Confrontation and continuity

Updated 19 Oct 2020


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

IT’S relatively easy to understand why so many observers remain cynical about the possibility of any change in the logic of power in Pakistan. Mainstream political parties here, especially those advocating for change, are ossified, dynastic, and self-serving. These very traits make them too ill-equipped to push through any substantive transformation. On the other end, those actors who control the state have no incentive to give up their control. In this impasse, it’s hard to see a clear route to greater constitutionalism — ie the simple act of power being exercised according to formally agreed rules.

The frequently unstated premise here is that constitutionalism is a desirable end-goal. Alongside normative and moral arguments which favour it as an end-goal in itself, largely instrumental ones are now also worth making. The literature on law and development has achieved some degree of consensus in so far that it says stable, inclusive and rule-following institutional arrangements are generally considered good for development. They facilitate wealth creation, redistribution, and attainment of ‘expressive’ needs.

Even a cursory look at Pakistan’s ruling arrangements — whether civil, military, or hybrid — would confirm that stability, inclusiveness, and rule-following are not their most obvious traits. Personalised rule constantly holds intra-party factional intrigue at bay; military elites provide guarantees for repeated concessions till the moment they don’t; the bureaucracy switches between total submission and complete indifference. In most cases, exogenous events — inflationary pressures, geostrategic considerations, global corruption scandals — throw arrangements into disarray, but very rarely change the underlying logic and hierarchy of rule.

The exogenous moment this Monday is non-existent economic growth and inflationary pressure. The opening is further provided by the fact that the ruling party only has a limited amount of political capital to spend in some parts of the country.

The government faces no immediate threat to its stability. The PM can rest easy.

The fact that growth had to be halted out of necessity — one induced by the previous PML-N government’s macroeconomic policies — and that inflationary pressures are in some part related to supply-side shocks out of the government’s control bears little meaning here. Perceptions of incompetence and indifference are enough to resuscitate political mobilisation. The PML-N’s gambit in particular relates to the possibility of local body polls. A year or so of transacted silence has given way to a strategy of noise.

And so the present wave of opposition protests, punctuated by Nawaz Sharif’s extremely categorical speech, is an attempt to leverage these exogenous circumstances to create political space for parties currently outside the ruling arrangement. That is the extent of its ambition; at this moment, this ambition is arguably in service of constitutionalism, but dispassionate analysis requires us to look beyond fleeting moments.

The government faces no immediate threat to its stability. Its position in KP is remarkably secure — a fact that is down to both performance-based and political legitimacy and one that often goes unheralded. In Punjab, the coalition is brokered by higher authorities and will remain in place till they deem fit. At the centre, the numbers are well-tilted in their favour. The prime minister can rest easy.

If anything it’s the opposition that will now have its work set out for itself. Outcomes of confrontation between political actors are determined by the resources available to each. Amorphous popular support is good to capture headlines, fill stadia, and run hashtags, but insufficient in the face of a well-resourced, extremely organised, multi-decade-long incumbent. The test that PML-N faces is not dissimilar to what it has faced in the past: its leadership has chosen a particular trajectory for its politics, and has to ensure that the party stays in line.

If there is internal factionalism over strategy, it has to be ironed out. If there are legislators with doubts, they have to be coerced or cajoled into falling in line. Anything short of this, and it all starts going extremely pear-shaped.

On the other hand, the true incumbent faces a more familiar task. It just needs to curate a forward bloc or two ahead of the Senate elections; if there are local government polls before it, it needs to ensure that the ruling party retains the upper hand in key localities in north and central Punjab. This can be done through a variety of ways, but, short of actual manipulation, mopping up dissident opposition politicians is usually the most reliable one.

For anyone interested in the usual factional intrigue that high politics ends up being in this country (which if our TV channels are anything to go by, is a lot of people), these are the trends worth watching out for in the next few months. Short of another drastic change in its political strategy, PML-N is on a conflictual path against the incumbent, and even the most generous assessments of its organisational capacity would currently place it as under-equipped to deal with the challenge. Let’s see if this assessment holds true in the months ahead.

More broadly though, what does all this mean for the country’s political sphere in general? It’s important to remember that patterns of how and among whom political power is exercised rarely change instantaneously. Even revolutionary movements in the moments that follow upheaval tend to reproduce arrangements that were ostensibly swept away. Pakistani politics can lay no claim to being any different, especially over the last four decades.

Parties with revolutionary rhetoric find themselves acting out as mildly reformist in office. Leaders stake vocal responsibility for changing ent­renched hierarchies between different state actors, yet willingly submit to the same patterns when given the chance. Does this mean that the needle remains static? Well, the answer is, not quite. Like any form of social action, politics is complex, and hard to predict and pre-empt, especially for those involved in it. New possibilities can open up because of both intentional and unintentional words and actions. Whether something is made of these possibilities, however, is another matter altogether.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2020