The Politics of Musical Chairs

South Asianists have long been fascinated by the dynastic trends in the region’s politics. Explaining the longevity of the Nehru-Gandhi family in India, the Bandaranaikes in Sri Lanka, and the Bhuttos in Pakistan has been a favourite subject of many that have studied the Indian subcontinent. Beyond descriptive accounts of dynastic politics, academics have typically used the term patrimonial – a la Weber – to explain the political order of post-colonial societies, denoting the heavily personalised nature of organized power.


Notwithstanding the often ethnocentric implications of Weberian typologies, it is true that many post-colonial systems of power reflect deep-seated cultural characteristics. The vast literature on patron-client relations represents the most obvious attempt to understand the manner in which culture is reflected in the political sphere. More generally the crux of the matter is to identify how culture is articulated in conjunction with politics and economics. Only a holistic understanding of social structure in which culture, politics and economics are duly acknowledged permits a meaningful analysis of modern post-colonial societies.


Unfortunately however, mainstream political and intellectual discourses in South Asia tend away from structural accounts. The prevailing trend is to attribute a great deal of what happens to individual agents, and particularly the larger-than-life political leadership of South Asian states. This is not to suggest that individuals do not play a role in history; indeed, it is individuals and the collectives they form/represent that effect social and political change. But a genuine understanding of the role that individuals play in shaping history is only possible if there is consideration of the structural environment within which they act.  


In Pakistan this intellectual shortcoming is perhaps more pronounced in comparison with the rest of South Asia in the sense that politics is often depicted as a game of musical chairs involving a handful of individuals and families. This state of affairs is not an accident. On the one hand it reflects the quite deliberate attempts of the state in the period since 1977 to wean working people away from a politics of change by institutionalizing a cynical, patronage-based form of politics. In the period immediately preceding the Zia martial law, popular politics had emerged dramatically and rattled the state and dominant social forces; the Ziaist reaction aimed singularly to undermine this new popular trend. During the Zia years and afterwards the military executive that is the dominant political player in Pakistan has successfully undermined the very idea of politics and politicians in the public eye.


The second and related point is that the military’s dominance in Pakistani politics, exemplified best by three long periods of military rule, have meant that Pakistanis have gotten used to what ostensibly appears to be one-man rule. Generals Ayub, Yahya, Zia and Musharraf of course represented the interests of the military and other dominant groups. However in the popular mind these men were all-powerful individuals that were responsible for every facet of public policy. The military institution also made sure to reinforce this perception towards the end of every long martial law so as to ensure that the public resentment against the incumbent did not harm the military’s institutional image.


The post-election scenario understates the long-term impacts of the military’s machinations. In the four months that have passed since the election, very little concrete progress has been made in terms of legislation or even in ironing out details about the power-sharing arrangement. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) headed by Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Zardari is the party in power, at least on the surface, while ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) faction is the major power broker in the crucial Punjab province. Meanwhile the now retired General Pervez Musharraf lurks uneasily in the background, still claiming he is constitutionally entitled to play the role of president, whereas his nemesis, the still deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry also remains a pivotal figure as the issue of his restoration continues to dwarf all other matters into the background.


In short, the situation does indeed resemble a game of musical chairs with four major protagonists. Or perhaps it is more accurate to suggest that this is how the popular mind interprets the state of affairs. To a significant extent this popular perception can be attributed to the media’s portrayal of political events, sensationalist and without substance. However, it is also important to bear in mind that a great deal of hyperbole circulates within the wider society making the politics of musical chairs a self-fulfilling prophecy.


In actual fact political happenings reflect underlying structural patterns. Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif represent distinct political constituencies, whilst also claiming to be representatives of the public will more generally. They are ensconced within the military-dominated political order and are essentially trying to carve out a space for their parties within the confines of this order. Given the dramatic decline in the military’s prestige, they are ostensibly attempting to secure a greater share of power than in the past, but neither is committed to a structural overhaul.


This is at least in part a function of their acquiescence to the role played by the United States and Saudi Arabia in Pakistani politics. Both of these imperialist powers have historically been committed to the military-dominated political system, and remain so today. Both powers want to see a certain amount of stability in Pakistan in which the mainstream political parties secure a share of power without rocking the military’s boat beyond a point.


This takes me on to the military. Still the arbiter in Pakistani politics, it has recently receded into the background to try and rehabilitate its image in the wake of more than 8 years of direct rule in which it was subject to greater public censure than at any other time in the country’s history. Musharraf is only still in the fray because he enjoys at least the nominal support of the military. The day the military top brass decides that he is too much of a liability for the institution, Musharraf will be history.


And then there is Iftikhar Chaudhry. He vaguely represents the aspirations of change for a broad cross-section of social and political forces not represented within the military-dominated political system. The Jamaa’t-e-Islami (JI), historically an ally of the military establishment, has also latched onto Mr. Chaudhry because it boycotted the February election and now finds itself frozen out of the new political dispensation. The lawyer-led movement to restore Mr. Chaudhry however is ideologically fragmented and could possibly be manipulated if the PPP and PML-N do not soon evolve a workable power-sharing arrangement.


At the present time, Asif Zardari’s person is coming in for the most criticism in the public eye. He is being accused of not fulfilling the mandate of the February 18 election by not restoring Iftikhar Chaudhry and his 60-odd companions, whilst also failing to meaningfully provide relief to working people who are currently suffering the huge fallouts of more than 8 years of unbridled neo-liberalism. On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif’s popularity graph is on the rise on account of his ‘principled stance’ on the restoration of judges. However, if in Mr. Zardari’s position as leader of the majority party, Mr. Sharif would likely have been subject to just as much public reprimand. The retired Mr. Musharraf is still the most unpopular man in Pakistan, although his presence is what keeps the PPP and PML-N at least nominally committed to the same ‘democratic’ goals. Iftikhar Chaudhry remains popular, although less so because working people are enamoured by the superior judiciary and more so because he is widely viewed as the man who stood up to Musharraf.


All in all, a very complex and dynamic structure of power stands reduced in the public eye to an epic tug-of-war between four individuals. This is not to deny the fact that politics in Pakistan is indeed heavily personalised and that sifarish (doing of favours) is modus operandi. However, as I have suggested here, it is crucial that the personalised nature of politics be considered subject to structural constraints, and to understand the role of individuals within this personalised system of power.


Of course the fact that such an understanding continues to elude many intellectual pundits in Pakistan suits the military establishment very well. While politicians seeming make a hash of things, the military is back playing the role that it plays best, that of arbiter behind the scenes. So politics and politicians will continue to be pilloried, in part due to their own unwillingness to break with the system, but more so because of the nature of the system itself, and specifically the alienation of working people from it.


Having said this, a structural transformation may indeed rest on the shoulders of a charismatic personality that emerges as the leader of a popular movement for change. Of course if such an eventuality came to pass, the leader would only be riding the crest of a counter-hegemonic wave that could displace the prevailing structure of power. The thing is, ordinary people have to craft this counter-hegemonic wave themselves rather than waiting for a messiah to do the job for them.

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