Rural politics

August 30, 2020

A majority of rural citizens in Pakistan are not only deeply ‘political’ but also more active voters than their urban fellows

A majority of voters in Pakistan still live in rural areas and it is them who play the most decisive role in shaping the electoral fortunes of various political parties. It is certainly true that ‘the war of narratives’ is fought in the cyber alleys and led by urban professionals of middle-class origins but votes that determine the fates of political parties are to be found in villages and small towns of Sindh, the Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Therefore, an adequate understanding of this political ecology is a starting point in understanding the changing party politics.

Success of old parties like the PML-N and the PPP and new entrants like the PTI depends on maintaining an informal political infrastructure enabling them to have a formidable presence in provincial and national politics. Elements of this infrastructure are ‘electables’, political intermediaries and constituency based political machines built around them.

Contrary to the dominant view, rural politics exhibit the twin features of responsiveness and transaction. Notwithstanding the lack of effective municipal institutions, the rising frequency of elections has resulted in an increased awareness about voting power while structural transformation of rural economy indirectly influences the political agency of rural residents.

Structural analysis equates rural social world with a space inflicted with social hierarchy, exploitation and cultural decay with no political agency for majority of its residents. We tend to disagree with this perspective and want to argue that a majority of rural citizens are not only deeply ‘political’ but also more active voters than their urban fellows.

While rural voters and politicians have received a lot of academic and popular attention, it has not mostly been not for positive reasons. The politicians are usually described as corrupt, vile and authoritarian and the voters as sell-outs or too weak to assert their agency. This representation of rural political actors is repeated with such vigour and regularity that it has achieved the status of a truism. However, a cursory look at rural Punjab and Sindh bespeaks of tremendous social, economic and psycho-cultural changes that have deep political repercussions.

Contrary to the dominant perspective, villages of Pakistan are not static and its social structure has undergone a sizeable change. Urbanisation, immigration and Green Revolution are three important factors that brought socio-economic transformation to the rural social world. Beside these factors, population growth has brought about new individual and social problems like housing, water supply and supply of other basic amenities.

Urban geographer and architect Arif Hassan, who has recorded these changes, has termed this an unplanned revolution. This, we wish to contend, also gave birth to a ‘new’ politics that could not fit into the ideal types of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ politics as it is a curious mix of both.

Rural politics of Pakistan has become a complex phenomenon in which multiple political actors and social networks combine to satisfy the individual and collective needs of rural residents.

There are chains of events and actors that require attention of the analysists to understand rural politics. Agricultural economists have noted a secular rise in the non-farm economic activities. Consumption of modern household items, vehicles and gadgets too has not lagged behind. Surplus labour from villages has therefore found itself travelling to cities and sometimes to foreign lands in search of livelihood. Old professions and the differential social status attached to them have also not remained stable. This has resulted in reducing effective authority of traditional dyadic type of patron-client relations. Acquired social status could be seen in the process of ‘ashrafization’ when traditionally low-status groups change identity markers by adopting more respectable caste names. Acquired wealth is spent on - education, housing, transportation and life cycle ceremonies.

Similarly, the psycho-social factors underlying the social structures and guiding individual behaviours have not remained static. Usually, kinship has been described as the key element defining social, political and personal aspects of rural areas. Some commentators have agreed that social importance of kinship is declining but also seen a rise in its political importance. However, a pivotal work on rural political sociology by Dr Shandana Mohmand paints a considerably different picture of rural politics. She has pointed out the emergence of a new type of collective clients aware of their political agency which they assert it vis-à-vis elected representatives. These vote blocs are not fixed on kinship loyalties, rather individual and collective needs, intimate relations and individual concerns of prestige and respect play a far more important role in bringing together these informal alliances.

Based on these arguments we would like to present a more nuanced analysis of rural political ecology. We like to argue that rural politics cannot be explained through one set of actors and lens like patronage, clientelism or feudalism.

It is also no longer limited to thana-kuthery but also encompassed provisions of electricity and gas connections. It is not only about selling vote for a plate of biryani but also strategically using it by building electoral alliances. It is not about bowing down to the authority of traditional elites but also acquiring new identities and borrowing ideas of equality from Islamic ideology to challenge their supremacy. Similarly, it is not limited to the dark side of patronage but also includes everyday problem-solving networks providing relief to rural residents in dealing with local bureaucracies. Lastly, it is not about waiting for the munificence of elected MNA/MPA alone but also building issue-based coalitions to demand justice. Looking at all these avenues, it can be said with some certainty that rural politics have become more diverse socially, and more complex politically. It is important to note that political parties and politicians know this fact; and so, they try to develop new ways to remain relevant locally and politically.

Politicians look to manage these social complexities and political demands. Constituency-based political machines, formed around politicians and political intermediaries, provide a stop-gap arrangement to deal with impending demands of public service delivery and individual problem solving. Policy instruments like constituency development funds (CDFs) are also used by all parties strategically to build political support. These informal arrangements and policy responses are an example of the changing political demands and preferences.

Rural politics of Pakistan have become a complex phenomenon in which multiple political actors and social networks combine to satisfy the individual and collective needs of rural residents. Lacking in municipal institutions, rural residents are left with no other options but to use their votes and informal mechanisms to solve their everyday individual and collective problems. Elections offer them opportunity to force non-elected officials as well as elected political representatives to be more responsive to their needs. These demands are rising continuously and will not diminish but increase over time and can potentially influence the direction of political change and fate of democracy in Pakistan.

The author is a doctoral candidate at School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, Paris

Rural politics