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‘Municipalisation’ of politics

July 23, 2012

IN almost all his public appearances, Imran Khan makes it a point of mentioning the ‘crisis of leadership’ afflicting Pakistan since independence.

This statement — banal and shallow by all estimates — is a widely pervasive opinion, one that colours urbanites’ view of democratic politics in this country. People — and I say this after talking to many — genuinely think that Pakistan’s political problems are basically a human resource issue, not something deeper or structural.

This sentiment is almost always taken at face value. Bring it up in a drawing-room or tea-house discussion, and it’ll be greeted with solemn nods and sombre approval, like a missing clue that just helped solve an incredibly difficult puzzle.

Nobody ever talks about the need to critically examine what is meant by a) leadership, and b) acceptable, effective representation. The most one can gauge from further questioning is that the ability to make sound policies, patriotism and a knack for clean, efficient administration are three characteristics that effective representatives are supposed to have.

At least two of these are beyond the skill-set of our current political class. Rampant rent-seeking and nepotism, and a complete lack of interest in technical policymaking have further reaffirmed this opinion during the last four and a half years. What is interesting in all of this, however, is whether the validation of this opinion happens because of an essential truth, i.e. whether our politicians are just venal and incompetent, or whether the actual, pre-existing criteria of representation simply excludes policymaking and efficient administration.

In easier words, does snazzy thinking and clean management even figure into the electoral calculus for the bulk of Pakistan’s voters?

In 2001, while the enactment of the local government system was under way, one of the many bows tied around it to make it more palatable was that it would provide national and provincial legislators more time to concentrate on their primary responsibility, i.e. policymaking and legislation. In their stead, nazims, councillors and their designated middlemen would take up the nitty-gritty stuff — local development interventions, municipal works and thana-katcheri issues.

On paper, this sounded like a nominally well-thought-out plan, a clear division of labour one could say would mark what the former chief executive of Pakistan, Gen Pervez Musharraf, peddled as a higher stage of political and civilisational  evolution.

In reality, however, the rollout of this plan highlighted two hard truths about politics in this country. Firstly, MNAs and MPAs cannot be extricated from local affairs and the micro-politics of their own constituencies and secondly, due to the stop-start nature of the democratic process and state-led engineering, the criteria of public representation is underdeveloped and consequently reliant on tangible, local results.

Another way to think about it is by looking at how MNAs/MPAs accumulate gratitude in their respective constituencies. As paradoxical as it may sound to the average urbanite, guarded praise for some elected representatives can be heard in small towns and villages. Nine times out of 10, though, the reason is usually infrastructure development — roads, water-supply and sanitation schemes, a flyover (or 12 of them in Multan’s case) and so on. Simply put, voters have formulated a conception of ‘development’ over time and that conception ties in with their appraisal of political figures. Coupled with primordial ties (biraderi/tribe/clan) and entrenched rural and urban interests and patronage networks, the existing electoral climate is geared towards the election of a particular kind of individual: one who is skilled at managing local affairs and his own electoral prospects.

Historically, this ‘municipalisation’ of politics can be traced to repeated interventions by unelected actors in the political sphere. In the ’60s, Ayub Khan’s basic democracies system was a way of limiting participatory space to the local level, which would guarantee the development of a new political class beholden to the centre and hence his own status as supreme leader. In 1979, Zia’s attempts at depoliticising a charged polity included the breaking up of student and trade unions, and the institutionalisation of local elected bodies, which would dispense patronage and municipal services and help divert political attention from the national level to the local. The same can be said of Musharraf’s devolution in 2001. In all three cases, municipal development happened at rapid pace due to the influx of funds at the elected district and sub-district level and, consequently, helped form the public conception of a ‘right’ kind of politics.

This project of developing a localised, nationally disinterested political class by three dictatorial regimes has also resulted in two other, advertent or inadvertent, outcomes. One is the development of a parasitical layer that acts as middleman between voters and elected representatives; the second is the development of a voter culture that shares the same local, ‘municipalised’ end-goals.

In this context, for example, there is no space for the representation of working-class issues, simply because the working class or the poor have ceased to exist as a broad, politically relevant category. In our existing political culture, a localised sphere has some poor people, but it also has rich people who have to be kept happy. Patronage is disbursed using finite resources, which means construction contracts for some and scraps for others.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s democratic process is currently stuck at this low-level equilibrium between a patronage-wielding political class and a voter-base that has been fragmented into reciprocating business interests, local lobbies and heavily dependent clients. Without the right kind of political engagement — one that seeks to broaden the scope of political participation to a wider level — this low-level equilibrium will continue for the foreseeable future.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad.

Twitter: @umairjav