This article presents a political economy explanation of ongoing institutional recalibrations in Pakistan. In particular, it critically scrutinises the notion of the establishment’s ‘neutrality’ in the political sphere, which may seem puzzling on the surface – for both supporters and critics of the establishment.
In the mainstream imaginary of Pakistan, recent changes in the political landscape are primarily explained through the agency of one or more powerful individuals. Without discounting the agency of individuals, this article presents an alternative explanation rooted in the socio-institutional structures and class dynamics of the country.
The notion of establishment cannot be reduced to an individual(s). Because at a conceptual level, ‘establishment’ is an abstract representation of the hegemonic socio-institutional and economic order. In Pakistan, to state the obvious, its concrete manifestation is through the persona of top bureaucrats of the state institutions. But it is important to go underneath the surface and elaborate the broader logic of the establishment’s role in Pakistan. In terms of the establishment’s functionality, one of the defining aspects of the Pakistani establishment is that it enjoys the de facto power to veto who can be the de jure ruler of the country.
This forces us to ask: who regulates the behaviour of the establishment? There can be multiple factors but the most dominant factor is the ‘Economy.’ In particular, we refer here to the economic structure and economic performance that regulates the decision making of the establishment. In other words, the establishment operates within the constraints of the prevailing economic structures of Pakistan
But at the same time, the establishment does not have absolute power over rest of the society. History is full of incidences where progressive forces of the country have stood up against the hegemonic rule of the establishment. In fact, one can also cite multiple junctures where the establishment had to concede to mainstream sociopolitical actors, e.g., the rise of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto through a mass-based political movement, as well as the resurgence of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif despite their past public quarrels with the establishment.
This forces us to ask: who regulates the behaviour of the establishment? There can be multiple factors but the most dominant factor is the ‘Economy.’ In particular, we refer here to the economic structure and economic performance that regulates the decision making of the establishment. In other words, the establishment operates within the constraints of the prevailing economic structures of Pakistan. And in order to maintain its hegemonic status, it has to incorporate the impact of the prevailing economic situation in its decision-making, especially in the realm of ‘politics’. In other words, my argument is that the establishment is highly sensitive to processes of economic development in Pakistan. As one of the most powerful and well-endowed actors, it has one of the biggest stakes in the country’s economic development. And whenever the economy tanks, it is not just the ordinary Pakistanis who suffer, but the establishment also tend to struggle. Economic slowdown translates into a rise in poverty, unemployment and food insecurity for ordinary Pakistanis. On the other hand, economic downturn for the establishment implies disruption in processes of capital accumulation and instability in the prevailing political settlement.
The stability of the prevailing ‘political settlement’ is intricately tied to processes of capital accumulation. Political settlement is not just about who is inside the ruling coalition, but it is also about who is kept outside. In any ‘political settlement,’ the role of horizontal distribution of power – i.e. the power of excluded coalitions relative to the ruling coalition – is critical.
Now, the political dispensation which emerged in 2018 gave rise to a new political settlement in Pakistan, often referred to as the ‘hybrid regime’. The creation of the hybrid regime was a high-risk strategy for the establishment.
I call it a ‘high-risk’ strategy because it excluded the single largest political stakeholder of Punjab’s politics, and two of the most organised politico-religious forces of the country, i.e., PML-N and JUI-F, respectively. In other words, the birth of the hybrid regime in 2018 gave rise to a strong horizontal distribution of power in the country. Strong horizontal distribution of power means that the ruling coalition is likely to face a constant threat and instability, as excluded groups try to destabilise the ruling coalition. Therefore, such a high-risk move is only worth it if it can yield high-rewards. And by ‘high rewards’ I mean smooth and rapid capital accumulation which can allow the ruling coalition to widely distribute rents across its supporters.
Further, to keep the horizontally excluded groups at bay, the ruling coalition must ensure that the living standards of its core constituency improve—in the case of the hybrid regime in Pakistan, it was the middle- and high-income urban classes.
It seems that – for the lack of a better word – a ‘new’ political settlement is going to emerge in Pakistan, irrespective of the outcome of the vote of no confidence against PM Imran Khan
Due to a combination of endogenous and exogenous factors, the economic situation of Pakistan has deteriorated in the past four years. This has given powerful ammunition to horizontally excluded groups to up the ante – not only against the ruling party but against the prevailing ‘political settlement’, e.g., Nawaz Sharif’s public critique of the de facto centres of power.
A deteriorating economic situation alongside the expansion of the horizontally excluded groups have played a central role in establishment’s decision to reconsider and eventually recuse itself from footing the bill of the PTI government. In other words, the establishment has opted for ‘strategic neutrality’ and it should not be conflated with ‘unconditional neutrality.’ In the Gramscian sense, I would refer to ‘strategic neutrality’ as the politics of the common sense, i.e., the establishment ‘strategically’ takes a backseat to cut its losses.
By no means is this the first instance where the establishment has taken the route of strategic neutrality in Pakistan’s history. In fact, whenever economic situation becomes gloomy, and the horizontally excluded groups gain steam, the establishment seems to not hesitate at all to publicly delink itself from the de jure ruler(s). Recall the ouster of Pervez Mushraf and Ayub Khan.
It seems that – for the lack of a better word – a ‘new’ political settlement is going to emerge in Pakistan, irrespective of the outcome of the vote of no confidence against PM Imran Khan. Therefore, it is important to discuss how strategic neutrality might play out in the future.
From the above discussion, one may incorrectly infer that the establishment optimises economic development, and therefore, any political government which can deliver ‘good’ economic performance can remain on the ‘same page’ with the establishment. This assumption is quite prevalent among the mainstream political parties of Pakistan, and it needs to be taken with the grain of salt because processes of rapid economic development produce their own problems. The most obvious one entails the question of distribution: i.e. how to distribute the gains of economic growth and development. The establishment may not see eye to eye with the political government on the issue of distribution of economic resources, e.g. the 18th constitutional amendment.
The establishment knows that it is the most powerful actor within the country, and therefore it may demand – or rather, it may assume that it deserves – a continuously increasing share in the economic pie. A political government has two options: concede and give whatever establishment wants, or refuse.
Now, the first case scenario – where the political government concedes to the demands of establishment – can potentially disrupt the ecosystem of economic development, as rapid capital accumulation requires reinvestment and reallocation of resources towards productive and efficient sectors of the economy rather than distributing cheap rents.
The second case scenario — where the political government refuses to distribute rents to establishment — may create fissures between the political government and establishment, which can lead to political instability. This political instability can disrupt or even halt processes of economic development. And then the cycle repeats itself, i.e., old political settlement is replaced by the new one.
Therefore, I argue that as long as power asymmetry prevails within the de jure and de facto centres of power in Pakistan, the prospects of rapid economic development – let alone inclusive development – remain vulnerable to shocks.