Theoretical ponderings, fieldwork and election fever

The thing about research and fieldwork is that it is unnecessary to sit in an air-conditioned office somewhere in the F-sector or Diplomatic Enclave in Islamabad to be doing development-anthropology…stuff. All you need is hop into a taxi or take a trip on the public transportation such as vans and buses, and you will experience the colours of society. I chose to conduct fieldwork on the upcoming elections in Pakistan.

In my opinion, the theories of anthropology tend to be out of touch with many things. Still, this field of study through its in-depth studies exposes previously unknown ways of life, knowledge and wisdom. In certain cases the insight of anthropologists contribute to criminal investigations. On a theoretical level, the reason I think all the theories are wobbly is because sometimes when reading all those texts I wonder if the theorists actually know what they are discussing. Society, culture and community are not supposed to be so difficult to describe or identify. Hence just immersing yourself in your surroundings will save you a lot of headache inducing mental acrobatics.

Nowadays in Pakistan, there is election fever. From the media it seems the sitting government hopes the Army will intervene and martial law will become the order of the day. Heaven forbid! In order to gain a better insight I decided to partner up with a key informant. According to the people we spoke with during our adventure, they were fed up with the current set up and wanted change. Some of the transporters, such as taxi drivers and van drivers voted PPP in the previous election and with a few exceptions, most would vote PML-N this time. Moreover, most skilled people such as plumbers, carpenters, masons, interviewed are also saying they will vote for Nawaz Sharif. The same goes for shop and stall keepers such as juice, fried food, fruit and vegetable sellers.

In Islamabad, most of this trader category belongs to the Rawalpindi and Chakwal area. Their argument being that since Nawaz Sharif is an established businessman, he has experience in setting up factories and steel mills so he knows the significance of labour and employment creation. They also said that unlike the PPP who siphon all their wealth to offshore accounts or buy properties abroad, Nawaz Sharif re-invests his looted wealth in the country, despite being corrupt.

However, this is not entirely true. Nawaz has invested a lot of money in businesses and franchises in the UK. According to my information, he settled some 20 families in Essex last time he was deposed from power by Musharraf. These families are running his businesses for him in the UK. Even Rehman Malik, the former interior minister is said to have a few restaurants in Southall, London. Nonetheless, in retrospect, it was during Nawaz’s government Pakistan became a nuclear power and he had the Islamabad Lahore Motorway built, which paved the way for other infrastructural projects, continued during Musharraf’s government.

Moreover, even the professional class in Lahore, such as lawyers and doctors said they would vote for PML-N. This provincial government has increased the wages for doctors, as well as pensions. Money talks, because money enables better comforts, so I can understand their logic.

Another taxi driver gave me an interesting insight into voting decisions within the household. This taxi driver belongs to Chakwal, a town in the Potohar region. His father-in-law is the naib nazim in his area, where the local MP belongs to PML-N. He said all his relatives, as well as his wife would vote for PLM-N so he would have to vote for this party too. His father-in-law is also his paternal uncle. Another reason he is obliged to vote for PML-N is because his brother is the personal assistant of Chaudhry Nisar, who is the former leader of the opposition in the National Assembly.

The taxi driver said that families have split up due to election votes. One of his friends was married to the local MP’s daughter, when he chose to vote for another party instead of for his father-in-law, his wife took their children and left her husband. The father- in- law did not even bother returning his daughter to her family to prevent a divorce. I would take this story with a pinch of salt and yet I am unable to rule out the veracity of this story entirely. This story illustrates that if it is not the local feudal landlord who decides who the villagers and peasants vote for, it is the family, irrespective of who the individual wants to vote for.

I always thought votes were secret. Unless the names are printed on the voting ballot in Pakistan that is, or the votes are checked before being passed forward to the counting authority. Either way, in such a scenario, these conditions prevent free and fair elections and the development of a democratic mindset.

When asked about Imran Khan, a juice and fried food seller mentioned he is inexperienced in running a country. Others when probed said “actually no one guides us on whom to vote for so we are just following the trend within our community. By the juice stall, a lecturer in management said he would vote for Imran Khan because there is a need for change. A plumber said that Imran Khan is inexperienced and he is not even married. My key informant pointed out that he was married once, but got divorced very publicly. The plumber replied:

“well he doesn’t have a wife, as the leader of a country that doesn’t look good.”

My key informant said:

“well, neither does Zardari. His wife won the election for him, but got assassinated, for him to take over the reigns of government.”

Nevertheless, the younger generation of students and professionals is trending towards Imran Khan and his party, despite his inexperience. However, the question remains is will they actually vote PTI or follow the orders of their parents and other allegiances?

Anyone interviewed were not enthusiastic about the cleric Dr Tahir ul-Qadri, even some of the more religious minded respondents said he was a trouble maker. What surprised me was that the more religious taxi drivers wearing a green or white turban or prayer caps, were more inclined towards the more moderate political candidates, as opposed to the more openly religious such as Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman.

Many mentioned they would vote for a certain candidate because of his moderate views. Moreover another taxi driver said this particular candidate is also a very good person. This respondent said the politician belongs to his area and every time someone passes away or there is a calamity, this politician will participate in the funerals and will empathize with them during their loss.

“It means a lot for us poor people that someone like him is willing to sit with us and pray with us. The other party politicians will just say a lot of things, take our votes and we will never hear from them again, but this politician will participate in our difficulties.”

These responses show that even the more religious social segment are not interested in an Islamist state-government, or a state run by some loose cannon Taliban elements. Pakistan despite being an Islamic Republic is far too moderate to allow the conservative forces to take the reigns of government. Besides, even the more religious social segments do not trust clerics who are politicians, calling them turncoats, liars and frauds. None of them trusted the cleric Dr Tahir ul-Qadri, or even Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman as politicians.

“Once such people join politics they become of the world and they lose sight of their spiritual role.”

In conclusion, election in Pakistan has the potential to engender positive change. Nevertheless, according to the media and conversations with the general public, governments are not elected, they are selected. Even if people vote for PTI or another party, most likely it will be old faces changing chairs. The question is, with the world watching, and the Pakistani context of government formation and governance, how can elections even be free and fair in such a toxic environment? Yet, a democratic setup is preferable to a military dictatorship, however democratically inclined it may appear.