There are three types of anti-establishment politics in Pakistan: 1) ‘co-opting’ establishment, 2) ‘containing’ establishment and 3) challenging the hegemony of establishment.
By Dr Danish Khan
The year 2022 has been tumultuous for Pakistani politics. Only a year ago, PTI was one of the political symbols of the ‘establishment’ but in the span of few months it has become the most vocal critic of the security establishment. As a student of Pakistan’s political economy, I believe it is important to deconstruct the simplistic label of ‘anti-establishment’ politics at this critical juncture.
Historically, a catchall term ‘anti-establishment’ has been used to club together different strands of anti-establishment politics in Pakistan. I argue that a singular notion of ‘anti-establishment’ politics is not useful anymore to make sense of the underlying contradictions of Pakistani politics. Therefore, I propose a new typology to better conceptualize different strands of anti-establishment politics in Pakistan.
I argue that there are three types of anti-establishment politics in Pakistan, and I refer to them as ‘Three C’s’: 1) ‘Co-opting’ establishment, 2) ‘Containing’ establishment and 3) Challenging the hegemony of establishment (‘Counter-hegemonic politics’). There can be internal heterogeneities within each typology but overall, each typology captures some core features which makes them distinct from each other. Moreover, each typology is derived from the historical and contemporary political and ideological struggles in Pakistan.
Co-opting establishment is a brand of anti-establishment politics which does not find any issues with the hegemonic status and the dominance of the establishment over politics, economics and the state, instead, it wants establishment to use its power and hegemony for their political cause. In other words, this brand of anti-establishment politics is not about restricting the extra-constitutional role of establishment, i.e., upholding civic liberties, democratic norms and constitutional rule, instead, it wants establishment to use its de facto power to further a particular set of ideological and political interests. In 1970s PPP’s Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto tried to co-opt establishment. In 1990s Nawaz Sharif of PML-N tried to co-opt establishment. Today, the strategy of co-opting establishment is spearheaded by PTI. Since early 2022 PTI has publicly criticized establishment for not protecting them against the ‘vote of no confidence’ in the parliament. PTI is using religious and ultra-nationalist/jingoistic overtures to co-opt the establishment and it wants establishment to pressurize the PDM government to hold early elections. Despite the recent heated exchanged between PTI and the top leadership of establishment, PTI is reluctant to criticize establishment for its alleged role in the case of missing persons or its crackdown in ethnic peripheries. Not to mention, PTI still praises the era of former military dictators such as General Ayub Khan and General Pervez Musharaff. This is tied to the fact that PTI wants establishment to be on its side and use its hegemonic power against PTI’s political opponents. Although, co-opting establishment is a form of anti-establishment politics but it is not necessarily centered on the notion of promoting pluralistic democracy. In fact, it is more likely to pave the way for civilian autocratic rule in Pakistan.
One of the biggest advantages of deconstructing anti-establishment politics in terms of three Cs makes visible that ‘anti-establishment’ politics cannot be an ‘end’ in itself rather it should be a ‘mean’ to an end, and that, is building a democratic, inclusive and progressive Pakistan.
Containing establishment is a distinct brand of anti-establishment politics but it has some things in common with the strategy of co-opting establishment. For example, the strategy of ‘containing establishment’ does not challenge the hegemony of the military over economy or state. Instead, what differentiates it from ‘co-opting establishment’ strategy is the former’s emphasis on restricting the role of establishment in the mainstream political arena. In other words, the politics of ‘containing establishment’ wants establishment to stop picking winners and losers in the mainstream polity but does not challenge establishment’s role as long as it does not directly hurt their political interests. As a result, this brand of anti-establishment politics tends to be indifferent against the crackdown of establishment on critical progressive voices or ethno-nationalists in the peripheries of Pakistan. The strategy of ‘containing establishment’ is associated with today’s PML-N and PPP. On the one hand, PPP and PML-N are willing to work with diverse political stakeholders to forge a consensus among the civilian polity on core issues (e.g., 18th Amendment) but at the same time they want to ‘accommodate’ the establishment by accepting their hegemonic status. There can be some democratic gains but they can be easily reversed as the establishment is likely to remain the dominant actor under this brand of anti-establishment politics.
Third brand of anti-establishment politics is what I call Counter-hegemonic politics. It problematizes the hegemonic status of the establishment not just in politics but also in the economic sphere. It wants establishment to roll back its interference from all spheres of society and the state, and let the collective will of the people via its elected representatives revisit the national security paradigm. In other words, this brand of anti-establishment politics consistently challenges and criticizes the excesses of the establishment irrespective of who is on the receiving end of the establishment. It wants establishment to take its constitutional role in letter and spirit and respect the democratic and human rights of every Pakistani irrespective of their religion, faith, political affiliation and ethnicity. In my understanding, there is not a single mainstream political party in Pakistan which can be associated with this strand of anti-establishment politics. Instead, there is a rich history and tradition of progressive grassroots political parties, academics, journalists and civil society activists who are associated with the politics of ‘challenging establishment’. I argue that this brand of politics, despite being on the fringes, has advanced the cause of democracy and constitutional rule in Pakistan by pushing both the mainstream political parties and the establishment to reconsider some of their positions.
A good starting point for PTI would be to publicly commit that if it returns to power, it will not use state’s coercive power (in sharp contrast to what PTI did from 2018-22) to repress its critics and political opponents.
In short, it is time to go beyond the simplistic notion of ‘anti-establishment’ politics by acknowledging and recognizing the diversity and plurality of anti-establishment approaches: Co-opting, Containing and Challenging the hegemony of the establishment. One of the biggest advantages of deconstructing anti-establishment politics in terms of three Cs makes visible that ‘anti-establishment’ politics cannot be an ‘end’ in itself rather it should be a ‘mean’ to an end, and that, is building a democratic, inclusive and progressive Pakistan.
This requires a broader consensus among civilian polity on central tenets of democratic rule and inclusive governance. First and foremost, civilian polity, in general and PTI in particular, needs to get over its ultimate desire of ‘co-opting’ establishment for their narrow political interests. A good starting point for PTI would be to publicly commit that if it returns to power, it will not use state’s coercive power (in sharp contrast to what PTI did from 2018-22) to repress its critics and political opponents. Similarly, it is high time for PML-N and PPP to not resort to coercive apparatus of the state machinery but rather acknowledge and defend the democratic rights of their own critics, i.e., PTI and pro-PTI media. History of Pakistan is a testament to the fact that the strategy of ‘co-opting’ establishment is unlikely to yield outcomes which will lead to strengthening of democracy in Pakistan.
Although it seems unlikely at this stage but PTI, PML-N and PPP may eventually realize that they have no option but to sit together alongside other political stakeholders from ethnic peripheries to forge a broader consensus on the rules of the political game. Until then we are likely to witness nothing but merry go round of Pakistani politics.__Courtesy The Friday Times
(This artical is originally published in The Friday Times on 29th October 2022)