The placebo effect – The far-right: losing the battle, but winning the war


Just think about this for a second: every time theres news about a seemingly religiously inspired murder,

or two, or twenty, the first antidote on offer is how religious parties often do poorly at the ballot box. To a certain extent, this off-the-cuff statistic attempts to placate those, both home and abroad, whore deeply afraid of a Pakistan being inhabited and run by far-right forces. The logic goes something like this: if a party does badly at the polls, it implies that it lacks mass support, and subsequently, it means that the average voter in Pakistan rejects the transcendental agenda of the far-right for the more moderate and passive agendas of centrist forces.

In the wake of recent events however, its very important to deconstruct the notion of a moderate and passive majority, especially when understood through a proxy variable such as electoral patterns. All things considered, there is no doubt that the statistic in itself is largely true: Religious parties have done poorly at the polls in Pakistan, with only 2002 being the obvious exception.

Firstly, their numbers have mostly placed them in a position to act as partners and lobbyists, but rarely have they enjoyed complete control over a provincial or a federal government. Secondly, apart from the JUI(F), which boasts a coterie of rural notables in KPK, most religious parties are only confined to urban centers, where theyre able to organise and mobilise their networks more effectively.

Thirdly, apart from the formation of the MMA in 2002, the religious vote itself is divided along ideological fissures such as Shia-Sunni, and Barelvi-Deobandi, hence rendering the concept of a single far-right vote bank largely irrelevant.

Taken at face value, these are all valid indicators of where far-right forces currently lie on our electoral landscape, and the degree to which they appear to be valid options for the majority of our voting public. What, however, we miss out whilst waving the banner of a moderate majority, is that this is merely a function of the logic of our electoral system, which itself rests heavily on an ideologically sterile, patronage-based culture.

In a system where votes are gathered on the basis of who can give us what, and what we will be able to do in return, the concept of establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth gets pushed to the backburner. Pardon my crassness here, but getting a water pipe fixed and grabbing a job for myself, and my sisters son, is much more important than the rather vague (and long-routed) notion of getting justice through implementing Sharia. (Incidentally, if questioned, everyone will provide unequivocal support to the latter over the former, which just goes to show you the duality prevalent in this country).

But should we sit back and take comfort in the fact that the materiality of our electoral politics necessarily translates into the political marginalisation of far-right forces?

The answer is an emphatic no.

Having taken this placebo for long enough, its time to recognise that while were busy coming up with far-right vote percentages, the organised forces of bigotry and xenophobia have steadily by-passed procedure and made space for themselves. Their appeal might not find space in the logic of our electoral system, but in terms of day to day expression, ritualistic action, and dissemination of discourse, exclusivist religious politics has firmly entrenched itself with the so-called passive majority.

What bigger indication of this victory would anyone want over and above the fact that our legal system proudly displays all kinds of exclusivist injunctions, that mainstream parties have refused to even talk about an inhumane law, that education institutions serve fresh doses of a dichotomous, morality driven world-view on a daily basis?

Individuals active in far-right groups have gone on to make space in mainstream parties. It is perhaps most telling that mainstream political parties, and the state itself, willingly surrenders to the far-right forces, and that for the last 30 years, the only narratives of public ideological debate are those that are approved by religious authorities.

All of this is extremely important in helping us recognise that turning to electoral percentages lures us into a false sense of belief about the passivity and moderation of the playing field, and ultimately obfuscates the entire scope of the challenge. As a silver lining of sorts from within this system, we can take hope in the fact that the material basis of politics gives us a narrow route to engage with the public at some level. What remains to be seen is whether we can use this space to raise the right issues or not.

The writer works in the development sector, wonders about things, and then blogs at Write to him at [email protected]