States, Elections, and The Promise of Newness: Thinking with Pakistan’s 2018 General Election

Photo by Commonwealth Secretariat, licensed under CC BY NC.

In the winter of 2017, as villagers in Pakistan’s Punjab region discussed an irrigation canal breach, one of them, Shahab baba, reflected: “Ayub da time changa see. Odday dawr icch sher tte bakrii iko naddii ttu pani peenday sii [Ayub’s time was good. In his time, a lion and a goat would drink water at the same stream]." Ayub Khan presided over the first period of military rule in Pakistan, from 1958 to 1969. In Shahab baba’s telling, the powerful and the weak could drink water at the same stream in those days. The weak didn’t have to fear. But others at the panchayat (village council) gathering raised their voices to say “Na ji, chaddo ji, bilkul nahin [No, no, not at all].”

On this day, as on so many others, the conversation turned to siasat (politics), jamhooriat (democracy), and hakoomat (government). Someone observed that incidents of water theft spiked under elected governments. The end of military rule was said to bring on a bad ordering, or lack of order. Khuli chuttii (freedom) meant that everyone could do as he or she pleased. Then Hanif sahib interjected: “Master lal dde ddin barra ttang keetta see. Goshtt di dukaan nuun jaali laani paindee see [The time of Master Lal [a reference to martial law] was such an inconvenience. I had to install wire gauze around my meat shop [to keep the flies out].]” Everyone laughed.

Razak sahib added: “Iss dde mazak nuun chaddo. Ye jamhoorii dawr aye. Saada wii haqq aye. Aye behttur aye, iddaich sunwayee hundi aye. [Ignore his joke! This is a democratic age. It is our right, too. This is better because everyone is heard].” Kareem sahib, seated next to him, countered: “Kahan? Hun gharz sirf vote naal aye, sunwayee fair vii koi naen hundii [Where? Now the only concern is getting votes, there is still no right to be heard].”

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The vignette above offers a glimpse of the stringent standards to which democratic and other regimes of rule are being held in Pakistan today, opening up questions like: How does it matter, and to whom, whether rule is democratic or military? How are states perceived, performed, and (re)produced? How do they unravel? And how do the ways in which ordinary people understand states (within states) inform anthropological conceptions of statecraft?1

Last year’s general election marked only the third time in Pakistan’s history that an elected government completed its full term. When polls closed, over fifty million votes had been cast and Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party (Movement for Justice; PTI), was sworn in as the country’s eighteenth prime minister. In the lead-up to the election, as military control of the press tightened and the ailing fortunes of the ruling party became clear, its leader, the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, declared at a rally: “My competition is not with [other political parties]. Our competition is with khalai makhlook [extraterrestrial creatures] that can’t be seen.” The reference here was to the military establishment, otherwise known as the miltablishment or the deep state.

Around the same time, The Guardian carried a piece about the deep state in the United States. “America doesn’t have coups or tanks in the street,” it began. This may be true on its face, but America has supported coups and placed tanks in streets abroad. So as U.S. political discourse in the Trump era examines states within states at home, it is worth looking at deep states elsewhere in the world, especially those that bear an American imprint. This perspective is not likely to be a popular one, given what Nasser Hussain (2003, 14) has described as the “construction of the epistemic space of the West . . . as putatively self-contained.” The former CIA director Michael Hayden protested in his recent book: “I know what antidemocratic forces look like. I have seen them in multiple foreign countries. There is no ‘deep state’ in the American republic.” This imaginary is at once provincial and remarkably expansive, distinguishing America from all the world.

Consider the previous general election in Pakistan, back in 2013. Then, the PTI’s promises of a corruption-free New Pakistan picked up momentum in tandem with protests against drone strikes and support for closing NATO supply routes to Afghanistan. The PTI narrative was that the Pakistani leadership had sold the country’s sovereignty for U.S. dollars. While the party advancing these arguments increasingly embraced the support of the military, similar accusations were being leveled against the army by the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, which demanded a stop to human rights violations by the military as part of antiterrorism activities. At a rally in April 2018, its young leader, Manzoor Pashteen, demanded:

Tell us how much money did you get in return for the Pakistani citizens you sold to Americans. We will raise funds on our own and pay you so that our loved ones can be brought back. We don’t even demand that you release them. Present them before courts and punish them under the law if they are found involved in any crime.

A demand is being made on the Pakistan army, the blame is also directed at the Pakistan army, but the United States is getting in the way.

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The anthropological project has tended toward dereifying the state; Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2003, 82) called it “death by conceptualization.” But where the work of cutting the state down to size is ongoing in the streets, in offices, in the courts, on paper, where the state continues to author repression and violence, what are the stakes—both epistemological and political—in declaring that it doesn’t exist (see also Hayat, forthcoming)? Trouillot (2003, 95), after all, noted that the apparent banality of everyday life was a “matter of perspective. As all perspectives, it is revelatory only under certain circumstances. . . . If concepts are not words and if conceptualizations provide the theoretical frame that helps to construct the object of study, then this object of study can never be what is given to the naked eye.”

