Friday, November 02, 2007

The Urban-Rural Divide in Pakistan

The urban-rural divide
By Ayesha Siddiqa: Dawn, Nov 2, 2007

MANY Pakistanis today are extremely upset with the return of Benazir Bhutto and the National Reconciliation Ordinance which, in their view, defeats the purpose of curbing corruption in the country. Why did General Musharraf destabilise a civilian government, start corruption cases against the politicians and force them into exile, and spend government money on establishing institutions such as the National Accountability Bureau if he had to eventually retreat?

Notwithstanding the fact that he is master of retreat, the NRO further deepens doubts in the minds of many regarding the credibility of the political leadership. Such sceptics were extremely perturbed to see hundreds and thousands of people come out to receive Benazir Bhutto. So, Oct 18 added to the confusion in the minds of the people.

What the sceptics must understand is not just the incapacity of the regime but also the fact that corruption does not necessarily have any impact on the choices which people eventually make in selecting their leaders in elections.

It is hoped that the GHQ will understand this reality and not bother with using this justification to sack governments next time it wants to do so. People are mainly concerned about which party or politician has the capacity to deliver certain services such as access to the local administration as well as access to the police, jobs etc. Issues pertaining to financial or political corruption (signing a deal with a general) will not ultimately decide whether people vote for Bhutto or not.

The people’s reaction to corruption or methods of defining credibility of the politicians also depicts the urban-rural divide. There are more urban people, especially the middle class educated ones who have access to national resources through the government or the market, who are concerned about corruption and the credibility of the political leadership, although they do not have any choice in terms of better options. Still, in all probability, this class of people will not leave the comfort of their homes to stand in a queue to cast their vote. But they will crib at home about the pathetic nature of politics.

Then there are people belonging to the lower classes in the cities who will go and vote depending on how active their party of choice and its leaders are in taking them to the polling stations. Many of these people are committed to ideological agendas and are diehard supporters of the PPP and PML-N. Then there is the 67 per cent population in the rural areas that is not bothered with the middle class’s definition of credibility. This is the segment which has an important role to play in the next elections.

The political perspective of the rural voter is quite different from the lower class, committed voter from the urban centres. While the poor city dweller gets excited by slogans of social equality and expectation of better socio-economic opportunities, the rural voter calculates from the standpoint of the general norm of the political system. This means that this voter responds to a patronage-based political system in which each party provides facilities and rewards to its workers and supporters.

This has nothing to do with the villagers’ lack of education and more with his sharp perception of socio-political realities. Perhaps, the village folk are sharper in their calculation of what they want and how to get it. The rural people know that Pakistani politics is all about patronage where reputation is not based on how clean you have been but on how much you can deliver to your constituents.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise because all powerful groups provide patronage to their members. The military and civil bureaucracy provides patronage to its members and cronies. Similarly, all political parties have their own clientele. The problem, in fact, is that the common man has fewer benefits and little access to the trickle-down of resources under bureaucratic governments. Such governments put up a show of deciding things on merit which means that there are fewer openings for the common man who cannot boast of academic or other credentials.

Political parties, because they depend on the support of voters, have to provide opportunities to their supporters. Furthermore, political parties are comparatively less pretentious about merit than bureaucratic governments. Although there is no evidence that governments run by bureaucrats or technocrats care more for merit, they generally pretend to be meritocracies which means that their patronage is limited to a select group of people and not the general public. The typical cronies of bureaucratic regimes (civil and military) are the fairly educated middle class.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that so many people turned up at Bhutto’s reception at the airport. Many more will probably vote for her, especially if General Musharraf takes off his uniform. His act will strengthen the public perception that Benazir Bhutto is powerful and could win elections as well which, in turn, would mean that she would be in a position to bring benefits to her clientele. The rural voters, particularly in Punjab and Sindh, appear to be impressed by this fact more than anything else.

An educated middle class Pakistani will probably say that these simpletons vote because they are uneducated and cannot free themselves from the clutches of the feudal. But then this is not the trap laid by just the feudal elite. Feudalism has permeated all organisations and social levels in the country.

Moreover, the ‘simpletons’ realise that this is essentially a bureaucratic state where the only merit pertains to an individual’s ability to twist the law and provide its clients access to the resources of the state. The efficient civil and military bureaucrat will never allow the system of governance to function in a manner so that the common man is freed from the clutches of the feudal. So, why blame the simple people of this country or get upset about their lack of education? Their decisions are actually pretty good and serve their purpose.The story does not end here. The politicians or the bureaucrats cannot continue to ignore the need for bringing about some change. Demography is an important indicator for all to worry about. In the past 60 years, there has been rapid movement from the villages to the cities resulting in the reduction of open spaces in big towns.

Unlike the past, when those living in rural areas constituted 80 per cent of the population, the figure now is 67 per cent. Reports indicate that the urban population is going to increase even further in the coming years. This means that there is greater pressure for basic facilities, health, education, sanitation and others in the urban centres.

Furthermore, the movement is not necessarily positive because it is an indicator of growing poverty in rural areas and depletion of human resource in villages where people are needed to keep the agrarian economy alive. The urban centres are expanding without necessarily leading to an increase in job opportunities.

If the government stops hiding unemployment figures, it would know that the movement towards towns is fraught with numerous challenges. The unemployed, ill-fed, ill-trained, uneducated and unhealthy youth will become more sceptical of the government, political parties and leadership.The vote bank of a party will not necessarily increase or remain constant if it does not deliver in urban areas and fails to change the system which means getting rid of patronage. The obvious threat is that this population will consider extreme options if no one else seems to care for them.

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