IDENTITY has defined Pakistani politics for long. Even the drive for it was based on identity politics. But after 1947, ethnicity replaced faith, as many ethnic groups found their interests being ignored, as with Muslims earlier.
Conservatives abhor identity politics and expect all to assimilate into the dominant identity. Even some liberals see it as dividing class-based solidarity, undoing ideological politics, and emerging from elite intrigue. This ideal view came from the West where ideological politics dominates for contextual reasons. It arose there with increased urbanisation as whole families shifted to cities and bread earners worked in industry.
Also, most Western states were then highly homogenous. So labour class-based politics emerged naturally. But despite higher mobility, education and incomes, identity politics has a key role in many Western countries like the US, as immigration and political sway of weak identity groups has increased. Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris reflects this trend.
Could a mass party unite people across ethnicities?
Developing countries are highly diverse and rural. Even migrant labour usually leaves family back in villages, which are deep reservoirs of ethnic content. Regular visits back to villages keep ethnic identities strong among migrants. But some think we are moving towards post-ethnic politics. Can this be true for us when it is not for the rest of South Asia or the West? Ethnic politics holds firm in diverse Saarc countries like India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan, the first two being politically the most developed. But in both, a perverse majoritarian identity politics now prevails, which instead of assimilating minorities, segregates and marginalises them.
Given that our ethnic identities are still strong, and will remain so, ethnic politics could only abate if the state dealt with all fairly and devolved power. The 18th Amendment did this only partially inter-provincially, while ignoring intra-provincial ethnic gripes. Its fruits have been undone partly by the great undoing of democracy since 2018 via controversial polls, crackdown on the media and opposition, establishment sway and informal recentralisation, all of which may fan ethnic woes again even provincially.
Our three main parties — the PML-N, PPP and PTI — are on the surface non-ethnic and national. But the top three or four leaders of each belong mainly to one ethnicity, a trend increasing over time. Dynastic hold dictates this in the PPP and PML-N. But oddly, even the PTI lacks a truly national top leadership. Each practises ethnic politics often, though the PTI less so.
A look at each province reflects the extent of ethnic politics. Punjab is the hegemon others resent. Much earlier, it voted in the ‘outsider’ PPP regularly. But ‘insider’ PML-N and PTI are now firm pets. Aggrieved ethnic minorities exist in each province. But only in Punjab is the minority (Seraiki) seen as politically and economically inferior to the majority. Yet oddly, sub-provincial ethnic politics is the weakest in Punjab as a popular Seraiki party has never won big in South Punjab.
Sindh has always voted for the PPP in fair polls and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Regional ethnic tensions are the greatest in Sindh. Mohajirs dumped their long-term local favourite MQM in 2018. Yet this is not a sign that the Mohajir community’s complaints and identity politics have ended. It is only a reflection of the MQM’s implosion, establishment ploys, and the community’s calculus, right or wrong, that their woes may be better addressed by voting for the PTI. Even in Karachi, a city-wide political identity hasn’t emerged.
KP has been the most open to voting for ‘outsider’ parties. Yet rumblings of Pakhtun nationalism can be heard, though mainly in ex-Fata via the PTM. Then there is the Hazara belt which rarely votes in synch with the Pakhtun belt. In Balochistan, local parties usually hold sway in fair polls. A civil war driven by ethnic woes rages on. Ethnic politics is alive nationally and a post-ethnic identity hardly seen. This is an added reason for devolution besides its administrative logic true globally.
Our polls have never been won via issues-based politics but by patronage and cult politics. Even the 1970 polls were won more by cultist politics around Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s slogans and charisma. Could a mass party unite people across ethnicities via class-based solidarity? It is easier to mobilise through the crude pull of cult, patronage, ethnic or right-wing bigoted politics than liberal intellectual politics. Aspiring groups will first have to come up with workable solutions and communicate them widely in their lingo. Neither seems likely soon. Until mass politics emerges, ethnic politics is a useful second-best option for addressing at least some societal inequities.
The writer is a political economist and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2020