Everyday struggles

If you happened to have been passing by the Punjab Assembly in Lahore earlier this week, you would have been met with what has become an increasingly familiar sight – a massive traffic jam caused by a protest outside the building. However, unlike the past couple of months, where a sit-in organised by religious organisations campaigning on the issue of Khatm-e-Nabuwat attracted a considerable amount of attention from both the government and the media, the protest taking place this week was noticeable for the complete and total lack of coverage it received, as well as the apparent indifference with which the state responded to it. The reason for this was immediately apparent; unlike the more high profile protests and demonstrations of the recent past, which have focused either on issues relating to religion or the ongoing attempts by various opposition groups to attack the government on the alleged corruption of the Sharif family, the demonstration that blocked traffic this week was held by women health workers who had participated in the government’s anti-dengue drive, and who claimed that they had not been paid for months. Given that the protest involved an issue that did not immediately endanger the position or legitimacy of the government, and given that it was not related to the inflammatory question of the role of religion in public life, it was met with a expected shrug of the shoulders that has come to define the official response these kinds of concerns.

While the government may treat the concerns of unpaid workers as being marginal to its own broader agenda, the reality is that these everyday problems and struggles, when aggregated, help to both diagnose and explain one of the fundamental problems at the heart of governance in Pakistan; for all the emphasis on large infrastructure projects, macro-level indicators of ‘growth’, and big debates over democratisation and the civil-military balance, there is a basic disconnect between state and citizen in the Land of the Pure. Across the country, it is not difficult to find evidence of the government’s failure; from unpaid public sector workers hired on a contractual basis with no job security to workers in factories enjoying little, if any, workplace protections, from religious minorities being besieged by hatred and intolerance to ethnic groups chafing under their perceived and real marginalisation in the broader body politic, and from entire families being ground down by mass poverty to entire swathes of the population lacking access to adequate healthcare and sanitation, what emerges is a picture of the state that has done little to pursue and protect the interests of its citizens.

The reasons for the existence of this state-citizen disconnect are not too difficult to discern. For one, it could be argued that the government’s priorities are completely out of sync with the needs of the people. By directing a tremendous amount of energy towards its own survival, and by harbouring a fixation with mega-projects that arguably divert resources away from more urgent and pressing concerns, it could be said that the problems faced by the citizenry are at least partially rooted in bad policymaking. However, this raises an additional question; if the problem is policy then why is it that the government remains unresponsive to demands for better or alternative policies. Here also, the cause is easy to identify; a combination of centralised and authoritarian decision-making institutions (even during periods of democracy) combined with the existence of a largely unaccountable and oligopolistic political elite adept at working the levers of patron-client politics to remain in power creates the conditions under which truly responsive and participatory policymaking takes a backseat to the pursuit of personal gain and parochial interests.

While it may be tempting to lay the blame for all of this at the feet of, say, the PML-N, seeing as how it is the party in power at the federal level, the truth is that all of the mainstream parties, as well as their provincial governments, are characterised by the same structural flaws. This is precisely why, contrary to the narrative these parties often propagate in the media, it is clear that most Pakistanis continue to suffer from a lack of basic public services and economic opportunity while also enjoying inadequate protection of their fundamental rights as citizens. What this also implies is that again, contrary to what is often said at rallies and sit-ins, there is little reason to believe that parties promising hope and change possess both the will and the means through which to deliver on such claims.

This is ultimately problematic because an inability to cater to the basic needs of the people is what delegitimises governments and creates the conditions under which people become disillusioned and even radicalised. Not paying public sector workers who fight dengue may not seem like the biggest issue currently facing Pakistan but it and similar problems combine to foster the broader discontent, frustration, and anger that often characterise political and social life in Pakistan, While there is an argument to be made that allowing the democratic process to unfold organically, by letting governments complete their tenures and supporting democratic institutions when they are used to resolve disputes and hold those in power accountable, will eventually foster better governance, it is also clear that meaningful and substantive change cannot be possible without a different kind of mass politics predicated not on stoking the fires of bigotry and hatred, as is done by the Religious Right, but by endorsing and campaigning on a progressive platform that places questions of economic and social justice at its core. Pakistan urgently needs a revival of this kind of politics, and those interested in seeing the country prosper would do well to recognise the limitations of the parties and organisations that currently dominate the public discourse, and focus instead on supporting movements and activists working to radically alter the status quo.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.


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