A couple of weeks ago, Ahsan Butt published an interview with anthropologist Tahir Naqvi that covered topics ranging from Muhajir nationalism to the MQM's evolution as a political party. The metropolitan, and for want of a better word, unique nature of Karachi attracts a great deal of attention from anthropologists, both local and foreign, and the relatively urbane educational outlook of its residents encourages them to engage with the city from a personal-academic point of view. A number of Karachiite bloggers, social science students, and academics pontificate on the dynamics of the city, not just as objective observers, but also, it seems, as residents trying to understand the question of metropolitan identity for personal reasons.
As many of the city's vocal residents - of which there are plenty - will tell you, understanding the dynamics of Karachi is impossible without paying due consideration to the phenomenon of Muhajir nationalism, and specifically to the characteristics of MQM's politics in the city. I, being someone who's never been to Karachi, would extend this argument to other regions and other forms of collective projections. In fact, it won't be incorrect to say, especially sitting in 2011, that most collective projections, be they as vocal and expansive as of the Muhajir or Baloch variety, or as limited in scope, agenda, and intellectual depth as the Hazara movement, do affect the state in one form or the other.
Largely in the same vein as students of Karachi trying to understand their city and its politics, I've been involved in similar, but more simplistic efforts in the last year or so, albeit focusing on my backyard of central Punjab. The issue of Punjab, i.e., its politics, the transformations witnessed in society, and its relationship with the state, is something that provides me with both an academic muse, and an explanation of the self. It, at a very basic level, is an exercise of observation as much as it is of introspection.
As a consequence of my engagement with Punjab, the reason why I thought Ahsan's piece came at a very good time was because it, in a way, contextualized Nawaz Sharif's politics very well. Don't get me wrong - I hardly intend to equate Muhajir nationalism with the rather non-identity based party politics of a particular region, but, in one particular sense, there is a strong parallel that can be drawn between the two.
This parallel is based on the evolution of Muhajir nationalism as an inner entity, to a political party negotiating with the state from the outside on one hand, and on the other, the PML-N, a representative of an almost passive collective projection, transforming, at least in rhetoric, from a comfortable 'internal' position to something that speaks of structural change.
Brief History of the PML-N
Nawaz Sharif's party is not an identity based party - at least not in the way we define 'nationalist' parties in Pakistan. The PML-N, like most other Muslim League incarnations, started off as a splinter group by breaking away from Junejo's Muslim League in 1993 under Fida Mohammad Khan and Nawaz Sharif's leadership. Sharif, as almost everyone knows, was drafted into Punjabi politics and was given the Finance minister's office and then ultimately the Chief Minister's office during Zia's martial law regime. As a standalone entity, Nawaz's biggest selling point, which was something the army realized, was that he could legitimately speak for both big business and small mercantilist interests, being a central Punjabi Kashmiri, without any previous political baggage. But the downside to that was he had no real power base, and much like the UP elite of 1947, had to become part of various deals with political factions in order to remain electorally and hence politically relevant. One famous deal, that ultimately determined the trajectory of national and provincial politics for the next decade, was brokered by the then governor of Punjab Lt. Gen (r) Ghulam Jillani between Nawaz Sharif and Chaudhary Shujaat, soon after the assassination of Ch. Zahoor Elahi. The advantage of this deal was that Sharif would get a sizable electoral platform along the GT road belt, as well as in certain other parts of the country, while the Chaudharies would get a clean face, a direct line with the army, and a whole bunch of ex Jamaat, ex MSF politicians in urban Punjab.
This brief history of Nawaz Sharif's party serves to remind us, at this point, of its evolution and origins. At the heart of it all, there was a very simple pact that drove the PML-N between 1993 to 1999 in Punjab: good relations with the army, an urban segment of the party to battle the PPP and the Jamaat, and a rural segment of the party to suppress Hamid Nasir Chattha's PML (Junejo) and later on Manzoor Wattoo's PML (Jinnah). At this point, all Muslim League factions were associated with the armed forces in one way or the other, but the PML-N was perhaps the preferred partner.
