The Politics of Identity in Pakistan

This is a companion piece to The Politics of Identity in which we outlined the views of Professor Stanley Fish on identity politics. In this post we present a critique of Professor Fish’s analysis, apply his framework to politics in Pakistan, and try to demonstrate the importance of context in such matters. 

Professor Fish’s articulation of identity politics is most easily understood in the concrete context of the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. An ideal non-identity voter would be one who behaves as if he or she is completely unaware of the “skin color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other marker [of identity]” of the two candidates. The voter (visualized as an abstract “citizen”) selects the candidate best qualified to lead the country and advance the policies (say on the war in Iraq, the Middle East, immigration, free trade, abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.) compatible with the citizen’s judgment of what is best for the future of the country.

On the other hand, there can be two types of identity voters. To simplify, if a black voter votes for Obama or a female voter votes for Clinton, independently of any consideration of their leadership ability or position on issues, the voter is practicing “tribal” identity politics. However, if a female voter votes for Clinton because she feels the interests of women have been neglected in American politics and a female President would best redress the imbalance, the voter is practicing “interest” identity politics.

Professor Fish argues that “interest” identity politics is acceptable because it is based on a process of reasoning (“that because of his or her race or ethnicity or gender a candidate might pursue an agenda that would advance the interests a voter is committed to”). The crux of his argument is contained in the following paragraph:

[Your vote] will always be in the service of some set of policies you either favor or reject. It is those policies, not the probity of their proposer, that you will be voting for. (If your candidate is also a good person, that’s a nice bonus, but it isn’t the essential thing.) You will be voting, in short, for interests, and those who do not have an investment in those interests will be voting for someone else…. And that is why identity interests, as long as they are ideological and not merely tribal, constitute a perfectly respectable reason for awarding your vote.

This provides us the opening to question Professor Fish’s analysis. If a voter always votes “in the service of some set of policies you either favor or reject,” what is the set of policies that the “tribal” voter is voting for? The “tribal” voter is really a straw woman because it is hard to argue that a female candidate would advance a female voter’s “interests” even if the candidate’s positions on the interests were diametrically opposed to those of the voter. The argument can only hold with a very unnatural, tortured and irrational definition of “interests” which contradicts Professor Fish’s own model of the voter.

The starting point in this analysis has to be the conceptualization of the voter and the only one that can be supported (at least till it is disproved) is that the voter is rational and votes to advance his or her interests. From such a starting point, there can be no such thing as the purely “tribal” voter.

Now let us apply this framework to Pakistan and we would be able to see the importance of the context immediately. Professor Fish equates a voter’s “interests” with the set of policies that the voter favors. This is perfectly correct in the context of American politics but very debatable in the Pakistani one. (This is not a critique of Professor Fish who was writing about the American context.) The Pakistani reader would not need much convincing on this observation but may still benefit from a discussion of the reasons for the divergence.

A good explanation could rely on the articulation of the hierarchy of needs by Abraham Maslow in 1943. To simplify, Maslow postulated that human beings had a hierarchy of needs – at the bottom were the needs of survival (physiological and security needs) and at the top were the needs of esteem and self-actualization. The important point in the hypothesis was that lower order needs had to be satisfied first before an individual could devote attention to higher order needs.

Now, in the case of the typical American voter, the lower order needs have long been met and he or she is operating at the level where “interests” can rightly be equated with self-actualization and thus with the choice of policies. In the Pakistani case, the majority of voters are still grappling with issues of survival (food, housing, jobs, security, justice) and their “interests” are quite naturally concerned with these issues.

In such a situation the rational voter is seeking a representative who would best ensure his or her survival needs. And it often turns out to be the case that the representative who shares an identity with the voters (usually in terms of clan or caste) is most empathetic to their needs. A winning candidate in the recent Pakistani elections articulated this best when he said that his unwavering support rests on the fact that he shares the “joys and sorrows” of his constituents.

This “joy and sorrow” model represents a completely different political context. Note that the candidate doesn’t attribute his strength to how well he represents the political choices of his constituents. Indeed, the candidate has no consistent set of policy positions – he continuously shifts his party loyalties to be on the winning team. And this too makes sense because he can deliver most to his constituents (in terms of jobs, justice, security, etc.) when he is a part of the ruling group. And his constituents admire his political skill in always being able to guess right or to work his way into the right camp.

So, the bottom line is that in the Pakistani context the voter remains very rational and practices “interest” identity politics except that the “interests” are not related to policies. Looking at it from another perspective, it explains the virtually complete absence of the politics of ideas or policies in Pakistan. Neither the candidates nor the voters (nor indeed the parties) have policies as the principal focus of their “interests.”

In fact, in a socioeconomic situation like that of Pakistan, electoral politics repeatedly morphs into a variant of patron-client politics. Constituents seek the strongest local patron aligned to the ruling coalition they can elect (which is where choosing right matters since a patron aligned with the opposition has diminished powers of patronage) to serve their “interests” that are dominated by the needs of survival. In such a situation, it is not possible to separate the role of the patron from the role of the political representative. Only when survival needs are satisfied, and a patron becomes redundant, does the realm of ideas assume an independent identity and rational voters vote for candidates who best represent their policy preferences.

