MANY wonder why our politics is so unlike Western democracies’. Politics emerges from and reflects societal realities. Our society is unlike Western ones and thus too is our politics. But more odd is why our politics is so unlike that of even other Saarc states despite a shared culture, history and ethos.
The first atypical fact is the security establishment’s hold over politics. It ruled overtly for decades and continues its influence even now. Within Saarc, only Bangladesh has been so ruled. Evidently, though, it has nixed this bad habit for good. Afghanistan is ruled by an armed group. But other Saarc states have a proud recent history of only civilian rule even if it has not always been democratic.
The second fact is the social class of politicians. The top leaders of our older big parties — the PPP and PML-N — belong to the landed and business upper class. In contrast, middle-class-led parties have been the norm in Saarc countries like India’s Congress, BJP and most regional parties such as AAP and Mayawati and Mamta Banerjee’s parties. In Bangladesh, the Mujib and Ziaur Rahman families have middle-class roots as do top leaders of most parties. The same is true in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan. Afghanistan is autocratic but even its main political force, the Taliban, is middle-class-led.
The role of middle-class parties has increased with the PTI’s rise. But their politics is the third atypical fact. Middle-class parties elsewhere follow mainstream ‘Saarc-modal’ politics (except for the BJP’s extremist politics); this modal unluckily is still corrupt and dynastic given structural issues. But our main middle-class parties have made politics worse than even the PPP and PML-N’s Saarc modal politics. This includes the religious extremism of Jamaat-i-Islami, the JUI and TLP and the MQM’s violent cultism and the populist, divisive and religion-laced politics of the PTI whose top leaders are elite upper middle-class, and not lower-middle class as in other middle-class parties. The party exhibits all the negative points of the PPP and PML-N (sleaze, ineptitude) but also others like social regression, polarisation, poor global ties, a phobia of the West, apocryphal populism, constitutional violation, exclusionary governance vision, etc.
Narrow politics and non-civilian sway have undercut our progress.
The fourth atypical fact is ideology. Our two main aspirants to national power — the PML-N and PTI — are right-wing as are most mid-sized parties. Most mix religion with politics. In India, BJP is so too. But Congress and many regional parties are centre-left and secular. Bangladesh’s Awami League is centre-left and even right-wing BNP is secular. In Nepal, most parties are actually centre- or far-left. There is good mix of ideology in Sri Lanka and Bhutan and most parties are secular. Only tiny Maldives mirrors us.
The fifth fact is regional sway. The top leadership of our biggest parties — PML-N and PTI — is from Punjab and its main city Lahore. Pindi chiefs too mostly are from Punjab. No other large Saarc state has such a narrow political base.
Right-wing, religious, elitist, regionally narrow politics and non-civilian sway have undercut our progress. The last issue is the key immediate reason for the other elements as the politics of most of our parties exhibits heavy establishment influence. The founders of all major ones entered politics via its aid and most remaining ones were formed or are controlled by it. It has crushed leftist parties badly.
These big political divergences from socially similar states beg for a deeper social science explanation. Saarc states are all ancient, having existed for centuries, except Pakistan and Bangladesh. But the latter is homogenous. So, despite the two-nation theory’s claims and hopes, weak pre-1947 cohesion was our big gap. The areas of today’s Pakistan also experienced more sociopolitical retrogression. The Muslim League’s own pre-1947 gaps (caused too by this weak cohesion and retrogression), unlike freedom parties such as Congress and Awami League, made it hard for it to fix these gaps even after 1947. This led to non-civilian sway, the immediate cause of all our woes.
So big were these prenatal gaps that if social science was good enough then, it may have presaged our post-1947 political woes. The British worried about our economic viability. But we had the natural and human resources for it, given good governance. The real issue was political viability. Weak cohesion and sociopolitical retrogression meant that the good governance to use resources well couldn’t emerge from society easily. Luckily or unluckily, social science is good enough today to predict safely that these problems are still so deep that good governance may not emerge from society even by 2047. Only civilian sway, democratic devolution and a poor-led progress model give faint hope.
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.
Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2022