Can Punjab show the way?


Punjab’s politics today resemble the old politics. These are: patron-client relationships, expedient political alliances, exploitation of biraderi networks and use of governmental institutions to do favours to friends
Punjab has changed a lot over the past two decades. In terms of economic growth, it is not the same as it used to be. The Green Revolution, industrial development, expansion of economic opportunity and remittances from the Gulf have changed its rural and urban landscape.
Lahore and other cities of Punjab with ever expanding housing schemes and industrial estates are just two signs of new economic dynamism of Punjab. On the individual and group level, people in Punjab seem to be more prosperous, happier and satisfied than people in other provinces of the country, with the exception of Karachi in Sindh.
Visible economic prosperity in Punjab, however, has neither changed the traditional power structure of the province, nor is there any indication that its social development corresponds with economic change.
The pace of social development and modernisation has remained stunted. Relative economic prosperity and the emergence of a rural middle-class have failed to pull Punjabi society out of the age-old caste and biraderi divisions, primordial loyalties and social prejudice. Religious conservatism has increased and with that sectarian intolerance and militancy.
I must caution the reader that putting the entire Punjab in one basket for social and political analysis would be erroneous. There are at least four Punjabs in terms of social structures, economic characteristics and political behaviour. For the sake of staying focused on what is going on in present-day Punjab, I don’t wish to elaborate on that and would like to leave it for another day.
The point that I wish to make is that economic prosperity has not translated into any meaningful change as yet. A conventional analysis of modernisation in traditional societies would see the two processes interconnected. But the empirical evidence from Pakistan and many other societies is quite different. Unless we devote our energies, resources and attention to social development, relative economic growth will not automatically produce social change and mobility. Here, intervention of the state and its capacity to provide good education, healthcare and equal access to services would be crucial. I am not sure if Punjab has the capacity or commitment for doing this.
Another lesson that we can learn from the experience of Pakistan is that with all the economic, industrial and technological achievements, the political dominance of traditional ruling classes has remained unchallenged. The sections of society that have benefited from modern education, economic opportunity and new professions have failed to make political inroads into the constituency of the traditional ruling elites. They could to it only through the vehicle of political parties, institutionalised politics and uninterrupted constitutionalism. These tools of political empowerment have never been free or freely accessible to the new classes. The old landowning classes continue to control and manipulate them to maintain their hold on political power.
It is quite obvious to any observer with a little common sense that in all features, Punjab’s politics today resemble the old politics. These are: patron-client relationships, expedient political alliances, exploitation of biraderi networks and use of governmental institutions to do favours to friends and make new political friends. In this respect, it seems the politics of Punjab has not changed since the introduction of electoral politics under the British rule.
Contrary to economic trends, these politics represent a throwback to conventional practices of intrigue, shifting alliances and co-optation of whomsoever is willing to join the gang. How can we explain this contradiction?
The answer lies in the political culture of Punjab, that values power, perks and influence more than principles. In the competitive social environment of Punjab, shaped by jealousy, rivalry and pride in being connected with power, nobody wants to be left out.
This is exactly what has transformed the Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif into the Muslim League, Quaid-i-Azam. Almost every member of Shahbaz Sharif’s ministry is now represented gleefully in the cabinet of Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, from Rajanpur in the south to Rawalpindi in the north. Is there any party that they were not members of at one time or another? Is there any government that they were not a part of? Is there any scam they or their elders haven’t been involved in? With very few noble exceptions, the political record of Punjab’s ruling elite, of changing loyalties and taking favours, is horrendous.
With old-style class-dominated politics in Punjab, can we expect a change in the style of governance, a developmental strategy, empowerment of people or improvement in the delivery of services? The leadership qualities and the style of politics don’t lead to much optimism.
Populism, that has always deflected our attention from understanding real issues and their resolution, is back in its place. The connections between the provincial and central government babus and the political class that undermined the autonomy and operation of governmental institutions, remain as firm as before. This is visible in development scams, corruption and misuse of funds at the district level. It is an open secret how the babus are using their links with members of national and provincial legislatures to get juicy postings and assignments to help themselves and their patrons.
Modern governance is about impartiality, justice and free access to all on the basis of equality. In the present Punjab, the reverse is true. You must be somebody, belong to a powerful clan, tribe, caste or biraderi and be good at exploiting these networks to get your legitimate work done in the government offices. And if you don’t, you must grease palms to get results.
I have always thought Punjab could lead the way to transforming relative economic prosperity into social change and political empowerment of the new middle-class. With every new government, with every fresh failure and with every new coalition of the old elites of Punjab, my hopes have faded. The old class is too self-centred, and in a way insecure and incompetent to exercise power for collective social ends. Power is not understood as a tool but rather as an end in itself, a symbol of status, reconfirmation of membership of the elite club and entitlement to public goods. That is what the old-style politics of Punjab have been.
Will it change? Yes, it will, but not without representation of the new middle-classes in the power structure of Punjab. There is strong scepticism about whether the landowning class’s narrow self-centeredness would allow it to chart a new course in governing Punjab. Their control of the district governments through devolution, suggests that they don’t respect the autonomy of governmental institutions, particularly that of the police department, and have used them for political ends.
Let us take education and health, two vital elements of social development. I don’t see any interest in or drive for reforming public education, which is in a state of paralysis in Punjab. Nor is there any inclination to reform the conduct of medical doctors on the official payrolls driving the patients to their private clinics.
We know the social mess we are in, and many competent Punjabis know how to get out of it, but they are on the fringes of power. For those in power, the shift from making private gain to serving public good is difficult, but that is what good politics are all about. I hope the Punjabi elites prove the sceptics wrong.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.