On power and patronage in present-day Pakistan, busting some common myths

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  1. Singh

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    Do big bad 'feudals' still dominate Pakistan's political and economic life? How does your biraderi help you get ahead in the city? And who are the young waiters in Lahore's DHA bazaar? Umair Javed busts some common myths about power and patronage in present-day Pakistan



    The end of the land




    At some point in the past, Pakistan, or at least its politics, was much easier to understand. You had landlords, who controlled land and hence held sway over people who tilled it. You had the military and the bureaucracy, which had guns and the ability to write and speak English, respectively. And then you had a few industrialists who had a direct line with the guy at the top, and didn't find it worth their time to get into the messy business of actual politics. It was all very cordial, very behind-closed-doors, very cousins and uncles.

    Slowly, all of this began to change.



    Villages started growing, and became towns. Highways were built turning simple mandi settlements into municipalities. Cities started attracting labor from their surroundings, or as was the case with Karachi, from the entire country. And more than that, these changes saw the emergence of new actors in urban areas, breaking the traditional hold of landlords as the primary 'political' agents in the country.

    Conceptually, though, these changes posed an important question. How is politics, and specifically the exercise of power, different from what it was previously?

    Who is the equivalent of a landlord in Lahore? Who are the serfs and the haris?
    In the early 80s, when large-scale urbanization began to take place in India and Pakistan, sociologists and political scientists realized that traditional modes of social organization - groupings like biraderi and caste - took different shapes and forms in towns and cities. While there was a surge in populist politics during the 70s in India under Indira Gandhi, and Pakistan under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, subsequent periods saw the re-emergence and consolidation of patronage systems and traditional dhara politics in both countries.

    The waiters are recent migrants to the city from a post-earthquake Azad Jammu Kashmir, brought here by a jobber who goes by the name of 'Raja jee'

    As you read this, someone, somewhere is obliging a person in return for a future favor

    What we now find ourselves with is an incomplete understanding of domestic politics. While mainstream discourse has always found it easy to develop a caricatured sketch of rural politics - tinted in large part by the urban bias and media's portrayal of landlord-tenant relationships - we have nothing of the sort for urban areas, except for Karachi where equally caricatured understandings of ethnicity and gang politics prevail. Who is the equivalent of a landlord in Lahore? Who are the serfs and the haris? Is voting an individual, autonomous phenomenon or is it still a bargaining chip in a vertical patron-client relationship? Unfortunately, in the absence of systematic research, the answers can only be gleaned through anecdotal evidence and casual observations.

    Take the example of a secondary city like Sargodha, a district of nearly 4 million inhabitants, which now has almost 30% of its population residing in the district headquarters. Many of these people live a wholly urban existence, i.e. they're employed in the urban economy, hold urban aspirations of upward mobility and identify themselves as urbanites. If we were living in the 60s or the 70s, sociologists would predict that these characteristics should lead to the emergence of modern politics - i.e. impersonal, contractual, and individualized. But in 21st century Sargodha the urban context plays host to a hybrid form of modernity where businessmen, contractors, transporters, and other urban political actors use their economic positions in tandem with their biraderi and zaat-quom connections to accumulate socio-political capital. The MPA from PP-33 runs a real estate and construction business, is a long-time worker for his political party, and at the same time commands the following of a particular biraderi faction in the city. He sustains that support by invoking traditional mores of social deference mixed with just the right amount of construction sub-contracts. Another example, albeit of a slightly different nature, is of the general secretary of Rahim Yar Khan city's traders association, who funds two mosques, runs a private school for girls (Alhamdolilah, it makes a healthy profit), and is an active member of the Tableeghi Jamaat. No contestant from NA-195, it is said, can win an election without his blessing, or his campaign contribution.


    Patronage is why the government raises the wheat support price even though agriculture wage labor is on the rise

    Even in Lahore, a city of 10 million people, this hybrid variety of politics remains the dictating culture in at least 11 out of the 13 National Assembly constituencies. If you've ever been to the DHA H Block market, you would've seen the vast number of 16-30 year old men employed as waiters at fast food restaurants. A large number of these individuals are recent migrants to the city from a post-earthquake Azad Jammu Kashmir, brought here by a jobber who goes by the name of 'Raja jee'. Restaurant owners looking for waiters simply contact Raja jee and he facilitates the request using kinship connections in the north. The Raja jees, the Umar Sohail Zia Butts or the Saad Rafiques of this world are agents of whatever constitutes grassroots politics in the metropolis, a politics borne out of complex, dynamic patronage systems.


    In Pakistan, patronage is simply what makes politics, and subsequently most other things, possible. As you read this, someone, somewhere is obliging a person in return for a future favor, some money, perhaps a vote, possibly for social deference, or maybe for all four. Patronage is why the landlord gets re-elected despite spending most of his time in Islamabad, or why a specific company builds all the roads in your neighborhood. Patronage is why the government raises the wheat support price even though agriculture wage labor is on the rise. It's on display when the home minister secures 1500 constable positions for unemployed men in his constituency, or when your DMG uncle puts in a good word for you at the UET admissions office. Basically it's everywhere, and it's inescapable. The minute you put yourself out in the public realm, you become part of a world that's dictated by hierarchical relationships determined by differing access to state and economic power.

