Old power politics in Naya Pakistan

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By Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Politics, processes, institutions and players are a reflection of a society’s structure. When the state and political institutions are strong, they shape, re-shape and even transform social structures. Modernity in all its manifestations would eventually change everything, but very slowly and over a long period of time.
The social structures in Punjab and elsewhere in Pakistan are feudal, agrarian, tribal and caste-oriented — and they define the politics.
Behind the veneer of political parties and their identity labels, there are traditional elites that control the social and political spaces. To some extent, it is a good development that party identities matter, and that traditional elites need it to capture the votes of party loyalists. However, this is a very narrow band of voters, which may continue to grow, but has yet not reached a critical level, at least in rural constituencies, to determine the outcome of elections. The local political elites retain great significance for the mainstream political parties when it comes to their electoral prospects.
They know they have this power, and the parties recognize this by courting them. It functions as a two-track clientelism—the parties are the clients for winnable candidates, and the candidates, no matter how strong they might be, need the label of a party likely to form the next government in order to beat their rivals.
For the last three decades, since the second transition to democracy in 1988, we have seen the traditional elites joining the political ‘waves’. This time, in the 2018 elections, a good number of elite families in Punjab joined Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. After two-decades of hesitation, and wanting to carve out a broad grass-roots level political constituency, Khan welcomed the winnable candidates from other parties into the PTI. Political pragmatism finally prevailed over idealism. Had there been a presidential system, Khan’s strategy would have worked. But in the parliamentary system Pakistan has, the constituency-level politics, and a strong social support base in each constituency, matter a lot.
One remarkable characteristic of elite politics in Punjab is that it operates in the form of horizontal and vertical alliances and coalitions. The vertical alliances are within the constituencies. The success of influential figures and political families lies in creating and maintaining voting blocs and social networks of support. Contrary to the view that these networks are based on caste, tribe, clan and ethnicity, they are generally transactional.

The powerful political figures competing against each other —a blessing of plural democracy—have to address the interests of the voting blocs. It depends what means they have, but the best one is maintaining the patronage of the state.
It is available only to those members who happen to be in the ruling party. This is why the electable political elites shift loyalties according to political ‘waves’ in the country and more specifically in Punjab, the largest province.
The political elites need to have the district government and the Punjab government departments on their side. The voting bloc members seek the intervention of their representatives into the district administration, particularly with the police. They also need development of villages, requiring power lines, water, sanitation, and availability of natural gas pipelines right into their kitchens and homes.
Every democracy, from substantive to procedural, is driven by the demands, expectations and aspirations of voters. The difference between the two is that the former functions according to the rule of law while the latter, as in our case, moves along the familiar lines of patronage that often crosses the jurisdictional boundaries of the representatives and functionaries in the Punjab bureaucracy.
Patronage is the political fuel that keeps the political machines of the traditional elites running.
For this, they engage in another type of alliance and coalition —  horizontal — among other members of the political elite class and assembly representatives. Since the early years of Pakistan, the Punjab elites have mastered the art and science of coalition building. This is what defines the power politics of the Punjab and political factions. Never have these factions ceased to exist; they simply form and reshape according to political interests, prevailing conditions, exigencies and crises. No party, no matter how powerful its top leader, remains untouched by factionalism.
There are signs in Khan’s government, even before it has reached 100 days in office, of these factions engaged in a behind-the-scene struggle for supremacy. An outsider, Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, has created a far better opportunity for factionalism to flourish and claim a piece of the Punjab power-cake. This may not augur well for the PTI until the slow and often invisible tussle among factions is brought under control. Lacking a majority of its own, and with the role of old players acting as new allies, things may get even harder, riskier, and more destabilizing.
(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore.  His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity (Oxford University Press, 2017). @RasulRais)