Tribalization of political culture

The implosion of Pakistan

Below the radar of international media, Pakistan, a country of 230 million people, has been imploding slowly. Now its crisis has burst upon the international scene. Imran Khan, the popular leader of Pakistan Tehrik Insaf (PTI)) and the former prime minister was arrested, released and expected to be put away again. He has been charged in more than 100 cases, ranging from corruption, terrorism to dishonouring military. His followers have rioted and burned many military and civilian properties. An air of uncertainty prevails in the country.

Khan’s rule of a little more than three years was a break from the musical chairs of alternating Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N-N) and Bhutto’s Peoples Party of Pakistan (PPP) governments. His has been a new face with little baggage of corruption that carries a lot of appeal for the young. His popularity combined with brashness have posed a threat to the established parties.

Yet Khan’s rule was not free of revenge politics. The PML-N-N and PPP leaders were imprisoned on various charges. He has continued to call them thieves of the national wealth.

Now Shehbaz Sharif of PML-N as the prime minister is using the same public agencies for revenge prosecution. The politics of personal vendettas, hatred and wild accusations is playing out on the national stage. Secretly taped audios of each other’s personal and families’ conversations are being played out .A new low in the morality of political behaviours is on display.

Political parties are essentially tribes assembled by enterprising leaders. Loyalties are to the person rather than to any ideology. Most parties are run as family enterprises. The Sharif brothers have dominated the national stage; Shahbaz’s son and Nawaz’s daughter are running the PML-N’s provincial branches. Benazir Bhutto’s inexperienced son is the foreign minister in the present government. Imran Khan’s party is non-dynastic, though his is the only and the last word.

Widely known but so far not openly discussed is that the role of military in political management. Its intelligence agencies have manipulated politicians and journalists by threats as well as promises. Pakistan has had a pattern of the ’disappearances’ of political/ethnic critics, many of whom could not be recovered despite court orders and relatives’ pleas. This is also suspected to be the work of the intelligence agencies.

Khan’s government is believed to have been patched together by the military command and its replacement is attributed to his falling out with the commanders. Pakistan has had four spells of military rule, lasting 33 years, but it is a distinction of the country that all military rules were brought down by popular protests and resistance. That experience combined with the global powers’ reduced tolerance for military rules has kept Pakistan’s military operating from behind the façade of parliamentary governments. Despite being an open secret, it was a taboo to mention the military’s role. Khan has broken this taboo. This may turn out to be a silver lining of the present crisis.

Yet the real problems of Pakistan have festered. It is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, seeking the IMF’s loan and protection. Poverty has been endemic but now hunger may be stalking the country with a 48% annual inflation last year. The country’s foreign exchange reserves hover around 4-5 billion dollars, not enough to pay for a month’s imports and loans’ interests. Factories are closing.

The galloping population growth, depleting agricultural land, energy and water resources are among the challenges that are seldom mentioned in parliamentary discussions. Fast-approaching climate change is echoed from the international media but not given any policy attention. The politics of personalities is what takes up most of the public space.

Institutionally Pakistan is well organized. It has a constitution, elections, civil administration, universities, and more than 100 national and global TV networks, with an active social media. Pakistan’s Bureau of Statistics estimates that 93% of households have a cell phone. Yet altogether these institutions are proving to be ‘hollow ’, having the form but not functioning as expected. Corruption, nepotism and compromising of laws and regulations are so pervasive that distrust of the government is almost a national creed.

The present moment marks the fractionalization of institutions. The civil services have lost their neutrality; judges of the Supreme Court are openly accused of partisanship. Parliament overrules the Supreme Court’s decisions. The military has lost its lustre.

There is a rebellion In Balochistan, there are daily fights with terrorists and bandits roam the Sindh countryside. If one pays attention to the media, the country appears to be in anarchy. Yet the malls are full, new restaurants are opening regularly, and roads are jam packed with shiny cars. A casual visitor comes out feeling that the crisis is all hype, but partisan loyalties are tearing Pakistan apart. The country’s institutions are breaking down.

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Mohammad A Qadeer
Mohammad A Qadeer
Mohammad Qadeer is professor emeritus, Geography and Planning, Queen’s university and the author of book, ‘Pakistan: social and cultural transformations in a Muslim nation

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