What is the Youth Thinking?
Pakistan was at the polls today, the 8th of February 2024 in what has widely been discussed as one of the country’s glummest election exercises, not least because it comes after a long delay in constitutionally-stipulated electoral timelines.
But it is also the country’s most interesting elections, primarily because the significant majority in this cycle is under 45 years (the 18-45 age group constitutes 66% of the vote bank). Some 22.5 million new voters were added to the electoral rolls for this election (typically those who have turned 18 since the last General Elections in 2018), nearly 50% of which are women. This means today was one of the youngest electoral competitions in the world out of an anticipated 64 international elections that will happen over 2024.
Whoever wins, multiple crisis fronts (economy; constitutional questions; social policy reform) will have to be managed inventively, and almost immediately. And while so much of what has happened in Pakistan over the last few years has been discussed as a military-political elite power struggle, far less analytical representation exists from the perspective of the grassroots voter, every 2 in 5 of which are less than 35 years old.
Pakistan’s stagflation and growing wealth inequality are serious concerns mediating life opportunity in young Pakistan. But what else may be going through the minds of the youth, especially those coming into the formal democratic process? This was a key question that motivated the beginning of my work in 2013 with young Pakistanis entering and exiting Lahore, whether for an education, employment, family expectation or street protest.
(My research deals with primarily young men, who are registered in larger numbers than women on the national electoral rolls, and who still have a relatively greater access to ‘public’ life and spaces from where civic/political discourse is most likely to emerge. There are certainly changes to this scenario in the last year, with women political prisoners presenting a new test case for women’s political resolve, but this is not a feature of my current work’s dataset)
Learning Happens Both Experientially and Vicariously
Pakistani young voters today have been strongly, and irreversibly, informed by the rise of non-traditional information sources. In contrast to the weak assumption that young people consume disparate pieces of unverified information to form incoherent opinions, those immersed within a contextual network of social, cultural, political and digital landscapes eventually draw from the many sites and spaces of a contemporary public sphere. In this ‘new’ type of modern public for Pakistan, both everyday lived experiences and digital/social media are reconfigured for civic and political enactment by young people as part of their everyday selves.
By way of example, this is an excerpt from a discussion with young men whose experiences around the mosque as a religious site compel them to think critically about a public choice of words (discourse) when expressing religion. Such experiences also make them conscious of how members of their own society can be ‘othered’ with no obvious remorse or fear of accountability on the speaker’s part for violating the dignity and rights of fellow Pakistani citizens:
I’ve seen in (some) sectarian mosques, they won’t even care if Shias might be there, they’ll say things like, ‘Ya Allah Ahl-e-Tashi ko jahannum naseeb karai’ (May Allah destine the Shiites for the Hellfire)…Or there will be these neighbourhood Wahaabis, and they’ll appear around the time of Eid Milad un Nabi and try to shut down all our celebrations. I don’t remember that happening when I was a child…I’ve even seen one whole night when a maulvi from Ahl-e-Hadees got into an argument with a maulvi from Ahl-e-Sunnat and they were arguing and fighting all night long over loudspeaker until nearly 4 am. During that time, they even declared each other kafir (disbeliever), and swore a number of times.
…What happens in our area is that just because this imam is the local maulvi, whatever he says is right and we have to just act on it and support him. Everyone comes to listen with closed mind and deaf ears…I tried to speak out, but people got very angry so I left. And what are most of the people sitting there saying? Ameen, ameen, Allah karai, ameen (Amen, amen, may God will it, amen).
Boys 3 and 4
What happens in our villages is that the big man or chaudhri used to be the patron of the maulvi (religious man), if one chaudhri kicked out a maulvi another would keep him, the chaudries used to decide who could be an important religious leader or not – I’m not saying that was right, either, but now it’s like if you kick out the maulvi, maulvi sahib (Mr Religious Man) is coming back with a klashnikov to start attacking everyone who doesn’t agree with him!’
Even those who do not read extensively now have access to distillations of important written works, reports and news analyses through an abundance of online platforms ranging from YouTube to TikTok. Subtle references to names provide insight to the variety of information sources young Pakistanis can be aware of when discussing a number of public issues as well as their underlying power dynamics:
Participant X + W
Kitabein kaun parta hai, madam? (Who reads books, ma’am?) I don’t have that much time in my field (of work). You can listen to most things now, and you – here – wait – I’ll show you (pulls out phone and fidgets with it) listen here, this guy discusses many different works by economists, former bureaucrats, like whatever he likes to read, then he talks about it here. Yahan hee suna tha – unka mushkil naam tha – unki kitab thee ke mulk kaisai tabah hotai hain (I heard it here – it was a difficult name – the book was about how countries get destroyed (we eventually determine she is referring to Why Nations Fail)).
