Statism in Pakistan


Most journalistic and drawing room analysis of Pakistan’s political parties focuses on two aspects — the self-interest of top political leaders, and the local, often transactional, mechanisms required to win electoral constituencies. For the first, political elites can be motivated by a range of things, including the desire for personal enrichment, higher status, protection of their family legacies, and (perhaps rarely) some moral ideal. This motivation plays into the actions they take in government or as members of the opposition.
Similarly, as much as some individuals and institutions would want, there is no politics possible without voters under the existing rules. This necessarily mandates some focus on how voters are compelled to vote for particular parties and candidates — be it because of patronage ties, ethnic, kinship and tribal affinity, or charisma-induced obligation.
Increasingly, however, there are indications that other factors need to be paid attention to as well. Since the resumption of some form of democracy since 2007, the opening up of the private media sphere, and the partial disruption to cultural production and consumption caused by social media, factors beyond elite machinations and constituency-based wrangling may have entered the mix. Broadly put, these factors can be classified as ‘cultural’ or ‘ideological’ issues and how they help voters relate to particular mainstream political parties.
In 2018, Rahul Verma and Pradeep Chhibber wrote Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India, in a bid to evaluate (and rectify) long-standing notions of how Indian politics remained immune to ‘ideology’ and was largely determined by localised vote-banks and often patronage-based coalitions. Their primary argument against these notions was that instead of applying the left-right socioeconomic model of ideology found in Western states, political contexts like India are instead shaped by ideological debates on the role of the state in shaping people’s lives and the politics of minorities and the extent to which their rights should be protected.
In Pakistan’s case, while we can’t draw on systematic survey data, there are indications that ideational debates — on civil-military relations, federalism provincial autonomy and statist nationalism — have always remained in the mix, though not always expressed in clear ideological terms.
The articulation and assertion for the last of these three ideological strands — statist nationalism — is changing quite rapidly. The case of the ruling party and a section of their electorate’s response to the heart-wrenching Hazara protests can help us understand this.
For all the jibes around seasonal electables and sympathetic selectors, the PTI remains an independent political phenomenon in its own right. It fulfils a representative task for some sections of the electorate — the urban white-collar middle and upper-income class — that other mainstream political parties had failed to do for some time. This representation may be less relevant to simple voting analysis because of the way Pakistan’s electoral demography is overwhelmingly skewed towards poor rural and peri-urban voters, but it nevertheless has an increasing footprint on government messaging and policy.
If the last two years in office show something, it is that the ruling party has become the vehicle for Pakistan’s own version of statist ideology and the people who espouse it. This version of statism is not necessarily concerned with the role of the state in people’s lives, but instead is an expression of nationalist-republican sentiment, which seeks deference towards the state (however weakly defined) and argues for a unitary understanding of citizen identity.
Historically, the vehicle for this ideology has been the military and its associated regimes. The notion that central control is important and ethnic or other ascriptive identities need to be overcome by cultural homogeneity or actual coercion is one that many will find familiar in the conduct of military dictatorships. The key change is that till the PTI’s emergence, these ideas had marginal uptake within the civilian domain of politics. One could argue that the PML-N in the early 1990s represented the first popular vehicle for this under partially democratic conditions, but the party never attempted to branch out beyond its fixation with central Punjab (and ultimately became provincial and ethnic in its politicking as well). It is only with the PTI’s slow but steady rise to mainstream contention that statist nationalism has found organised and coherent representation within the civilian domain.
The recent Hazara protests underscore this reality really well. The prime minister’s initial refusal to go and his categorisation of the protest as ‘blackmail’ may have been borne out of ego, superstition, or a reading of events that saw the protestors as ‘anarchists’.
What’s more revealing is the fact that his decision was rationalised by supporters as signalling conviction, asserting the supremacy of the state, and a desirable rejection of divisive sectarian politics. This is clear in the way that many supporters raise objections to the classification of the killings as Hazara/Shia genocide, instead of being classified as Pakistanis being killed. And that they saw the prime minister’s acceptance of their demands as a ‘slippery-slope’ where anyone could stage such a protest in the future.
The obvious problem with this ignorant position is that it obfuscates the reason as to why they were killed and why they were protesting — not for simply being Pakistani, but for their ethnic and sectarian identity, and for the systematic oppression they’ve suffered for several decades. This obfuscation is directly built into the version of statist ideology that many urbanite supporters of the ruling party ascribe to. Its key ingredients are the flattening of primordial identities, the assertion of the idea of a singular nation, and deference to centralised state authority (rather than the constitution as a specific ideal of the state).
Most countries have parties that assert such ideas, and it’s taken Pakistani politics quite some time to ‘civilianise’ them within the realm of electoral competition. But what is clear is that it has taken a concrete hold on sections of the electorate and is likely to expand and assert itself in the future as well.