Underlying causes of ever-deepening polarization in Pakistan

It is important to study not only the symptoms but the underlying factors of our state, politics, and society in order to find the root cause of and a solution to the political polarization in Pakistan.


Most political analysts appear to despise the ever-deepening political polarization in Pakistan which has been triggered by the sacking of Imran Khan’s government through a rigged No-Confidence Vote last April. These political analysts can be broadly divided into three categories. The first set of writers not only blame Khan for triggering the crisis but also for deepening it, as in their view he has been stubbornly refusing to sit with fellow politicians. Some of them also believe that he is trying to replace the establishment or ‘appears as powerful as the establishment was until recently.’ One of the writers from this group equates Khan with usurpers like Zia and Musharraf. It’s worth quoting him here – Khan has ‘fed his followers the idea that they should be liberated from constitutional and parliamentary restrictions.’

I don’t need to defend PTI but I must criticise what is wrong or unlawful and what is factually right in my view. Therefore, I would like to remind readers that PTI’s movement is perhaps the most effective, the most peaceful, and yet law-abiding resistance in Pakistan’s history against the unlawful interference of the establishment. To me, the above writer’s vulgarization of the idea of Haqeeqi Azadi seems to be a result of his own prejudice and imagination. Many political scholars tend to agree that most post-colonial nations have failed to achieve full independence, as imperialist powers continued to dictate policy directions to their subservient ruling elites.

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Analysts like the above seem to be reluctant to acknowledge the unprecedented contribution of conscientious journalists, human rights activists, and political workers including the PTI in guarding civil liberties and taking a stand against the unlawful interference of the establishment and its subservient ruling coalition against democratic processes and structures. It is worth reminding such writers that millions of haris – peasants, workers and tribesmen are still living under the stranglehold of the same feudal dynasties who had oppressed their forefathers. Consider – Faiz Ahmad Faiz poem-

‘Yeh daagh daagh ujaalaa, yeh shab gazidaa seher,
Woh intezaar tha jiska, yeh woh seher to nahin’ –
(This stained, pitted first-light, this day-break, battered
by night,
this dawn that we all ached for, this is not that one.)

The second category of writers argues that it is the ‘ refusal of the establishment to act as a mediator between Khan and PDM that is responsible for the continuing polarisation. Interestingly, the establishment has never mediated between fighting parties. In fact, almost all military takeovers were either the result of establishment-sponsored political movements or exploitation of the prevalent situation to capture power. The third group of analysts finds that it is the ‘corrupt’ elements within the establishment and political class who are responsible for triggering as well as perpetuating both the current political uncertainty and the economic catastrophe. They also consider that holding free and fair elections is the only way to end these multiple crises. Most of them seem to be either supporter of PTI or didn’t like PDM.


In my opinion, all three groups tend to examine the symptoms rather than the underlying factors of our state, politics, and society. Let’s then find the underlying factors.

Political parties almost always articulate the aggregated interests of their core support base and in a democratic polity they develop certain ideology with which to attract voters, so that they could capture power. For instance, it is perceived that the PPP predominantly represents the landed elite, while the PML (N)’s core support base used to be big and medium business. In Pakistan, workers and peasants don’t have a party of their own. So they have been ‘coerced’ or persuaded to support and vote either for big landlords or businessmen. Had there been a strong party of oppressed people, they would not have voted for their own oppressors.

This absence is likely to be one of the reasons for perpetuating political crisis in our country. Pakistan has been experiencing this for a long time. But in my opinion, a large majority of people including many ‘intellectuals’ are confused because they are failing to comprehend the complexity of the situation – underlying contradictions. Some of them seem to be spreading confusion intentionally and some unintentionally.

Let’s draw some philosophical help from Marxist literature. Marx holds that ‘every class struggle is a political struggle’. So is the inverse, is every political struggle a class struggle? Mostly but not necessarily. Consider the statement of Greta Thunberg – a 20-yearold climate activist – ‘without changing the fundamental dynamic of exploitation, which predates the climate crisis, damages can’t be reduced.’ I don’t need to state here all the statistics of systemic exploitation. Suffice is to say that a one percent powerful elite has captured economic and political space not only in our country but in many countries, which seems to be the damaging quality of democracy globally.