Yep, she’s right. Let me show you. (Asks for my number and shares a YouTube channel). This is me. I do small economy updates. It’s my small contribution to helping people understand the situation.
Participants A + B
Somebody told me I’m crazy because I only listen to Imran Riaz. I laughed and told him I also listen to Shahzeb Khanzada – will you accept me now – (gets cut off by a peer, who turns to me) Ma’am, do you know who these two are? You sound like a BBC type (mimics British English; they both laugh).
That Problem, ‘The Elite’
Following the 2016 Panama Papers investigation, which revealed the offshore properties of the world’s rich and famous (including some in Pakistan), young Pakistanis with whom I have done my research – especially those with at least a Matriculation education – discuss ‘the elite’ frequently and usually critically. In 2013, some of my participants offered different ways of conceptualizing ‘elite’ as a social category:
Elite are (pause) people with some power to do special things. You could say from a socialist perspective, the bourgeoisie. They have a power to generate and use resources. But some people confuse this elite with just an ordinary upper class, which has money, but not much else. They always look up to some other elite. Sure, they have some power and people might salute them when they pass by, but can they really influence (pause) say, politics? Like the Muslim landlords of India? Or the British Empire?
Real elite is somebody on a pedestal for good reason. They have wisdom, knowledge, leadership, and ability to counsel people to learn to tolerate each other. They speak the truth, are honest, and careful about others in their community. You could say our Nabi kareem (Prophet Muhammad PBUH) was this kind of elite. An elite you can look up to.
Over the last many years, young Pakistanis (women and men) in my research process appear to have become increasingly critical of the first conceptualization, resulting in an emerging politics of resistance to traits that contrast fellow citizens as living a ‘gandi zindagi’ (see below).
Elite people get degrees from the best universities, but not for intellectualism (sic). Yeh parhai likhai jaahil bantai hain (pause) aap mind na keejiye ga. Yeh Punjab ke parhai likhai log ab dekh rahay hain humarai saath kya hota raha kab sai. (These are educated ignoramuses (pause, and on realising I also have a foreign university degree) please don’t mind me saying that. Educated people in the Punjab can see now what had been happening with us since whenever.)
They’re just doing it to keep existing power structures going, like sustaining a business even when they are in government, or other kinds of power, like shouting slogans of socialism, but look – he was a landlord until he died and his family is still hoarding lands. (pause) My own family does this. This is the worst kind of hypocrisy. (pause) The people who never rebel because it is just comfortable…never think about something different. Gandi zindagi hai (It’s a disgusting life).
Such expressions may well be interpreted as indications of polarized polity. Yet young people’s identification of structures that reinforce a reluctance to change suggests equal attention be paid to the many dimensions of a polarizing system that capitalises class, ethnic and gender divides for material prospects. Contesting this conventional ‘wisdom’ that has long underpinned Pakistan’s voting patterns (and resultant governance approaches) now forms the central premise of youth voting preferences.
In central Punjab, this phenomenon was already emerging by 2019 among rural working class voting blocs. By 2022, the July by-elections held in 20 different provincial constituencies offered further evidence of this phenomenon: the elections generated a record turnout for by-polls (>40% compared to an expected 20-30%), and where the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf won some 15 of the 20 seats, one of the party’s losses came from a constituency where the party fielded a dynastic candidate: voters did not respond kindly to the decision.
It is within this complex sociological framework that youth negotiates meanings of self and citizenship in contemporary Pakistan. So if a fundamental element of becoming a democratic republic is to put ‘voice’ to people’s sense of civic or political self, the importance of the vote of nearly 2/3rds of the country can no longer be trivialized:
Participant: There is no option but to struggle. I am nothing if I don’t have my voice.
Me: So what’s the struggle?
Participant: Fairness. Justice.
Me: How does that happen?
Participant: It’s not that simple. I do what I can. Protest. Create awareness based on what I have lived and seen. I saw the wedding in Kasur where people killed the man and they kept on eating. Who have we become? How can you eat when there has been a death?
Me: And your voice?
Participant: My vote.
Me: And if it doesn’t happen? If elections don’t happen?
Participant: Kabhi toh hongai na. Aur merai paas toh time hee time hai. (They’ll happen eventually, right? And I’ve got all the time in the world.) (laughs).
Soufia A Siddiqi, Assistant Professor, School of Education, LUMS