Sources of instability

Published July 10, 2023
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

THERE is an enduring debate on the degree to which politics reflects a country’s societal trends. Some analysts argue that politics usually reflects deep divides or cleavages found in society, such as socioeconomic class, religion, ethnicity, or gender. Others argue that political actors actively make or break identities and divisions in society, which helps them win power.

As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sometimes it takes a while for political parties to wake up to societal truths and trends. Societies undergo demographic and economic shifts and change people’s requirements from politics. But parties can be slow to act.

Other times, political parties try to act contrary to society’s existing divisions. They attempt to create new visions of a society, ignoring inequities, imbalances, and pre-existing fault-lines.

When there is a gap between people’s expectations from politics and what political actors are usually doing, it leads to moments of crises. The crises can be violent upheavals. Or they can be episodic bursts of instability because of infighting among politicians, between politicians and groups of citizens, or between politicians and other state institutions. But all three are a sign that state and society will have to adapt for stability to re-emerge.

When there is a gap between people’s expectations from politics and what political actors are usually doing, it leads to moments of crises.

Pakistani politics, especially in the mainstream, demonstrates gaps with society fairly frequently. Over the last decade and a half, we can see three variants at different points in time: 1) new ways of thinking about an issue become popular in society so the state and political parties belatedly try to co-opt it; 2) the state and political parties attempt to coercively centralise authority and enforce unity despite the existence of different and competing interests in society; 3) the state and political parties ignore deep demographic and economic transformations in society and try to carry on with business as usual.

All three types of gaps have produced their own type of instability.

The first gap is most visible in the way the state deals with the politics around blasphemy. The rise of Barelvi fundamentalism and its deepening roots in both urban and rural settings have made blasphemy and the finality of prophethood a major and entrenched societal flashpoint. There is mobilisation around this theme, triggered by both global and local issues. The assassination of Salmaan Taseer and the celebration of his killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was a major inflection point after which there appears to have been no turning back.

How has the political mainstream responded to it? First, it offered open space for public protest and venting, mistakenly thinking that a single-issue politics of this type would die out in a country that is 96 per cent Muslim. When the issue refused to die out, the state decided to use this mobilisation for narrow purposes, such as destabilising an out-of-favour government and breaking away voters. Ultimately, faced with the prospect that this new way of thinking would eventually consume everything, the political mainstream has decided to embrace it fully. Changes to school curricula and the text of a nikahnama in Punjab are recent examples of this embrace. Inches have been given, but the instability-causing crowds on the roads will frequently demand miles

The second gap was the hybrid experiment that ran from 2011 to 2022, achieving full manifestation in its last three years. This was an attempt to centralise authority through a hybrid populist alliance of the PTI and the military. The populism part mobilised public anger through Imran Khan against the rest of the political mainstream, while the military part coercively dealt with opposition parties, ethnonationalist movements, and a non-compliant civil society. The end goal of this experiment appeared to be a unified state with no space for opposition politics.

Ultimately this experiment fell prey to its own, very familiar internal contradiction: two bosses for one system. As former PM Imran Khan now admits, it was a mistake to outsource politics to the military. When the experiment cracked, there was no safety net, no grounding in parliamentary politics that could offer a way out. Instead, we ended up with greater instability. Even today, the denial of legitimacy to political opponents is one of several reasons why instability continues.

Finally, the third and most recent gap is the attempt by the military establishment and the current coalition government to carry on with the usual politics of jor-tor and patronage, while ignoring massive demographic, economic, and political change that has taken place in society.

In a recent piece for another publication, Dr Adnan Rafiq pinpointed one major aspect of this political and demographic change, which is the rise of the urban, educated, white-collar segment (colloquially called the middle class). This is the core electorate for the PTI, and the one segment that, despite its actual numbers, has had an outsized impact on politics because of its presence in media, in the private sector, in state institutions, and in the diaspora.

This segment was fully mobilised by the PTI for the first hybrid experiment as it waged the clean vs corrupt battle. That battle played to their analysis of Pakistan being held back by conventional politics and the sclerotic practices of traditional, dynastic parties. Thus, deep-seated frustration with dysfunctional governance and a stagnant economy found its own political outlet.

The khaki patrons of that experiment pulled the plug in April 2022, and have since forged a new arrangement with traditional parties in a coalition model. Yet the anger of various segments in society cannot be undone as easily as engineering a few defections or a vote of no confidence. That anger is still palpable and will remain disruptive, even if its main outlet (PTI) is suppressed. In other words, the political mainstream has to adapt to a society that has changed considerably, otherwise instability will remain a perennial condition.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2023

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