Let’s briefly go back to our history and find its relevance today. In 1970, the people of Pakistan voted for ‘roti, kapra aur makan’. In 2018 they voted for Insaf. The leader who had promised them bread and housing was hanged and the leader who had promised justice is now fighting for justice for himself. However, in both cases the vast majority of working people had perceived both these leaders simply as an ‘enemy of their enemy’. Bhutto’s descendants never uttered his slogan again, and the people punished them back for their betrayal. Consider. Disappearance of PPP from three provinces. Imran Khan is stubbornly showing defiance and seemingly not willing to compromise on his main slogans – justice and putting an end to corruption. He perhaps knows what his fate would be if he compromises. The recent steep surge in Khan’s popularity appears to be a sign of the people‘s rage against the tyranny of state-sponsored political oppression and the related economic injustice which they face every day. Drawing simple conclusions from an extremely complex context and profound confusion is a must for action. Also for working people, every political struggle that they join is a liberation struggle from injustice and tyranny.

Read more: From independence to enslavement of kleptocracy – A tale of 75 years

With this in mind, the Marxian concept of dialectical materialism is important. It is defined as ‘the way in which two very different forces or factors work together (interact), and the way in which their differences are resolved.’ In other words, dialectics is/ are about contradictions. As the contradictions sharpen, polarisation deepens. Marxists further differentiate contradiction into two main categories – antagonistic and non-antagonistic. The former is one in which ‘the two sides do not compromise and both sides are predetermined to resolve it through struggle, while the later one ‘can be resolved peacefully without destroying the other side.’ Mao argues that an antagonistic contradiction could be transformed into a non-antagonistic one ‘if properly handled.’ Shan Hong – a Chinese Marxist author argues that the ‘quality of contradiction largely determines the form of struggle and the method of resolution.’

Today’s deepening polarisation is clearly a result of unresolved contradiction/s – between feudal lord and peasant; employer and employee; men and women, the center and provinces; and above all between state and citizens. And since the quality of the contradictions remained blurred so the form of struggle also remained consistently problematic and deeply confusing. It is also evident that powerful groups are determined to preserve this rotten system, and as in the past, ready to punish everyone who actively tries to reform it. For this, they are even willing to risk the destruction of the ship they are sailing in. Hence, all the more reason to demand reforms – resolution of contradictions. No wonder Bertolt Brecht said -‘In the contradiction lies the hope.’ Though temporarily our hope lies in the holding of a free and fair election and in letting our constitution prevail. Despite contradictions are likely to persist but polarisation will weaken.

Karl Marx’s saying is so true to today’s Pakistan. Consider this quote – ‘History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce’. And now this. Like Z A Bhutto, Imran Khan also tried to transform antagonistic contradiction into non-antagonistic but both establishment and its crony politicians have always intentionally or unintentionally frustrated every attempt. Consider ongoing efforts to sabotage the general election. Also, recall the sacking of Bhutto in 1977 by generals at a time when he was negotiating with the opposition parties. Since then the military establishment has stubbornly kept politicians under its stranglehold, and gradually most of the politicians accepted its hegemony as fait accompli, till Khan’s stubborn and courageous defiance. Most political analysts including myself though mistakenly viewed the experimentation of a ‘hybrid’ regime as a sign of the transformation of antagonistic contradiction into non-antagonistic. We were wrong.

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Very often, it is said popular politicians would never be acceptable to the establishment. The establishment deserves appreciation for proving its true time and again. But, is it the popularity per se or the reasons behind the popularity? As stated above, it has very often been the program/manifesto of a leader that made him popular. Like trade unions equalize the power of capital, and civil society keeps a check on the state, the popularity of leaders at the grassroots level frightens the establishment. Pakistan has experienced dozens of movements in its chequered history but never experienced the current kind of resistance. In short, two sides of the principle contradiction in Pakistan appear to be between the establishment and the citizens. While citizens through their representatives wanted to resolve this contradiction, the establishment did not respond positively because a substantive section of political society has always sided with the establishment.

Sarwar Bari is the former Secretary-General of FAFEN and he heads Pattan Development Organisation. Pattan has been working with disaster-prone and marginalized communities since 1992 when super floods hit Pakistan. Since its inception, the organization has evolved a holistic disaster risk reduction approach that stands on five themes: capacity building, gender mainstreaming, social action, governance monitoring, and defending human rights and civil liberties. Research-based advocacy is being used for public policy improvement. Currently, Pattan’s partners are working in 27 districts of Pakistan.

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