We end with the following bottom line: Voters are rational everywhere; interests are contextual everywhere; the nature of interests drives the nature of politics; and Professor Fish has been unfair to tribes — the tribal is not irrational.

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  • Hafeez Jamali
    Posted at 03:01h, 03 March Reply

    This is a brief comment/critique in response to your reading of Prof. Stanely Fish (henceforth SF) . These are random thoughts so they lack formal coherence, unity or focus for which I apologize in advance.

    I find very welcome your attempt at defending the position of “the tribal” which I think is a gesture in the right direction. In particular I agree with you that the so-called “tribal” functions as a mere straw-man in SF’s argument. However, I find it problematic that while grasping the ‘rationality’ of the Pakistani voter as being different from SF’s beloved liberal citizen, your argument is still inscribed within the political frame of the liberal state and does not seem to acknowledge the politics of difference and historicity of social-political developments in Pakistan. I think it is important to make this distinction because liberal notions of citizenship and rationality- including it’s specific articulation in terms of how voters should elect their representatives- are a provincial concept specific to the historical development of Europe and European diaspora countries like the US, Canada, etc. (even though they assume the outward or rhetorical form of governments in the global South). When SF raises this argument to judge how the black or female voter would respond, he is relying on the supposed universalism of notions of liberal citizen-subject. The underlying liberal suspicion lurking in this argument is that the other- the woman or the black- is not ‘tutored’ or civilized enough to vote in a way consistent with liberal citizenship. Notice that the question of how the White male voter behaves or might behave recedes into the background (perhaps because it is taken as the normative standard). It is easy to see, as you seem to observe very well, that this line of thinking would conveniently dub, devalue and demote voting behaviors in Pakistan.

    However, your own reply has some lacunae. In stating that voters are rational everywhere, you seem to be subscribing to the same notion of universal liberal rationalism where, perhaps, it would be more appropriate to declare that the Pakistani, Indian, etc. voter has a different and equally valid rationality based on his/her own particular historical experience, situation, way of being in the world, etc. which is different from the rationality of the Euro-American voter. This refusal to acknowledge the particularity of the liberal/ Euro-American voter then forces you to invoke social-psychological arguments like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which I find less relevant. The Maslowian argument suggests that, perhaps, the Pakistani ‘tribal’ voter has not reached a particular “stage of development” which the American voter has and s/he is, to that extent, inferior to the American voter or lagging behind. It takes away from a number of historical development which apply to various degrees in different parts of Pakistan/ South Asia: that the decisions of the American voters to elect leaders with imperial ambitions have consistently resulted in the denial of the right to vote to the Pakistani voter; that the advancement of a neoliberal structural reform agenda by American political leadership have generated such rampant poverty in Pakistan in the last 10-15 years that the Pakistani voter has been left with few alternatives; and the more fundamental issue of the emergence of local strongmen favored by the colonial state (that was run on behalf to the ‘liberal’ governments in London). In other words, the premature death of ideological politics in Pakistan which you seem to lament was not a result of lack of access to food and clean drinking water for the Pakistani voter. It was, instead, a direct consequence of the historical legacy of colonial rule- as reflected in the behavior of military, bureaucratic and political elites in the immediate post-colonial period- and the dictatorship-friendly foreign policies pursued by the so-called ‘liberal’ states. These led both to the displacement, co-optation and death of ideological politics as well as the growing lack of access to basic necessities of life and gainful employment for a large majority of Pakistani people.

    Lastly, if we abandoned the Maslowian argument for a moment, we can interpret recent election results in Pakistan in a different light. We observe that overwhelmingly the vast majority of semi-literate Pakistani voters have rejected ruling party candidates who would, by the narrow definition of objective self-interest, be in their interest to have elected. First, the greatest power on the planet lent its support to General Musharraf and his agenda coupled with billions of dollars in financial aid. Secondly, there was threat of use of force- which was carried out in many instances- by the goons of ruling party, police and the ever-ready Nazims. Lastly, ruling party candidates such as Sheikh Rashid had done a lot of development work in their constituencies and promised to dole out more public works and money if they got elected. Yet in spite of this, the large majority of Pakistani voters rejected these people. So we need to be cautious while advancing social-psychological arguments for explaining the behavior of Pakistan voter and look more closely at the particular historical circumstances, recent and distant ones, to account for this.

    Kind Regards.

    Hafeez Jamali.
    Graduate Student,
    Department of Anthropology
    University of Texas at Austin.

    • Wali Jamali
      Posted at 14:11h, 22 December

      Great Response. Balanced Approach is verily required.

      Wali Jamali
      PIDE, Islamabad

  • bilalsarwari
    Posted at 08:05h, 01 June Reply

    Well, every time we listen many news related to Pakistan budget, it is one of the hottest event in Pakistan, many country have eyes on it, many politicians make drama jokes on it which creates bad image, Pakistan facing many kind of problems not external but also internal, Shaukat Tareen is one of the legend and educated person, I hope that he will bring the best polices for our country that we are looking for!

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 03:51h, 02 June Reply

    It is true that every year the budget is the hottest item in the news for a while. The budget should be an opportunity to align revenue and spending priorities to help the majority of people in Pakistan. The questions we need to answer are the following:

    1. Why do the budgets make so little difference to the lives of the majority?
    2. Why does the majority not protest more against the impotence of the budgets?

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