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Some Conceptual Issues

Re-Theorising Pakistan's Political Economy

Akbar Zaidi’s (2014: 47) article “is a critique of how the political economy has been constructed in Pakistan, especially with regard to the state and the military (perhaps for understandable reasons usually seen as one and the same), ignoring the actually existing country”. Zaidi then criticises, and rightly so, Alavi’s theorisation of the Pakistani state, and acknowledges the recent corrections and advances made by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar. Zaidi further argues that the concept of “political settlement”, as developed by Mushtaq Khan, has improved our understanding of the Pakistani state. Arguing that the political settlement in Pakistan has changed significantly in the past several decades, Zaidi puts forward the following claims in his attempt to account for the changes in Pakistani society since Alavi’s (1972) seminal theorisation:

(1) The power of the Pakistani state has been considerably fractured. The Alavian nexus of power, consisting of the local and metropolitan bourgeoisie, the military, and the landed elite, no longer holds. This is because other classes or class factions, whom Akhtar calls “intermediate classes”, have emerged to claim power. In the past decade or so, the media and the judiciary have emerged as powerful institutions, and it is increasingly difficult to say that the military is the most powerful institution in the country.

(2) Institutions, rather than class interests, determine the nature of the state in Pakistan. It is not possible to identify the ruling coalition cleanly along class or institutional lines. At best, it seems to be a mixture of the two.

(3) Urbanisation has led to the “informalisation of everything”. The state is unable to provide basic services, and hence even security of life and property has been privatised or “parcelled out to private firms” (Zaidi 2014: 52).

(4) Pakistan’s internal politics has been determined or greatly influenced by random external shocks, for example, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

(5) Militant Islam is the only counter-hegemonic force in Pakistan that “stands out” (ibid: 52).

In sum, Zaidi claims that the changing nature of the political settlement in Pakistan has made it difficult to answer the question, “Who holds power in Pakistan?” with any clarity.

Zaidi points to the direction in which Pakistan’s political economy can be theorised in general. This task is difficult, not only because of the hetergeneity of Pakistani society, but also because of the “unknown unknowns” in Pakistan’s political economy. Having said that, the serious omissions that Zaidi’s article suffers from must still be pointed out. This article is an attempt to highlight these omissions, but in a spirit of general agreement and support for the course chalked out by Zaidi. Three observations should be made about Zaidi’s article.

Political Settlement

First, Zaidi’s use of the concept of political settlement is very limited in its scope. Zaidi uses this concept in a context where political contestation would be more appropriate. Mushtaq Khan’s original formulation was made in the context of economic growth. Khan uses the concept to inquire whether the rent/surplus that accrues to various factions of the elite is in line with their relative power in a political economy, and whether such an arrangement is growth enhancing or growth retarding. Hence, in Khan’s work, a political settlement emerges as the meta-institution under which contestations over production and distribution of surplus and political power can occur. Here, “institutions” are understood from institutional economics literature as the “rules of the game”. In other words, the political power that classes or institutions enjoy is dependent on how they establish claims over the surplus produced in a political economy.

Zaidi wants to use the idea of political settlement only to examine changes in the distribution of political power among various organisations in Pakistan. As I discuss below, categories like the civilians, the media, the judiciary, and the army are too often deployed to analyse entities solely as “organisations”, rather than as “institutions”. The problem is that such analysis does not locate the social relations of these organisations within the larger political economy. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with asking questions like whether the military or the judiciary has more political power in Pakistan. However, without paying attention to how these organisations establish claims over the surplus produced in Pakistan’s political economy, the analysis will yield a partial and incomplete picture. Hence, Zaidi’s use of the concept of political settlement is limited in its scope.

What Zaidi does highlight is greater contestation over the distribution of political power in Pakistan than previously. However, this certainly does not mean that Pakistan’s political economy is now governed under a new political settlement. This is particularly so when it is commonly understood that the military, in the past decade or so, has emerged as an even stronger player in Pakistan’s political economy by expanding its business empire.

It is, however, correct to observe that greater political contestation in Pakistan has led to an increasingly decentred and fragmented locus of power. In fact, Pakistan’s political economy now has multiple loci of powers, the military still being the most powerful one. The judicial activism of recent years is indicative of a type of political contestation that aims to carve out a more independent role for a given institution without disturbing the underlying political settlement in the country. The judiciary has used its powers to establish its co-jurisdiction over some functions of the executive. By doing so, the Court presents and establishes itself as a powerful patron that others have potential recourse to. Again, this implies increased political contestation for a more independent role for the judiciary, and not necessarily a transformed political settlement.

The Military Institution

My second observation is regarding Zaidi’s surprisingly thin treatment of institutions. It is not clear whether Zaidi sees institutions in the sense of organisations, or alternatively as “rules of the game”. When Zaidi says that the judiciary, the military, and the media are all multi-class institutions, he seems to be treating institutions simply as organisations. This leads him to focus his analysis on the distribution of political power between various institutions. But this reduction of institutions to simply organisations does not pay sufficient attention to the dual role of the military as an organisation and a de facto rule-making body. Zaidi completely ignores the military’s continuously expanding business empire, which is an important source of its continued influence in Pakistan’s political economy. The military’s presence in the economy is far-reaching – there is hardly any economic sector or activity that the military is not involved in. This fact gives credence to what Ayesha Jalal has termed the political economy of defence. Both serving and retired military officers manage the military’s businesses, in much the same way as a board of directors does in modern corporations. Modern corporations may have no single owner whose class location can be readily identified, yet their function as a representative of the capitalist bourgeoisie cannot be doubted. This is because corporations extract surplus from society through their relation with the means of production. The Pakistani military should – at least partially – be understood in the same manner.


Third, Zaidi’s view of counter-hegemonic forces in Pakistan is too narrow. Militant Islam is not the only counter-hegemonic tendency of note. The self-assertion of smaller provinces against the domination of the Punjab in Pakistan’s federation is a form of counter-hegemony that is overlooked too often. The 18th amendment and the seventh National Finance Commission award are both formal efforts to correct the imbalance between Punjab and other provinces in the Pakistani federation. Again, the Baloch separatist movement should also be seen as counter-hegemonic. The mainstream political parties may not agree with separatists’ secessionist agenda, but they do acknowledge openly and publicly that the existing federal structure is inequitable.

Zaidi’s article is a much-needed effort to re-theorise the political economy of Pakistan, the difficulty of the task notwithstanding. My objective in this article was to highlight aspects that seemed missing in Zaidi’s piece. A future research agenda for Pakistan’s political economy should include a focus on how various institutions lay their claim over the surplus produced in society, as this will help us understand whether institutions’ attendant political power is sustainable. In due course, this may also reveal whether the political settlement in Pakistan has changed or not.


Alavi, H (1972): “The State in Post-colonial Societies: Pakistan and Bangladesh”, New Left Review, 74(1): 59-81.

Zaidi, S A (2014): “Rethinking Pakistan’s Political Economy: Class, State, Power and Transition”, Economic & Political Weekly, 49(5): 47-57.

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