IN the midst of much hand-wringing over the uber-efficient passing of recent amendments to the armed forces acts, a few key points have come to the fore. The first and most important of these is the scale of (misplaced) expectations that many have from Pakistan’s two main opposition parties: the PML-N and PPP.
Interestingly enough, whereas previously expectations and aspirations were being projected onto these parties by sections of the liberal commentariat and civil society, there is also an indication that segments of their own electorate — historically thought to be either transactional in their politics or indifferent to elite-level intrigue — have expressed disappointment. This is probably why several of the PML-N’s top-line leadership went out of their way to address the apparent disjunct between what some of them (ie Nawaz and Maryam) have been saying in the not too distant past, what their voters have been hearing, and what they eventually did in parliament.
A second and related point concerns the nature of events that have taken place. To read this legislative change as coerced compromise or eager expediency is empirically valid. If the signal was a let-up in some of the accountability-related proceedings, along with an indication that the door was open to a more meaningful embrace if the wheels on the current dispensation fall off, then the current course of action is rational, even if it is ideologically vacuous.
The problem with this expediency, if one were to call it that, is not with the politicians themselves. Dispassionate interpretations would see this as politicians engaging in the one task that they are rationally motivated to undertake: improving the odds of winning office. The problem, therefore, is reality coming into conflict with the frame of analysis that observers use, in which certain types of politicians are capable of non-expedient acts such as sacrificing short-term interests for moral or ideological goals (civilian supremacy, democracy, etc).
Most people underestimate just how entrenched a particular system or configuration of elite power is in Pakistan’s political sphere.
The third key point is that most people in their analysis underestimate just how entrenched a particular system or configuration of elite power is in Pakistan’s political sphere. What exactly is this system? In simple (and historically relevant) terms, it is a diarchy: there are multiple centres of power, with the rules and limits of how power is supposed to be exercised and by whom being set by one particular actor, in this case the military. There are variations across time, there will be acts of resistance and the balance might even spill over for an ephemeral moment, but in the final reckoning, the diarchic structure and its internal hierarchy snap back into shape.
Politicians are not external to this diarchic system. In fact, with its colonial origins, it has been in place for more than a century and is directly responsible for cultivating its own inhabitants. The impact of its socialisation on the actors that populate this system is immense, and it purposefully curtails possibilities for drastic transformation in any way. Even those who are not direct beneficiaries or products of it, such as regional ethno-nationalist parties, occasionally see compromise and expediency as the only route to political relevance and power.
This brief sketch of a framework to understand intra-elite politics in Pakistan takes some liberties with facts, but it broadly holds true for most of the post-independence period. It also helps us understand the incentives that are in place within mainstream politics. But does this mean that the possibility of more systemic change — one that changes internal hierarchies between the state and electoral politics — is permanently closed off?
The answer depends on one’s reading of history. If one argues that nothing that is happening now is qualitatively different from how power has been exercised by various segments of the state and political elite in the past, then the answer is probably in the affirmative. Things have not changed much, and there is little to suggest that adherence to constitutionalism will suddenly become both the de jure and de facto system in the country.
The other — far more optimistic — reading, however, would suggest that change takes place, but in fits and starts, often in microscopic gains and always vulnerable to setbacks. Electoral politics has by now carved out a deep legitimacy in the country, which means even the most authoritarian of phases have to incorporate political elites of various shades in some manner or form. Short of extreme violence, one actor cannot wish away the relevance of other actors. Similarly, junior players in this game retain some possibility of pushing the boundary at some later point in the future just by being around. The optimists can claim, perhaps not entirely unreasonably, that the continued existence of this hard-fought duality always keeps a window of opportunity open.
The fact though is that if the palette of actors remains the same, there will be no great constitutionalist upheaval, nor any sustained drive for democratisation. As mentioned earlier, expediency and coercion ensure that the incentive structure always remains tilted towards cooperation rather than meaningful transformation. For some, that may not even necessarily be a bad thing, given the familiarity of it all.
But for others, especially those invested in more meaningful change that is capable of ending violence, exclusion and arbitrariness (suffered by those farthest from the geographic and political centre), resting transformational hopes on actors benefitting from and conditioned in this system is probably a non-starter. Their external incentives, linkages (or lack thereof) with the electorate, organisational frailness and absence of overt moral considerations close off all such possibilities. Everyone of note is party to a hybrid setup, whether in office or outside of it. And that is what acts as the true premise of Pakistan’s permanent political dispensation.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.