The South Asia Channel

The most important sociopolitical trend in Pakistan in the last decade

For the vast majority of Pakistan’s history, its politics have been an elite-led phenomenon. There have been three actors in which have been of prime importance: the military, the land-owning feudal classes, and the business-owning industrialist classes. Representatives of each have controlled Pakistan at various times, and at other times battled each other for power. ...

For the vast majority of Pakistan’s history, its politics have been an elite-led phenomenon. There have been three actors in which have been of prime importance: the military, the land-owning feudal classes, and the business-owning industrialist classes. Representatives of each have controlled Pakistan at various times, and at other times battled each other for power. But the fundamental point would be that each of them remained institutionally divorced from the issues and concerns of, on the one hand, the professional and middle classes in urban centers, and on the other, the rural poor. Lip-service to their demands was paid, to be sure, but little was done substantively to advance their cause.

This state of affairs did not prove terribly problematic for the ruling classes. Indeed, why would it? The military, by definition, was not accountable to electoral politics. The country’s dominant political parties, safely ensconced in the knowledge of secure ethnic-based vote banks, could hardly be characterized as overly concerned with the so-called common man either. In short, Pakistan witnessed regime after regime of accountability-free rule, in all senses of the term.

Where this divide, between the government and the governed, was most stark was in the realm of foreign affairs. Whether it was fighting wars, instigating guerrilla campaigns in neighboring states, signing deals and treaties in foreign capitals, joining international organizations or whatever, Pakistan’s leaders conducted business without any real input from its public.

In the last decade, this picture has changed dramatically due to three central factors.

The first and most important factor is the explosion of private electronic media. In the 1990s, it was difficult for most Pakistanis — the vast majority of which cannot or do not read newspapers — to get information that was not government-sponsored or, less mildly, propagandistic. The BBC, both on television and on the radio, did a fair job of covering the truly major events in Pakistan, but like most foreign news agencies, it was obviously not concerned with the nitty-gritty politics of daily life. As such, governments could control the tenor and direction of the dominant political debates of the day. This is not to suggest that they enjoyed a hassle-free existence, but to posit that those hassles came from other elites, not from below.

This picture has changed drastically, as anyone with even a cursory interest in Pakistan will be able to tell you. There are now dozens of news channels in Pakistan, each with their own ideological and partisan bent. Some are national-level, others more regionally and ethnically focused. The trend began in the early part of this decade and has plateaued only recently, as the market gets sated. And while few of these channels will win awards for calm understatement or presciently sedate analysis, the fact remains that the media — if it can be spoken of as a collective — has given voice to a mass of the population previously unheard from. It has become a player of truly monumental importance for its ability to shape, mold, and excite the public. It is, at once, sensationalistic, blood-thirsty, xenophobic, conspiratorial, humorous, investigative, and anti-government. And yet its arrival on the scene is more than welcome, first for providing the venue for disenfranchised interests to make themselves known and second because the alternative is much worse.

The second significant factor, related to but distinct from the first, is the rise of communication technologies in Pakistan, particularly cellular phones. In 2002, there were 1.2 million cell-phone subscriptions in the country. By 2008, this number had risen to 88 million — an increase of more than seven thousand percent. In addition, more than one in ten Pakistanis had access to the internet by the end of the decade; low by advanced countries’ standards but an astronomical rise by Pakistan’s. These developments in communications meant that political narratives became congealed and disseminated at speeds never heard of before, and that information and the wider "war" for public opinion became incredibly hard to win if a battle was lost at any stage.

The third major factor is the economic growth that took place in Pakistan in the first half of the 2000s. Pakistan’s GDP doubled between 1999 and 2007, and more than kept pace with population growth, as GDP per capita increased by almost sixty percent between 2000 and 2008. More to the point, this growth was overwhelmingly powered by expansion of the service sector, which is concentrated, quite naturally, in the urban centers of the country. For the first time since independence, the term "Pakistani urban middle class" was not a contradiction in terms.

This development had two effects. First, and more trivially, the urban middle class did what urban middle classes do: they bought televisions and computers. In turn, that allowed them to plug into the private media explosion in ways simply unimaginable previously. Second, it shattered the elite-only edifice of Pakistani politics, and made challenges to government based on Main Street issues — the price of flour, the lack of electricity, the selective application of the rule of law — a viable process. Fifty years ago, Seymour Lipset wrote one of the canonical articles in Political Science on the process of democratization, its relationship to urbanized middle classes, and how the demands and values of the latter lead almost inexorably to support for the former. Here was living proof of Lipset’s analysis.

What these factors — private media, communication technologies, and the birth of a viable (but still small) middle class — meant in conjunction was that political currents would now be affected by, and not merely find a sponge-like audience in, a new non-elite movement.