In 1997, disenchantment with the PPP, and increasing cynicism with the democratic process led to the PML-N coming in with a 2/3rd majority and with nearly non-existent opposition in both Punjab and at the center. Such a large majority however hid the strains between Shujaat's faction in the party, centered on the smaller GT road towns, and Nawaz Sharif's more urban faction, which were growing due to multiple reasons - with the biggest being the nomination of Shahbaz as CM Punjab over Ch. Pervez Elahi (contrary to what had been promised).
In most reviews of the 1997-99 regime, a lot of focus is placed on Nawaz Sharif as a person, his psyche, and his ego. The Ameer-ul-Momineen move, the attempts to gain greater control over the army, and even the construction of the Motorway, are all seen as the projection of a Punjabi ego over the entire country. The unfortunate bit is that there is little academic material to replace this rather individualistic interpretation of an entire period with something more structural. The guess that I usually take is that this desire for more absolutism was in part dictated by the internal strains being faced by the Nawaz faction in the party, which led to moves such as the disqualification act, the desire to have the armed forces pliant in order to prevent a deal being struck with someone else (Shujaat or Chattha), and even the construction of the Motorway to appease and please politicians in the Pindi-Chakwal-Sargodha-Sheikhupura belt.
However, the confrontations with the army, the coup and ultimately the construction of the PML-Q in its aftermath highlight exactly how much of a political party the PML-N was even as late as 1999. It took a few winks, and a few slaps to drop the eager apples into the army's lap, and while Nawaz Sharif secured his exile to the Kingdom, some of those that stuck, like Javed Hashmi, suffered torture, and suppression with only 19 seats to show for.
PML-N and the Citizen-Officer Divide:
The splintering of the PML-N was not surprising given the constellation of opportunists in the party, and the patronage based system of politics in Punjab. A candidate's power is dependent on patronage, and that cannot be secured without access to the state. Urban interests, like industrialists, traders, and contractors, require state access for tenders, tax evasion, and export quotas, while landlords and agriculturists require this for irrigation concessions, favorable pricing, and other things like doling out state employment. This dynamic leads to, and there is no better word for it, opportunism in its purist form, simply because practicing confrontational mass-politics, at least till 2007, was simply not seen as an option in Punjab.
With a cleansing of most of the embedded opportunists from the party, more by default than by design, the PML-N, resuscitated its politics by participating in the lawyers' movement, carving out a careful space with the new army leadership, and then laying claim to the anti-dictatorship agenda. An electoral showing better than what most expected, and the evolution into a more coherent, and representative party has allowed the PML-N to feel more secure within its own spatial limits. The PML-N is a party of urban central Punjab, and outside of it is a group of individual patrons who, if not part of it, pay homage and tribute to the party's high command. The party, and its support base, is driven, first and foremost, by the expansionary nature of patronage, business and trade, and secondly, by the notion of a morally 'correct' quasi-Islamic republic as an ideal.
Both of these things provide enough space and ground for the PML-N's latest brand of politics to be non-contradictory, i.e., it can be conservative and business driven, and see a reduced role of the military in the state as well. But the point of contention in all of this is a) the history of the party being close to, if not totally, an establishment/armed forces lackey, and b) the middle class voter base which still idealizes a strong political role for the military on the basis of its 'discipline, merit, and role as guardians of borders, strategic assets, and national interest(s)'.
The first is often explained away by supporters and apologists (of which despite accusations, I am not one of) by, again, mostly focusing on Nawaz as a person. 'He is a reformed man,' and 'He has learned his lesson,' or as the more cynical ones say 'He is out for revenge, not just for 1999 but also for 1993 (Kakar's dismissal after the Supreme Court reinstated his government)'. For the longest time, an individualistic interpretation of Nawaz's pro-democracy stand was tempered off with the politics of other individuals like Chaudhary Nisar and his connections to the army. In any case, the PML-N was, and is still largely treated and interpreted as a party of elite individuals, which is prone to factionalism, and may or may not agree with each other on every issue.
