Electoral politics in Pakistan has not yet found its way into the department of political science — it has remained with the ‘engineering’ department of our super-efficient institution in uniform for far too long. For them, the election is a mechanical thing which, if calibrated properly, can ooze out legitimacy, even if that legitimacy starts sputtering after brief periods.
One of the operational challenges repeatedly posed by elections is where and how to accommodate the non-Muslim population. Should it wheel separately or be allowed to trudge alongside the rest? This problem is, in part, a result of the colonial baggage that we still carry. It was the communal award of 1932 that divided the polity along religious lines and reserved quotas of seats in elected houses for followers of different faiths. But after Independence, the context in which the communal issue had existed and thrived in the Subcontinent changed drastically. Religious minorities in the new countries tried to integrate into mainstream politics and no longer demanded separation and exclusion.
Responses of majority communities in Pakistan regarding this issue have been divided along political fault lines. The religious right finds itself duty-bound to oppose the mixing up of votes of the faithful with those of the children of ‘lesser gods’. For them, seeking legitimacy from non-Muslim citizens dilutes the divine aspect of their idealistic Islamic state. For their opponents, advocating exclusion on the basis of faith is either inhuman and un-democratic — or they simply find it numerically advantageous to have everyone vote jointly. It brightens their own chances at polling stations.
When, in 1979, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, General Ziaul Haq and his Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) cohorts decided to separate electors on the basis of religion, there was a political reason behind the decision. Religious minorities in Pakistan, the overwhelming majority of whom belongs to the lowest economic strata, were considered a stronghold of the populist Pakistan Peoples Party and Zia and JI thought that the separate electorate system would leave that party poorer in electoral terms. Five general elections were held under this system over the next two decades or so. Did the separate electorate inflict the damage it set out to? This may be somewhat difficult to claim as the PPP not only survived, it also bounced back. But one can be certain that the real casualties in this tug of war were the religious minorities themselves.
The already weak links between these communities and the country’s polity were severed. They were shooed away and left adrift, at the mercy of a new class of political opportunists that had Masih, Das or Singh as their last name. The mainstream Muslim parties collected a few of these names as a political ritual, commemorated close to every election, and paraded them in public if and when their party’s secular credentials needed boosting. The curtains were drawn on this theater of the absurd by another General – the puppy-loving one this time around – when, in 2002, the universally accepted system of a joint electorate was reinstated in Pakistan.
There have been two general elections – in 2002 and 2008 – under the joint electorate system. A third one is just around the corner. Has the change been able to bring religious minorities any closer to the mainstream of politics? The answer is a big disappointing no. The National Assembly has 272 general seats and the four provincial assemblies have a combined 577 general seats. In the past two elections, only one non-Muslim won on a general seat: Dr Daya Ram, who won from a Sindh Assembly constituency (PS 72 Jamshoro 2) on a ticket by the PPP. This is a sufficient demonstration of just how despondent the electoral profile of non-Muslims is in this country.
Even more astonishing is the fact that this electoral profile is actually an inaccurate reflection of the numerical strengths of non-Muslims as voters. In my recently published study titled Religious Minorities in Pakistan’s Elections for the Christian World Service, I have attempted to explore this subject in some detail. The study estimates the number of non-Muslim voters in each constituency of the National Assembly as well as the four provincial assemblies and finds that in almost a third of the National Assembly constituencies (98 of 272), the estimated number of non-Muslim voters is 10,000 or more. An average National Assembly constituency has 300,000 voters and with turnout generally remaining below 50 per cent, these pockets of non-Muslim voters should water any candidate’s mouth. Just to further emphasise the significance of these voters, consider the fact that over the last two elections the victory margin in 107 National Assembly constituencies was lower than the number of non-Muslim voters residing in each of them.
The same holds true for provincial assemblies where 191 of 577 constituencies are estimated to have more than 5,000 non-Muslim voters each. A provincial assembly constituency is generally half the size of that of a National Assembly, if not smaller. In Sindh, non-Muslims, mostly Hindus, are around nine per cent of the province’s population; in nine out of 130 general Sindh Assembly constituencies, the estimated number of non-Muslim voters is more than 50,000 and between 25,000 and 50,000 in another 11.
Non-Muslims in Punjab, mostly Christians, are a miniscule 2.5 per cent of the population but their location and distribution lends them some strategic electoral significance. They mostly reside in the urban areas of central Punjab — every sixth Pakistani Christian is living in Lahore. Christians are concentrated in the districts of Lahore, Faisalabad, Sheikhupura, Gujranwala, Sialkot and Kasur where the estimated number of Christian voters may go up to tens of thousands in some constituencies. The highest number of Christian voters in a National Assembly constituency is 43,000 for NA 125 Lahore 8. Now factor in the fact that every tenth voter belonging to Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz lives in Lahore. Central Punjab, therefore, is the Panipat of our electoral battles and if the new ‘invader’, Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, is able to make a mark and convert the contest into a three-way fight here, the non-Muslim voters shall assume great importance.
But do political parties realise how important non-Muslims can be as voters? The answer again is a big disappointing no. Some of the stalwarts of leading political parties, both in government and opposition, do not even fully comprehend the current system of elections as far as non-Muslim voters are concerned. They don’t do their math. Their level of understanding the science of elections is abysmally low. They have been relying too much on the support of invisible players in this game or are hooked to traditional systems of patronage whereby they manage to gather numbers by bribing a select group of village-level political brokers. But with democracy taking root and elections occuring with certainty and at regular intervals, all that is bound to change.
Magic formulas now have to be replaced with scientific calculations, with a clearer understanding of each of their components. All sections of the electorate must now be counted — none can be ignored or taken for granted. The upcoming election is likely to test the political parties on how well they really know the constituencies and their inhabitants.
— The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group