Such attention to the circumstances that give rise to particular perspectives, as with Pakistan’s history, might yield productive directions for the study of states. In 1972, for instance, the sociologist Hamza Alavi (1972) formulated the notion of an “overdeveloped state,” which went on to form the basis of many insightful studies of the postcolonial state (Saul 1974; Leys 1976; Alatas 1997).2 Alavi argued for a reconceptualization of Marxist theories of the state to accommodate the historical specificity of postcolonial societies and, in particular, the role of what he called the “military-bureaucratic oligarchy” (Alavi 1972, 59). He examined this role in terms of the changing alignment of interests between three propertied classes: the indigenous bourgeoisie, the metropolitan neocolonialist bourgeoisie, and the landed elite.

After national independence in 1947, Alavi argued, the oligarchy in Pakistan acquired relative autonomy from these three classes, such that the state apparatus—the military-bureaucratic oligarchy, as well as politicians in competitive and complementary relationships with the oligarchy—took on a new economic role, one aspect of which was its appropriation of a large part of the nation’s economic surplus. Alavi viewed the role of politicians and political parties as that of brokers, mediating between the public and bureaucracy.

Since that time, cities in Pakistan have expanded, avenues of employment have changed, some international relations have frayed and others strengthened, and political parties have grown and fallen: take, for instance, the lawyers’ movement that led to the unraveling of Pervez Musharraf’s military regime (1999–2008). Nonetheless, Alavi’s approach remains valuable, particularly in its sensitivity to the distance between state and society. Instead of hastily dismissing these terms as reifications of a binary, we stand to learn something by probing when, where, and among which parts of societies such distances are perceived to be growing.

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Imran Khan has come to power with a manifesto that claims to be derived from the Prophet Muhammad’s Madinah charter, drawing inspiration from what it terms “the first welfare state in the history of mankind” and invoking the historian Ibn Khaldun on the relation between justice and civilization. Khan’s platform declares a commitment to building welfarist institutions, not engaging in “just politics,” and to a New Pakistan.

Yet to promise newness entails shedding aspects of the past, and so the PTI manifesto also announces its “mission to change the status quo destructive politics in Pakistan” and to end a “corrupt and decaying system.” It promises that the “legacy of misrule” will be relegated to the “dustbin of history.” Promises of newness are not new, and in fact sync quite well with cyclical temporalities of democratic and military rule (N. Khan n.d.). Ayub Khan, too, wanted to start anew. Soon after assuming control of the country in 1958, he announced in a speech in Karachi:

It is our responsibility and our privilege to start building this country afresh, in accordance with [founding governor Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s] ideals and instructions. A great deal of time has been lost. . . . We have to perform the additional duties of clearing the mess created by previous Governments.

The promise of New Pakistan has exerted a strong pull on Pakistanis from different social locations, with varied institutional, ethnic, and religious affiliations. There is peril in this too; the far-right Tehrik-e-Labaik party’s inroads into electoral politics have caused alarm. What this pull of a New Pakistan consists in, how it will be maintained, who it disappoints, and why it recurs: these questions can be directed at states themselves. Tracing how particular circumstances inform conceptions of and aspirations for states, while staying attuned to where we are looking from and why, then becomes anthropology's task.


1. It may be tempting to ignore lessons in democracy from Pakistan, given that nearly half of the country’s political history has been under formal military rule. The feeling that there are real, proper democracies and all of the other ersatz ones is a widespread one, reflected in Western and Pakistani media alike.

2. There is a rich literature on the state in Pakistan, in particular; see Sayeed 1967, Jalal 1990, Newberg 1995, Toor 2011, Hull 2012, Zaidi 2014, and Akhtar 2018.


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Alavi, Hamza. 1972. “The State in Post-Colonial Societies: Pakistan and Bangladesh.” New Left Review 74: 59–81.

Alatas, Syed Farid. 1997. “The Post-Colonial State: Dual Functions in the Public Sphere.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 23, nos. 1–2: 285–307.

Hayat, Maira. Forthcoming. “Empire’s Accidents: Law, Lies, and Sovereignty in the ‘War on Terror’ in Pakistan.” Critique of Anthropology.

Hull, Matthew S. 2012. Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hussain, Nasser. 2003. The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jalal, Ayesha. 1990. The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan's Political Economy of Defense. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Khan, Naveeda. n.d. "Future Imbued Movement: Ayub Khan’s Legacy for Pakistan." Unpublished manuscript.

Leys, Colin. 1976. “The ‘Overdeveloped’ Post-Colonial State: A Re-Evaluation.” Review of African Political Economy, no. 5: 39–48.

Newberg, Paula R. 1995. Judging the State: Courts and Constitutional Politics in Pakistan. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Saul, John S. 1974. “The State in Post-Colonial Societies: Tanzania.” Socialist Register 11: 349–72.

Sayeed, Khalid B. 1967. The Political System of Pakistan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2003. Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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