Pakistan’s orientalist ‘construction’ in wake of general elections

By Maria Bastos

Pakistan’s general elections, held on 25th July were, as anticipated, fiercely disputed. Pre and post-election discursively constructed moments, however, confirmed that the possibility for irregularities to happen during balloting were not just mere suppositions.

As the democratic exercise ended, it immediately became clear that democracy is everything but a monolithic theoretical concept. Democratic concepts and their praxis in Pakistan do not match the Western-based ones. While the latter have been developed, re-shaped and adapted to a different social-political reality for longer periods of time, and turned robust enough to become normative, in Pakistan, thus far, historical experiences have not allowed for a full adoption of normative democratic practices; western based or adapted to the social-political context.

The reasons for the discrepancies between Pakistani democracy vs Western-styled one(s), have been, time and again, highlighted and debated by a wide range of South Asian, indigenous and foreign (read western) based political science scholars. Therefore, building discourses centred on the unmissable fact that the Pakistani military does have agency on key important issues pertaining to national affairs, including elections (remember, it is about Pakistan), should not constitute a matter of surprise.

It is not innovative discourse. At best, it is a pure exercise in logic, at worst, as I will explain below, it nurtures a paradox of democracy, particularly if a hegemonized and western-inspired concept will be sought.

Pakistan’s history, like democracy, is prone to the generation of paradoxes. The very genesis of the idea of Pakistan feeds well into one of democracy’s main issues; how to democratically represent minority subjects without falling into the dangers that are part and parcel with the politics of majoritarianism?

This issue has, since Pakistan’s inception, haunted the country’s irregular democratic life, leading to calamitous consequences in 1971. Of democracy and how to provoke its failure, unfortunately Pakistan is well acquainted to. Let’s keep central the idea that states are socially constructed through human agency, and that structures (including institutions) shape and can be re-shaped by agency.

Consequently, any failure in democracy that occurs in any state, which decided to engage with the most complex concept humans invented, can be solely attributed to all and main state actors. In Pakistan, this includes every one that may be or has been classified as ‘ruling elite’. The latter, following the logic that agency and structure are mutually constitutive, is therefore the easiest to identify as the nodal point through which all democracy related events, including failure, are covered.

This, in loose terms, should constitute basilar knowledge to any Pakistan scholar, defined as a peculiar combination of academics, journalists, an odd combination of both, and, at the bottom of the scale, those who gain their life by staging performances often perceived as anti-Pakistan politics. The commentary that followed in the post-elections moment turned itself in a very democratic moment.

Once again, it turned possible to figure out those who, while having an extensive knowledge about Pakistan’s own political context, used it through a perverse logic. While freedom of expression must never be compromised, the perverse logic that can be generated from its exercise deserves a point of reflection. How and why a scholar uses her knowledge is a political act. Writing this very piece is a political act. Only through reflexivity can a scholar/journalist come to terms with the political nature of every word, of every thought.

Elections in Pakistan attracted global news coverage. For one whole day, that is the 25th of July, Pakistan was in the news in Portugal, Bolivia, the Fiji Islands, and France. For a day, despite the irregularities, including a terrorist attack in Quetta, Pakistan made it to the news because of democracy, no matter how distinct the electoral act or exercise appeared to be from those held in western latitudes.

‘Pakistan scholars’, experts on Pakistani affairs, and seasoned journalists who have followed regional politics, all were called to provide their insights, to share their knowledge. In some news outlets, the post-election moment was closely followed for about two more days, where the same experts were called to ‘explain’ Pakistan to a global audience. And it is with this exercise that I wish to take issue with.

To be sure, Pakistan’s image in the international community does not generate pleasant feelings. It is a very unfortunate situation, constructed by a conjunction of factors, of which the coterie of Pakistan scholars hold ample knowledge. Those citizens around the world with a minimum interest in international affairs, too, know well about Pakistan’s circumstances, particularly centred in the post 9/11 period.

Now that the lens is focused, it comes to the real questions that need to be asked:

Why to produce utterances in the global media that were, in a good number of cases, a typical example of how Orientalism (following the theorizations of the great Edward W. Said) works?

Why to portray a country that, with all the vicissitudes, had just gone through an electoral process, which, given those same vicissitudes, turns to be even more important?

Why to once again raise the flag of separateness between ‘we the flawless, non-backward, rational and mature enough to hold free and fair elections’ and ‘a Pakistan of people unwilling or unable to freely decide, as their military took over their faculties to exercise a rational judgement.’?

Why to reduce the courageous act of people going to the polling stations to the whims of the powerful military, even considering that the latter does have specific interests in the electoral act?

Why to keep representing Pakistanis as supine, dominated subjects, when in fact there were a good amount of protests and contestation, including against the observed electoral irregularities?

Pakistanis do not need western-based, orientalist-minded political scientists to comment, represent, and portray their country, particularly in moments that should be used to build bridges, and not pursue the politics of separateness. Neither do they need to be de-humanized by the deceitful commentary that leads political scientists to celebrity status in their Lilliputian milieu.

Note well, dear reader, you are not being confronted with an apology for Pakistan’s own and owned tribulations. All of them are unavoidable to the ‘Pakistan scholar’, and, rest assured, they cause great discomfort, sleepless nights, and fierce arguments, yet, they are constitutive of her history, just like in any other state.

Therefore, the time has arrived for Pakistani scholars, South Asian scholars, and all those who gain a life by studying, reporting, and hence constructing the utterances that ultimately build a scholarship (broadly understood) on Pakistan, to become more self-reflexive, abolish orientalist mind-sets, and to have a honest approach to a country. This is an approach, which, in its uniqueness, will remain critical for anyone who wishes to engage with international political affairs.

Maria Bastos is an Assistant Professor at UMT, Lahore, and a PhD candidate at the University of Westminster, UK. She can be followed on twitter @minesbastos

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