Politics of Socio-Spatial Transformation in Pakistan: Leaders and Constituents in Punjab
By Asad ur Rehman
Routledge, New York
ISBN: 978-1-032-44021-7
186-pp.

While Punjab has been a dominant force in the political landscape of Pakistan, our understanding of it remains disproportionately limited. This dominance is attributed not only to historical factors but also to its aristocracy, substantial population size, and significant representation in the military and civil bureaucracy. Consequently, Punjab has often been perceived as a successor to the British colonial powers.

The prevailing focus has predominantly been on its form — popular politics — with insufficient attention given to its diverse polity. The top-down approach has tended to overlook the nuanced aspects of Punjab’s politics. The conventional rural-urban binary requires re-examination, considering the substantial changes in both space and society within Punjab.

In this book, Dr Asad ur Rehman introduces the concept of ‘rurbanisation’ to elucidate the urbanisation of space in rural Punjab and the gradients of political engagement, revealing shifts in the nature of politics in these areas. A key insight arising from this new perspective is that Punjab is now predominantly urban, contrary to the official census, which still records 63 percent of it as rural.

Residents of rural areas routinely navigate boundaries without much thought, creating a challenge in understanding the politics of such places, especially as traditional spatial markers lose their effectiveness.

A recent book analyses how a changing socio-spatial landscape is affecting the nature of political relations in Punjab

Political analysts typically resort to the rural-urban dichotomy to explain political behaviours, applying these labels to interpret the actions of rural voters and citizens. However, the validity of these categories comes into question as the nature of the space, encompassing social, political and economic relations, undergoes significant changes.

Rehman, drawing from over a decade of field engagement in Sialkot, argues that the term “rural” no longer fully captures the spatial coordinates nor adequately explains the political dynamics of villages like Railoke. His current inquiry focuses on recognising the transformation of rural spaces and its impact on politics.

He advocates for a comprehensive approach that integrates spatial and cultural perspectives, proving more valuable in understanding the intricate politics of places like Railoke. To convey this evolving nature, he introduces the term “Rurban” — a fusion of rural and urban.

In a parallel context, Sushmita Pati, in her work Properties of Rent: Community, Capital and Politics in Globalising Delhi, refers to such spaces as “urban villages.” Both Rehman and Pati highlight the inadequacy of traditional rural-urban categorisations, emphasising the need for more nuanced concepts such as “Rurban” or “urban villages” to capture the complexities of evolving spaces that defy simple distinctions.

How does one effectively study the politics of areas that maintain administrative rural status while concurrently undergoing a socio-economic shift towards urbanisation? The emerging hybridity of being both urban and rural raises intriguing questions about potential implications for politics.

When examining the politics of rural areas in Punjab, it becomes imperative to explore the actors involved and their engagement in both electoral events and daily life. This inquiry is driven by a quest to understand the structural transformation occurring in Punjab’s villages and its consequential impact on the political landscape.

In rural Punjab, existing literature suggests that despite socio-economic changes, traditional forms of dominance persist, hindering substantive democratisation. Rehman challenges this view, asserting that studies often focus on domination, neglecting political engagements and reducing rural politics to elite control. His argument calls for a broader understanding of rural political dynamics, emphasising interactions beyond elite influence.

Examining the connections between political leaders and constituents is crucial in shaping practical politics amid changing landscapes. Unlike landed elites in Sialkot, gradually phased out from electoral politics, they historically held significance through biradari networks, providing organisational power. The commercialisation of the rural economy initiated a dilution in traditional structures.

The shift to a new economic order prompted significant migration from Sialkot to urban centres, diminishing the influence of those left behind and creating an environment for new political entrepreneurs. The departure of established power structures allowed fresh faces to reshape the political landscape, responding to evolving socio-economic conditions.

Sialkot’s significant Ahmadiyya population, educated and industrially active, held a solid presence among the landed elites. Their designation as non-Muslims opened political space for new entrants, leading to innovative communication methods, effective electoral machines, and alliances with political parties. This dynamic shift diversified the political landscape as new actors strategically adapted to changing religious and political dynamics within the community.

Another crucial aspect often overlooked is the impact of cultural values on rural politics, specifically in shaping the political field, determining styles of political leadership, and influencing the relationship between political leaders and constituents.

The prevailing categories used to explain rural politics, such as clientelism or brokerage, have traditionally dominated discussions. However, it is essential to recognise that values of patronage are not exclusive to rural settings; they permeate urban political landscapes as well. Even seemingly civic society organisations, like lawyer’s forums, often mirror characteristics of trade unions.

Patron-client relations extend beyond rural boundaries and bridge the gap between rural and urban contexts. A key aspect of rural transformation lies in the changing configuration of kinship boundaries. Within Punjabi kinship, three circles of recognition and attachment — qaum [community], zaat [caste], and tabbar [familial bonds] — define the boundaries of kinship.

Respect holds significant importance in social life in Punjab, evident in political discourses. For instance, when Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court, his claim of innocence and his question, “Mujhay kyun nikala?” [Why was I disqualified?], brought the discourse of izzat [dignity] into the narrative of corruption. The concern for dignity and self-respect serves as a connecting thread between leaders and constituents, influencing the vernacularisation of democratic politics.

Political leaders actively work to project an image of selfless dedication to common causes, distancing themselves from personal motives. This desire to cultivate a philanthropist image aligns these leaders with traditional patronage practices, creating a paradox between genuine generosity and the perception of generosity.

Assessing the sincerity of political actions aimed at building a positive reputation poses a considerable challenge. Nevertheless, from a practical standpoint, it remains imperative for politicians to foster a positive image to secure public support and trust.

In ‘rurban’ areas, three key socio-economic and political aspects significantly shape local politics. Firstly, there is the presence of relatively higher economic and social mobility. Second, there is a gradual increase in citizen-state encounters. Third, there is a constant strengthening of democratisation and democratic ideology.

Local norms such as izzat, ghairat [honour] and muqaam [social standing] are strategically mobilised by politicians to carve out personal spaces within democratic politics. These politicians cultivate talluq [connections] and adopt strategies to forge a chain of talluqat [connections].

Notably, as democratisation and governmentalisation of the state increase, there is a growing demand for political inter-mediation in Punjab. Consequently, there is a heightened demand for local governments and devolution. This trend signifies the evolving dynamics of political structures in response to the changing socio-political landscape in ‘rurban’ areas.

In political science literature on public service delivery in Pakistan, the established link between political support and public services by parties may not universally apply to all constituencies. Instead, a focus on candidate-leader centred electoral machines is crucial.

Political parties must consider non-development factors for effective electoral strategies. While public service delivery offers an advantage, winning elections necessitates alignment with strategically managed electoral support networks.

Popular politics in Punjab defies simplification into patronage or clientelist forms. Punjab’s politics are complex, shaped by multiple gradients of attachments and engagements, influenced by cultural ethos, policies, social cleavages and collective community needs.

The reviewer is a Lecturer at the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad.

X: @Sohail_QAU

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 4th, 2024

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