-hegemonic political force takes root in Punjab that there will be clarity on whether urban middle-class discontent in contemporary Punjab coalesces into a wider anti-establishment project which speaks to the interests both the lowest orders of Punjabi society, Pakistan’s oppressed ethnic-nations and all other segments of society that want to replace the national security state once and for all, and usher in peace, democracy and an egalitarian social order.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2019