India’s democracy functions because of caste. The basis of voting is not issues or ideology, as in European democracies, but the preference for one’s own. Is Pakistan different? We’ll discuss that later, but first let’s demonstrate the assertion.
The BJP is seen as an ideological party, but it isn’t. It is the party of Lingayats in Karnataka, Patels in Gujarat and Rajputs in Rajasthan. The votes of these castes keep it in power. Its voters in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the upper castes, who are few. This puts BJP behind the more numerous caste formations. the peasant Yadavs and Muslims in Mulayam Singh’s and Laloo Yadav’s parties, and the Dalits in Mayawati‘s party. No caste is more than a fifth of the population and so alliances are necessary.
The Congress is India’s only ecumenical party. It is genuinely above region, caste and religion. But even Congress is forced to pick candidates on the basis of caste because Indians stubbornly vote for their own rather than for issues.
Now let’s look across the border. Pakistan has not had many proper elections so there is limited data on its pattern of voting. I don’t know of any psephologists on Pakistan’s television channels who have the expertise that Indian psephologists have. Certainly none have the experience.
In its first general election, 1971, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto won in west Pakistan and Mujib-ur-Rehman swept the east. The Bengalis clearly voted for identity, but what about Punjabis and Sindhis?
I would say that they voted for identity too. 1971 is the only time that a party won a plurality of seats in both Sindh and Punjab. Why?
This was an election fought in West Pakistan on three issues: Against the Bengali’s separatism, against Hindu India (Bhutto’s popularity in Punjab came from his opposition to what Pakistanis saw as Ayub’s sell-out at Tashkent), and against military rule.
Bhutto won because he owned all three issues. He represented Punjabis and Sindhis against these threats.
This is why the Baloch and the Pashtun, who are unconcerned about these things, did not vote for Bhutto. As Nadeem F Paracha has pointed out, he swept Lahore but not Karachi in that election. This is because the Mohajir goes his own way.
I believe Pakistan continues to vote on the basis of identity, and this will create a problem for Imran Khan, who is from the small community of Niazis.
Today in the National Assembly, Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) has no legislators from Sindh or Balochistan. The number of seats it won even in the Sindh and Balochistan assemblies is zero. It is a party of Punjabis. It would be interesting to see what the division of votes is in the Punjab assembly elections where the voter does not see himself as Punjabi but as Rajput, Arain or Jat. I will be very surprised if the voting pattern is in the least bit different from India’s.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (migrants from UP and Bihar), the ANP (Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s party of Pashtuns) and the JUI (Pashtun clerics) are also all regional identity parties. The Karachi vote of the ANP is the Pashtun vote, which it gets because the violent rivalry of Karachi is between migrants from India and migrants from the frontier province.
Asif Zardari‘s PPP is the only national party in that sense. It resembles the Congress in that it is a dynastic party of martyrs, with an agenda that is pro-poor and non-militaristic. This makes the PPP reach out of Sindh and the north into the Seraiki area, culturally like Sindh, but not the Punjabi heartland.
The MQM, ANP, the Baloch leaders, the JUI and the party whose current version is PML-Q (former Musharraf loyalists) are oppportunists who align with those in power. They resemble the regional parties in India, like those run by Jayalalitha, Karunanidhi and Mamata Banerjee, who will join any government for ministries.
Imran can depend on their support if his party, the PTI manages to eclipse Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) and the PPP. That’s all he needs to do, not win a majority on his own. Can he do this? A recent Pew opinion poll showed that Imran was popular with over 70 per cent of Pakistanis, while Asif Zardari was preferred by only 14 per cent. Indians have long been familiar with the utter meaninglessness of opinion polls. There is zero chance that those polled will also vote in this fashion.
The Punjabi will vote for another Punjabi and faced with two Punjabi candidates will then vote for his caste, and then his jati.
Imran’s popularity in the media on the basis of issues like corruption, blocking the Nato supply lines to Afghanistan and drone attacks will not result in votes. Corruption is not an issue in India, except in the media, and I suspect the same conditions obtain in Pakistan.
His best option is to lure established community leaders, like he has done with former PPP foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureishi and former PML (N) minister Javed Hashmi. It is likely, given the ease with which the Sharifs let him go, that Hashmi is electorally unimportant. Only turncoats with votebanks will bring victory to Imran in a free election. Not loyal party workers, not media favourites and certainly not issues.
That is, assuming Pakistanis are like Indians and will vote like Indians. It will be fascinating if Imran Khan can prove this to be untrue.