Infrapolitics in Pakistan

Peculiar is the nature of dissent in Pakistan where we witnessed, on the one hand, decades-long suppression of the popular dissent under “enlightened despots”, and on the other hand, a sudden tide of metaphorical dissension. But unlike the infrapolitics or the politics of concealed gestures and symbols used by the marginalised, it is the Pakistani elite that stands as its prime protagonist. Thus, the question arises: Is change imminent in Pakistan?

The term infrapolitics was first coined by an anthropologist James C. Scott in the 1990s referring to it as a socio-structural foundation of the more visible forms of political actions attracting most scholarly interest. Its realm incorporates symbolic language and gestures which are not considered political enough, yet they play an enormous part in contemporary politics. Hence, a sense of infrapolitics is necessary to decipher the discursive battles in Pakistan, which are mostly overlooked. These battles indicate an underlying sense of societal frustration in Pakistan articulated through various allegories, metaphors, and slangs used by the political figures and civil society members. It implies that confining political activity to merely explicitly declared activities or actions limits the scope and veracity of other more politically significant actions.

It is not primarily in the extraordinary moments of popular outburst that changes are brought but through the clandestine carving out of the spaces for dissent articulation. Though, Scott’s infrapolitics highlights a risk-averse genre of politics where dissidence “dare not speak its name”. Yet, Pakistan seems to have skipped this stage of dissent articulation to a stage of “rhetorical infrapolitics”. At this stage, disagreements are quasi-apparent. In Pakistan, dissension is exploring new frontiers through discursive battles, narrative building, and discourse nuances. Politicians from all sides of the political spectrum; Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), are employing a symbolic language to express their differences vis-à-vis the prevailing political system that is immensely flawed. The multi-party conference led by the opposition for the first time articulated their shared grievances against the so-called khalai makhlooq (aliens)/farishtay (angels)/khufia haath (hidden hands). This tide of dissension against praetorianism is gaining momentum through the rhetorical stances of the elites. However, the question remains whether the usage of such terminologies is creating any profound difference in the public’s mindset and the overall political system of Pakistan? It might take some years to answer, but the contemporary dynamics witness otherwise.

The case of Pakistan is unique in two ways. Firstly, the infrapolitics in Pakistan is more rhetorical where the line between the hidden and the apparent remains blurred. Secondly, the movement is primarily elitist, and the public remains a passive consumer of these political clashes.

A recent protest rally led by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) aimed at ousting the sitting and supposedly “selected” prime minister, Imran Khan, stirred a new wave of political narrativisation. Its mode of dissent communication is an exceptional case of Scott’s infrapolitics. Though, he considered infrapolitics as the way in which the marginalised people expressed their differences. However, in Pakistan, the elites try to enmesh new narratives of change and a glorious future into the everyday public discourse. Hence, the case of Pakistan is unique in two ways. Firstly, the infrapolitics in Pakistan is more rhetorical where the line between the hidden and the apparent remains blurred. Secondly, the movement is primarily elitist, and the public remains a passive consumer of these political clashes. Such a genre of dissent in Pakistan indicates the signs of revolutionary fervour and portrays a new era of political emancipation after years-long subjugation.

The current political turbulence in Pakistan indicated through progressive catchphrases and enlightened mottoes like “respect the vote”, “oust the selected”, “halt institutional overstepping” are longed-for debating agendas. Yet, the reality remains bleak. Harsh criticism, personal comments, and passive communication previously considered a radical strategy has now been subsumed into the normalcy of everyday political leg-pulling. Moreover, rather than bringing any substantial transformation, these tidal narratives reinforce the status quo by normalising dissent (here normalisation holds a negative connotation). According to a well-known ethnographer, Diane Vaughan, normalisation is a process of blurring the boundaries of the quasi-acceptable slogans and transforming their meanings in the everyday language. This is being done by the PDM and the way it voices dissent. Such form of political deviation is not reaping any substantial gains for the time being as it is being normalised in the mainstream by diffusing the progressiveness of the PDM and its agenda.

The normalisation of dissent in Pakistan must be understood based on the structural issues. If this new tide of dissent is not popular and deeply rooted, it might not significantly impact the Pakistan polity, and it would rather reinforce the status quo. Hence, unlike the French and the Russian revolution, this might not be the revolution of rising expectations; rather reinforcing the dominant norms and rerouting popular expectations.

Rida Fatima

Rida Fatima

Rida Fatima is a graduate of the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid -I-Azam University. She serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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