THE past few weeks of PDM versus PTI jostling and related instability reveal a long-standing fact of Pakistan’s political sphere — its persistent, unceasing diversity. To some, this observation may seem trite given that the country’s society, culture and polity are frequently characterised as diverse, with multiple provinces, ethnicities, languages, sub-cultures, etc.
However, my contention here is that the focus has largely (and rightly) remained on ethnic diversity and its relationship to politics; simultaneously, this overlooks a range of other determinants of political diversity — institutions, geography, and ideological and partisan identification.
It’s worth paying attention to these facets because of two distinct set of reasons, observational and developmental. The first, pointed out by astute observers, is that the persisting refrain that a hybrid dispensation combining a set of civilian leaders and the military leadership on the same page would lead to instant stability stands falsified. Stability in any domain — policy, socioeconomic, public approval and inter-elite contestation — is still highly elusive.
The second reason why this fact of diversity should be examined is developmental, ie it concerns the long-term design of Pakistan’s political institutions. Like clockwork, after every policy/governance mishap, laments about the federal government’s circumscribed power re-emerge. The extreme position on this is the desire for a presidential form of government (which somehow never pays attention to actually existing presidential systems where powers are circumscribed by other federal institutions), while the apparently more moderate one is rolling back devolution. Other than a host of policy-related reasons, it makes sense to argue against both of these positions precisely because of the current nature of political diversity.
What of these repeated efforts to enforce uniformity where none is, at least for now, possible?
The historical tensions between ethnonationalist movements seeking autonomy (and beyond) and centralising civilian and military elites is well-documented. Debates over language and cultural rights, control over natural resources and the distribution of tax revenue characterise most of Pakistan’s political history. It is precisely this tension that has led to the emergence of various political parties, boiled over into armed conflict, and posed a range of geostrategic complications for the state as a whole.
In recent years, barring ethnonationalist militancy in Balochistan and, to a lesser extent, the movement for accountability and civil liberties in ex-Fata, the overarching thrust of ethnic politics in the country remains relatively contained. There are two factors for this — the first is that mainstream ethnic parties are more or less content with a sub-national base and a seat at the table (when available) at the centre.
The second factor is the long-term demographic and structural shift in Pakistan’s polity that’s made it more interconnected, more urban and, to some extent, more culturally homogenous due to shared patterns of consumption. While it’s too soon to declare the beginning of some post-ethnic era, the trendline is gradually more apparent, though likely to be tested by ill-thought-out attempts at enforced homogeneity or centralisation.
Apart from ethnic contestation and the other usual fault line of power-seeking civilian versus military elites (which will surface regardless of how loudly people shout ‘same-page’), the less heralded sources of diversity are geography and partisan identification.
An interesting example of geographic diversity reflecting itself in politics is the way that differences emerge between central and provincial leaderships within the same ruling party. This was first witnessed in the case of the previous PML-N government, when the centre wanted to cut back on provincial transfers but were rebuffed by their own administration in Punjab.
It is also apparent in the sub-national dynamism exhibited by the PTI’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the way that it has adapted to the conditions offered by the 18th Amendment and continued to chart a relatively independent fiscal and policy trajectory and taken relatively firm positions on provincial transfers and royalties related to hydroelectric power. The most surprising example of this diversity in action, though, came from entirely unexpected quarters — the Balochistan government contesting the federal government’s unilateral attempt at taking control of coastal islands.
Lastly, continued partisan identification of vast segments of the electorate with different political parties adds a layer of complexity to the political sphere that simply cannot be wished or coerced away. Pakistan’s parties are rightly characterised as weak organisations, dependent on dynastic electables and patronage-based vote banks.
The accuracy of this characterisation notwithstanding, all mainstream parties still continue to exercise some cultural resonance with different segments of the citizenry. For whatever reason, people believe in and identify with these parties, which gives them longevity even when outside of power and faced with coercion of various types.
The nature of identification is perhaps more salient in urban than rural areas, as shown by research from Lahore ahead of the 2018 election: the biggest predictor of voting behaviour was not sociological reality (a person’s class or gender or even educational status) but their ideational affiliation with a particular party. It might appear confusing to some as to how such imperfect and flawed vehicles of representation can become ideationally popular across different demographics. People willingly express support for every mainstream party, free of any material concessions. That is the reality of the political sphere, and one that cannot be willed away so easily.
So what of these repeated efforts to enforce uniformity where none is, at least for the time being, possible? Seeking political stability through coalition building and electoral popularity is a desirable goal, and one every party needs to engage in; doing it through extra-institutional mechanisms, however, is a recipe for continued disaster.
Pakistan’s political history is replete with examples of aspiring same-pagers failing in their task to fashion a regime that suppresses ethnic, geographic and partisan diversity, triggering even more instability in the process. Power is coveted by many, can only be wielded by some, and will rarely be monopolised by any. The sooner this lesson is learnt, the sooner it’ll remove one persisting source of instability.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2020