Many writers, quite fairly and accurately, have chosen to focus on the merits of this movement, by focusing, for instance, on its role in assuring that Presidents Musharraf and Zardari’s attempts to sideline Chief Justice Chaudhary would be unsuccessful, or in unyielding efforts aimed at removing Musharraf from office. But what often goes unsaid is that this new political actor has destructive tendencies too, and it is in foreign affairs where this is made most apparent. Why? For the simple reason that foreign policy is the one area where the expectations of Pakistan’s population concerning its leaders to speak for it on the one hand, and the capabilities of Pakistan’s leaders to deliver on the other, are most conducive to clashing.

On the domestic front, Pakistan’s turn to mass politics has been attendant with a rising nationalism and a suspicion of other countries, most notably but not limited to the U.S. and India, bordering on the pathological. While half-baked conspiracy theories and a reflexive defensiveness used to be the sole purview of the military establishment, these ideas now find currency amongst the wider population. The country as a whole is without the slightest smidgen of a doubt more right-wing and xenophobic than it was ten years ago. And while there are moderately strong winds based on reason and evidence that fan the flames of this discontent — the revelations of Blackwater operating in the country, along with the increasingly cavalier approach of the U.S. with respect to action in Balochistan amongst them — most of these opinions are flatly nonsensical: the notion of a joint Israel-India-U.S. axis to destroy Pakistan and redraw its boundaries, and the idea that terrorist incidents in Pakistan are plotted by Indian intelligence agents, to name just two of many.

This increasing distrust of foreign actors and their designs for Pakistan is reflected in great anger at any cooperation with said foreign actors, specifically the U.S. But this is where the bind that Pakistan’s leaders find themselves in becomes clear. If Pakistani leaders would be best served domestically by bowing to the wishes of its people, and living a more isolationist existence, why don’t they? Why don’t they simply follow the dictates of the so-called median voter?

The short answer is simple: because they cannot. Thucydides, as all students in an introductory courses in International Relations are told, famously said that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. Pakistan’s macroeconomic indicators fell off a clip following the surge in oil prices in 2007 and the financial collapse in 2008. It has witnessed a period of great political upheaval from March 2007 to the present. Its military is unable, at least at present, to meaningfully impact the extent to which militant groups can attack and kill innocent civilians. In short, it is in no position to dictate terms to outsiders.

Here, then, we have a quandary: the nationalist public wants its leaders to be brash and uncompromising. But leaders find that, once in office, they are in no position to do so. Domestic political demands cede to international political imperatives. This Catch-22 was made most apparent during the wholly inane furor over the Kerry-Lugar bill, where the Pakistani public was, in effect, being indignant at the insult of being handed seven and a half billion dollars. The government was accused of selling out the country and its people; the reality that aid-acceptors are not usually able to put their foot down on the precise ways in which the money is delivered scarcely registered.

Or consider this piece of evidence: Asif Zardari and Pervez Musharraf have almost nothing in common, save for the fact that they attended the same high school (St.Patrick’s, for the Karachiites in the audience). The former is from a feudal family in Sindh, the latter a middle class family in Karachi. The former is a businessman and politician, the latter a general. The former never garnered the trust of the military-bureaucratic establishment in Pakistan, the latter is the establishment (or was). The former gained power by being married to the late Benazir Bhutto and inheriting (literally) the largest political party in the country, the latter by launching a coup, and relying on the military as an unshakable base of power. Their styles of leadership are starkly dissimilar too; Zardari stays out of the limelight as much as possible, and engages in backdoor deal-making, Musharraf was gung-ho and confrontational. And yet, despite all these differences, they share one all-important trait: the regularity with which they are and were accused of being traitorous, and disloyal to Pakistan’s national interests.

The underlying reasons for that accusation, I hope, are obvious: despite their many differences, they shared the same set of constraints, falling prey to the clashing forces of domestic nationalism and international helplessness that would befall any Pakistani leader in the current climate. And yes, Nawaz Sharif, that means you too –if it comes to that. The simple fact is that this trend is unlikely to abate any time soon. On the one hand, vicious nationalism is a notoriously sticky phenomenon. On the other hand, Pakistan’s bargaining position on the international table is unlikely to improve enough in the short-term whereby its leaders will be able to "just say no" on the issues which are most costly with respect to their domestic political interests.

As such we should, if I am correct, see the tension between these competing pressures on Pakistan’s leaders continue, and challenge even the most adroit and strategic of leaders. The obvious solution — easier said than done, it must be conceded — is to gain cache with the population with sound governance, so that the public can at least weigh the benefits of higher standards of living against the demerits of purported treachery and disloyalty. Indeed, it is striking that Musharraf enjoyed excellent approval ratings from the Pakistani public, well above 60 percent, until he took on the Chief Justice in March, 2007 (see p.39 of this report). Ironically, given my analysis, Musharraf never suffered for his international "mistake" to ally with the U.S. until he compounded it with one on the domestic front.

The lesson, then, is that Pakistani leaders do have some room for error with the Pakistani public, but not a great deal, and certainly less than their predecessors.

Ahsan Butt is a PhD student in political science at the University of Chicago and contributes to the blog Five Rupees, where this was originally published.

Ahsan I. Butt is a Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow with the International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an Assistant Professor at the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.

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