The second contradiction is perhaps more difficult to explain: The party is strongest in regions where army presence is strongest. To understand this point we have to realize that the army's political economy, especially in Punjab, is perhaps one of the biggest reasons why there is a PML-N support base in the first place. Urban development in the province is linked to the multiplier effects generated by cantonment development (Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Kharian, Gujranwala) or by direct army recruitment (Sargodha, Chakwal, Attock). It has helped in the creation of a middle class that associates itself more with the ideal of the army than with any political process or other institution of state power. So if these urban groups, middle class or otherwise, form the basis of PML-N's strength in the province, how can the official party line be something that violates a very fundamental political position held by its own constituency?
As of this moment, and it's already 12-20 am, I have two resolutions of this particular contradiction. The first is the army's expose as an incompetent institution, both in its Amreeki pithu (American lackey-ness) role, as well as its inaction during the Abbotabad operation and the violation of our maidenhood by American choppers, have allowed the Punjabi urban classes to properly question the military as an institution, as opposed to just one Army Chief/dictator. Anecdotal proof of this was that a couple of weeks after Osama's killing, I got a funny anti-army text message from one of my most reactionary and pro-army cousins. The more serious implication is that anti-Americanism in this particular class has reached a point where any association with the Americans is seen as a violation of national interest. Interestingly, along this time, the PML-N has rhetorically questioned American and multilateral assistance and has even gone as far as canceling aid agreements.
My second resolution stems directly from the role of the military in the economy and its development into an economic empire. The PML-N support and candidate base is filled with people who have a direct vested interest in the way the economy is run. They thrive on the expansion of their enterprises and businesses, and want to explore market opportunities, trade options, and employment potential. A segment that is so closely entrenched in both manufacturing as well as mercantile/business capital faces a direct battle of resources with the armed forces. If I run a textile unit and I don't get any electricity, but Fauji cotton mills gets uninterrupted electricity, and that too at subsidized rate, I will be miffed. Similarly, if I am a contractor and my greed thrives on an ability to gain construction tenders, and I see them all going to NLC or FWO, I will be miffed. This phenomenon is called the crowding out of private capital (small-scale businessmen/industrialists) by a monopolistic entity (army) and it results in the former feeling fairly aggrieved. Such a crowding out renders the sustaining of patronage networks increasingly difficult, something that the PML-N can't work without. At another level, increasing awareness about the military's financial and resource empire also makes average middle class people feel marginalized and discriminated against. The popular refrain that cantonments get electricity and nice roads etc., while the rest of the city gets to drink ditch water could very well be at play here.
These two factors, public perception about the army, and the nature of our political economy, have resulted in a certain degree of uncertainty about the political role that the institution plays in the minds of the PML-N supporters, and even their leadership. The question, however, remains that are these sufficient conditions to influence Nawaz Sharif, and the party at large, to confront the military on issues like foreign policy command and the defence budget, when a mis-perception could lead to the risk of being isolated and marginalized, both in the eyes of the establishment and in society?
Nawaz's position could very well be a flash-in-the-pan, done at the behest of some aspect of elite politics that we know nothing about. It could all be a larger game, or it could very well be nothing more than rhetoric. After all, Nawaz hasn't targeted the military's jihadi policy in the tribal areas or it's relationship with religion, and that could very well be because far-right elements are strategic assets for certain quarters of the PML-N as well.
But what we do know for sure is that this latest strand is confusing and not easily reducible to the personality and psyche of Nawaz Sharif and a couple of others. Our state is insulated, and to a degree, autonomous, but it is not functioning in a vacuum. It remains vulnerable to social shifts and transformations, and at the same time responds to, or confronts, these shifts as well. The interesting thing is that it is happening in Punjab, and this is probably what causes sleepless nights amongst the army high command. If the most popular leader of their biggest support and recruitment base can say these things, then it directly undercuts their social power by a great extent. What is happening right now, and I write this knowing full well that all of this could die down in a bit, is an example of a right-wing, conservative, and bigoted party taking a position that resonates with those amongst us who see the citizen-officer divide as the principal contradiction in the country. Whether elite politicking will put an end to this sooner or later is a temporal question, but right now, closer observations of the structure might reveal more about the internal fragmentation of the state, and the increasingly exposed fissures of the elite political domain, leading us to an improved understanding of state-society relations in the country.