    As of 2012, businessmen and industrialists outnumber 'feudals' in the National Assembly


    When Saghir Ahmed wrote his seminal book, Class and Power in a Punjabi Village, he laid out the dynamics of rural relationships that ultimately build a patronage system and consequently a power structure. On the other hand, urban patronage is a lot more difficult to capture and conceptualize, even though it has become immensely relevant as far as macro-politics in Pakistan is concerned. Gone are the days when agrarian elites were the dominant lobby in electoral politics. As of 2012, businessmen and industrialists outnumber 'feudals' in the National Assembly, and have greater reach through well-organized associations like the Chambers of Commerce, Pakistan Business Council, and a whole serving of trader collectives.

    The superior position of the urban patron in Punjab is determined by his access to the state machinery
    These relationships normally exist in what Clifford Geertz termed as the bazaar sector, as opposed to the 'firm' sector. The former is diffused, has space for hybrid economic relationships, and straddles the line between informal and formal, as opposed to the latter, which is known to have a westernized, rationalized ethos, built upon a strict division of labor and a hierarchical, bureaucratic work environment. In a country like Pakistan, the development of the firm sector has been much smaller compared to the development of the bazaar sector, simply because of the fragmented nature of the urban economy.

    Andrew Wilder, author of the book the Pakistani Voter, had this to say about the emergence of urban patrons in Punjab:

    "Traders are now on the rise. Every alley, every bazaar is now organized in the shape of some association or the other. These traders have 'shutter power'. If a 2000-worker factory is closed by workers in a rural area, it has no effect. But say the shopkeepers of Anarkali close their shutters for two hours, it will have a much bigger effect in the city... workers have been leaving the PPP for the PML because shopkeepers, businessmen and others of the same ilk are able to provide employment and access to the sarkaar (state).'

    The media is fixated on eradicating corruption, improving electricity, or getting trains to run on time - all in the name of the common man - with little regard for how things are actually playing out

    The superior position of the prototypical urban patron in Punjab is determined first and foremost by his access to the state machinery, either through electoral means, or through personal linkages. Relationships with the state are important to bypass bureaucratic hassles (like taxes, licenses, permits), disburse state employment, and provide their clients access to state-provided public goods and services. Closely following the first, the second positional determinant is his status as a possessor of economic resources. A successful trader, for example, will obviously employ a larger number of people, will have the ability to sustain rent-seeking relationships with state officials, and will be able to contribute a greater amount to political parties. The third and final determinant is the respect and legitimacy that the urban patron receives amongst his kinship group or biraderi.


    The second part of the equation is determining the role of the client with regards to reciprocation within a patron-client framework. The most clear-cut reciprocation is done in directly material terms, such as accepting employment with low wages, or by paying cash to the patron. Increasingly though, clients can reciprocate in terms of votes, which are equally, if not more, valuable than direct monetary compensation. What's important, however, is that an urban setting is the site for multiple patrons who formulate relationships with a large segment of the population. Complementing this is that at any given time a particular patron can also be the client of someone more powerful. This phenomenon gives rise to a vertically structured form of social organization, where differing access to political and economic power determine the position of various members of society.

    When elaborating on a political system that's so organically tied to urban growth, it's very easy to miss out on the oppression and insecurity faced by a large segment of the population. As early as 1990, nearly 81 percent of all labor in the construction sector, nearly 97 percent of all labor in the trade sector, and roughly 54 percent of the labor in the transport sector was being contracted on an informal basis, either directly or through the use of middle-men like jobbers. The informal sector plays a major part in the creation, and sustenance of networks in Pakistan, and in the absence of state sponsored social security, employment or any strict implementation of labor laws, a vast majority of the urban working, and lower-middle class is left at the mercy of these intermediate groups for employment purposes. Urban life, for many, is a struggle to keep a roof over their head and food on their table, while being dependent on the menial support offered by self-serving patrons.

    This is the other side of the picture - one that portrays a dark reality which nobody seems to be particularly concerned about. The media's and middle class' language of politics is fixated on eradicating corruption, improving electricity, or getting trains to run on time - all in the name of the common man - with little regard for how things are actually playing out in the midst of rapid urban growth and transformation. As the state's capacity to accommodate and respond to a growing population gets tested, the informalization of services, employment, and politics will receive greater impetus, resulting in the creation of many more oppressive urban kingpins, dons, and rajas. And yet, tragically, many among us still think 'feudalism' remains Pakistan's biggest problem.

    Society: The end of the land by Umair Javed — www.thefridaytimes.com — Readability
     
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