Associations and mafias

Published May 31, 2021
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

WHAT is the role of associational politics in deepening democracy? A recent panel discussion organised by the Mahbub-ul-Haq research centre at Lums attempted to answer this question from a comparative lens, by looking at examples across urban and rural India and Pakistan. For Pakistan, in particular, there are some interesting lessons that can be drawn, especially given recent political trends and the nature of the current political dispensation.

A running theme over the past three years, especially in popular and media discourse, is the prevalence of ‘mafias’ that have made the job of reforming governance in Pakistan far more difficult. Leaving aside the conspiratorial aspect of the accusation and the unreasonable expectations of meaningful transformation within a five-year electoral term set by the PTI leadership itself, the overarching assertion carries some truth. There are organised groups embedded within Pakistan’s political economy that prevent the resolution of long-standing regulatory bottlenecks and hamper the emergence of a more inclusive and sustainable development trajectory.

Resultantly, this government, like previous ones, faces perverse incentives to undertake unsustainable political and fiscal initiatives to appease powerful interest groups and hope that it proves enough to secure re-election.

Regardless of their varying degrees of proximity to the government or the legitimacy of their concerns, just in the past two years, entrenched and organised interests in retail and wholesale trade, wheat, sugar, real estate, textile, medicine and public health, and the bureaucracy itself have asserted themselves in varying ways. In some cases, this has directly gone against the stated intentions of the government itself. Going by this, and the assumption that democratic deepening is, in part, reflected by the ability of elected governments to assert themselves, one could plausibly argue that associational politics has proven itself to be fairly detrimental.

Seen from one angle, the story of associational politics is a story of protecting and extracting economic and political rents.

This feature of Pakistan’s political economy is not just visible at the level of macro policymaking but also in the way local municipal administration functions across towns and cities. Organised interests in the retail and wholesale sector, for example, frequently engage in encroachment of public spaces, flout tax regulations, and undertake oppressive labour practices, with little repercussions. The existence of strong associations and their ability to forge reciprocal networks with politicians and bureaucrats provide them the social and political capital required to both carry out these acts and avoid any reprimand for them.

Seen from this angle, the story of associational politics in Pakistan thus becomes a story of protecting and extracting economic and political rents.

It cannot be stressed enough, however, that this is in large part down to the reality that associational politics remains the preserve of the relatively and absolutely privileged. When the well-connected well-to-do organise, politics tends to work in their favour. Legislators will pay more attention to them, given their own socioeconomic backgrounds and because of their electoral interests. While these interests may constitute a small share of the electorate, their financial and organisational (as well as status-based) characteristics make them outsized players in the political realm; far beyond the importance given to the vast majority of citizens. This is the exact opposite of what you would expect under conditions of democratic competition.

A key reason for this divergence is that while political elites tend to engage with powerful quarters at an associational level, they mobilise and engage with regular citizens through personalised and patronage-based connections, weakening the possibility of organising for collective action. Adding to that, in conditions of extreme inequality, poor people do not have the resources (time, money) nor the organisational platforms to make claims on the government collectively.

What are the systemic consequences of this ‘associational inequality’? The most categorical one is that an inability of vast sections of the electorate to engage in collective action removes the most potent source of pressure on the government; exactly the sort of pressure would allow them to override entrenched interests. In other words, the associational politics of the powerful can only be countered by the associational politics of those who could benefit from a change in the status quo.

In the litany of examples that one could quote of this, one that stands out in recent years has been the pressure placed on municipal authorities by movements for improved transport, housing, and sanitation by favela(slum) dwellers in the highly unequal cities of Brazil. This has made municipal governments (politicians and bureaucrats both) far more responsive to their concerns, and allowed them to bypass conservative interests in delivering improved services to their citizens. There are similar cases of movements in rural India that have been able to secure important welfare initiatives in states as diverse as Rajasthan and West Bengal, as well as in the townships of South Africa, where the economic legacy of apartheid remains highly potent.

A key lesson that can be drawn from these cases also relates to the origins of associational life and collective action among the less privileged. In each and every one of these cases, collective action did not emerge as a revelation, rather it was cultivated through the existence of effective local government institutions. With the devolution of basic functions and increased representation through local government elections, regular everyday people began to realise that the state can be approached (and even influenced) beyond personalised patronage-based connections. In other words, citizenship rights (such as the right to better services and more inclusive development), once understood, are then actively pursued, expanding the idea of what is deemed possible.

There is no reason to think that Pakistan’s case would be any different. The emergence of effective local institutions remains key in countering the politics of ‘mafias’ that governments often like to complain about (selectively) even when they’re willing to play along with them for their own political gains.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2021

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