'It is usual to talk of a new government ‘taking power’ after an election. It is more accurate to say that it ‘takes office’. For most of the power in our society in fact lies elsewhere.’
These are the prophetic words of Chris Harman; from his book - ‘Why Labour Fails?’
In the said writing, he elaborates why the British Labour Party, even when in ‘power’, could not translate its ideology into practice. The lines quoted above, roughly summarise the arguments in the book.
It is a political fallacy to consider that a government takes complete power. Even those, who come through democratic methods, form only a part of an elaborate power structure.
This draws our attention, to the intricately webbed relations of power and patronage, which form the bedrock of political authority.
With this as a prelude, let us cross the Urals and reflect on our part of the world. Our political culture is still soaking in the idea of Messianism - Some person or party may take power, and almost like an enchantress, turn the whole social and political fabric upside down.
This is a dangerously flawed understanding of how governments are formed, and how they function. From such an ill diagnosis - will arise, only more ills. Our cinema is a case in point. It passionately displays such a disfigured understanding of politics.
Scenes well-depict popular imagination; with heads of state engaging in theatrical fist-fights with local hooligans, on the rooftop of public buses. More famously, machismo outlaws delivering their own form of rough justice; while the state looks helpless in preventing the spectacle. Desperate times, they suggest, require desperate measures.
That might be true. But, they surely do require a far better understanding of what causes that desperation. A Messianic solution to systemic problems may well result in a medicine, far worse than the disease. While the Stalins and the Hitlers of the world claimed mandates, to bring heaven on earth, they virtually always, as Karl Popper nails it, ended up creating hell.
We now understand (or proclaim to), that progress essentially involves:
1. Creation of wealth. 2. Equitable distribution of the wealth; thus created.
GDP as it is called – Countries need growth. They require wealth; which is nothing but the goods and services created - to increase manifold. Then, policies must ensure that the benefits of this newly created wealth are shared by all.
A State is supposed to invest in infrastructure, like transport and energy – so as to lay the groundwork for the economy to rise. Simultaneously, to invest heavily in Human Resources, like Education and Health; ensuring that the general populace reaps the benefits of the rising economy. Besides the usually mentioned Western World, countries like China and South Korea may serve as good examples.
In terms of International trade – countries need to produce goods and services, worth selling in the international market. This provides you with the necessary foreign exchange and stabilizes your currency. A healthy current account and trade balance ensures a stable economic order.
Greater technological innovations and industrialisation result in greater capital generation and job creation - Thus, a higher tax base – consequently, better government services and reduced poverty. As the currency gains strength, imports get cheaper, inflation remains under control – people afford better standards of living.
These are virtually economic truisms. For the time being, I shall not contest them. Rather, build my argument on them. These macroeconomic factors, we know, take long-term policies, and sufficient time and consistency to harvest.
It is more a matter of methodical calculations over the long term, than romantic populism in the short run. No wonder, we barely see any major differences in the macroeconomic policies of different groups that come to power.
When power changes hands, it looks like a theatre where the roles have only been switched; while the script remains the same. The opposition protests exactly what it did, while the government does exactly what it protested!
Take the example of Pakistan. Imran Khan came to power on a popular agenda of routing corruption. While not yielding defeat, in the 2013 Elections - He devised an age-old method of fielding, what he called ‘electables’ – no more than a euphemism for candidates who could muster local alliances, patronage, money, and power to get the required votes. Somehow, he catapulted himself into power.
His political rhetoric over the years was simple (also reductionist). Pakistan was rich in resources, but had been looted by a corrupt elite. Since I am not corrupt, he added - I will not only slay the demon of corruption (in 90 days, to quote him), but also build trust in public institutions. People will trust me with their money, as they did with my philanthropic projects.
The dismal tax base will be substituted with high revenues; which in turn, shall then be used for welfare programs. Looking at my honesty and effectiveness, the ‘Establishment’ will keep its tail down. The USA shall realise that they have no one to bribe, and turn our client relationship into a mutually beneficial friendship. Eureka!
Just within months of coming to power – everyone (including Imran Khan) realised that the solutions offered were no less dramatic, while based on a very flimsy understanding of how things actually work. Claiming to root out corruption and nepotism – Imran Khan by now, was surrounded by the same old faces (‘electables’), who appeared in previous regimes; both civilian as well as military. If the landed gentry and the business magnates had the muscle to put him in power, they could as well throw him out of it.
The ‘Establishment’ had its tail up as ever; knowing its role was essential in bringing, and making sure, Imran stays at the helm – they started making their terms clear. Out of power, he thundered that ‘begging’ for International Aid, was too dishonourable for him. In power, he moved from pillar to post; IMF to China, China to Saudi, for cheap loans and oil. As currency plummeted, inflation rose to new levels – Poverty increased.
Naya Pakistan was no more close to a ‘welfare state’, than in the previous regimes. Far from ending corruption, Pakistan ended lower on the corruption index of Transparency International. As FATF throttled it, Pakistan rarely found a friend for its cause.
Misgovernance became a virtual cliché for the workings of his government. The ‘Establishment’ had to strong-arm parliamentarians and media to get things done; until they themselves were fed up with the new order. Eventually out of power, Imran had to rebrand himself again – as a bulwark against American conspiracies.
Would he ever be able to bring any substantial reforms? History will judge! What is relevant for us in this context, is to understand how a State is essentially fleshed, and how it functions.
Also, we must not forget that the Post-Colonial States have their own exotic issues. A sound political analysis cannot afford to brush our historic contexts under the carpet.
To the credit of Hamza Alavi, he rightly identifies the Post-Colonial State as an ‘over-developed’ State; created by a foreign bourgeoisie, to control the natives. He writes,
The post-colonial society inherits that overdeveloped apparatus of state and its institutionalised practices through which the operations of the indigenous social classes are regulated and controlled.
A central piece in our puzzle, which has been conveniently overlooked!
Returning to our case study – The issues ran deeper than were thought. They could not be uprooted in ‘90 days’, that too with a coterie of people who formed a part of the endemic problem.
The lacklustre and unfinished land reforms still formed a formidable background in Pakistani politics. The urban middle class might shout loud, but rural ground realities displayed quite a different electoral bargaining.
This itself was partly embedded in the religious culture, which had stalled land reforms; mainly capitalising on its supra-state street power, to which rulers repeatedly bowed down. In the world of Knowledge Economy, Pakistan was being sustained by remittances.
With political patronages, systemic corruption, rampant poverty, ever-increasing intolerance and extremism, a state within a state ‘Establishment’ – the political fabric was discovered to be far more complicated than what Imran had thought, or feigned to have thought.
More needs to be said about systemic corruption, far from an aberration, which mauls developing countries. Much more needs to be said on grass-root movements; that virtually go unnoticed by the bourgeoisie media. Not to talk of the bureaucracy - ‘The Steel Frame of the Raj’.
Also, of extreme importance is the chasm, which exists between the developed and the developing world. Most importantly, the concept of development itself, which has taken a highly neo-liberal and consumerist tone. That shall have to wait for another day.
However, I may conclude that political reforms/revolutions require not superficial populism, but a deep understanding of the socio-politico-economic workings of states and societies. In the least, it enables us to draw a line between what is genuine and the polished façade. To miss the point is to miss the mark. To quote Mark Twain (on a different subject though),
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.