Political Space in Persistent Social Structures

A Review of Shandana Khan Mohmand’s Crafty Oligarchs Savvy Voters: Democracy Under Inequality in Rural Pakistan 

Existing accounts of electoral politics in Pakistan place central importance on the role of land-owners in determining the voting behavior of rural citizens, thus calling into question the degree of individual autonomy in Pakistani elections. In Crafty Oligarchs Savvy Voters, Khan Mohmand instead offers a striking view of Pakistani voters as increasingly strategic actors making informed electoral choices intended to maximize their personal and group interests. Her thoughtful conceptual approach and detailed empirical account provide us with a complex and nuanced understanding of the diversity in electoral behavior across rural Pakistan and, in particular, the Sargodha district of Punjab province. In doing so, she also gives us new ways of thinking about how citizens, local elites, and politicians interact, which have important implications for our understanding of democratic development and consolidation.

To make these contributions, Khan Mohmand shifts the typical analytic focus from landed elites—her crafty oligarchs—to the decision-making calculus of rural citizens, so as to understand the specific ways in which they participate in politics and, in so doing, develop and demonstrate political savvy. Thus, rather than assuming voters behave in a particular way because elites say that they do, she instead asks voters about how and why they make decisions. Perhaps surprisingly, in opening up this black box of voting behavior, she does not focus on specific vote choice. Rather, she investigates the decision of whether and how to participate in a local vote bloc, which will then determine a voter’s specific choice of candidate. Key to the analysis, then, is both attention to individual voters and a conscious choice not to succumb to the assumption that vote choice is the key, or only, political decision that matters in a context such as Pakistan. 

While I return momentarily to the substance of Khan Mohmand’s contributions in this volume, I want to touch first on the important methodological innovations that enable her conceptual development and empirical claims. At the heart of this work is a research design that enables both accumulation of knowledge and a comparative analysis that substantially improves on previous work on related topics in the region. To start, she returns to a single village that has been studied twice before, in the 1960s and 1980s, by two different ethnographers. She reviews their findings, which were in line with and helped to build the general consensus that rural voters are constrained in their vote choices by the demands of the local landowners upon whom they rely for economic wellbeing (Ahmad 1977 and Rouse 1988). She then documents similar patterns in the mid 2000s, based on her own fieldwork, while also highlighting minor changes that subsequently help to inform her conceptual framework.

What is key to Khan Mohmand’s approach is that she does not stop there. Instead, she develops a multiple case study design that draws on ethnography, interviews, and surveys to compare this village to five others, which vary along three key theoretical dimensions. Then, she uses a stratified random sample to choose 32 additional villages in which she and her team conduct village censuses and in-depth citizen surveys. This technique allows her both to highlight that village politics can differ quite dramatically within a small geographic area and to examine potential explanations for why this is the case. While this research design does not necessarily allow for the drawing of causal claims, it is particularly well thought-out and implemented, provides a rigorous basis for clear and comprehensive descriptive claims, and may serve as a model for others working in contexts where much of what we think we know is based on single cases.

Khan Mohmand leverages this design to ask three core questions: “(a) Does the landed elite dominate and control the political engagement of rural voters, in spite of political and social change? (b) Does elite domination mean the oligarchic control of local politics, or do landless voters have some bargaining power vis-à-vis landed elites? [And] (c) To what extent are the differences we see in political engagement explained by the institutional basis of inequality?” (7).

In short, she finds that yes, landed elites still play a key role in shaping politics, but this role has changed over time. Most importantly, rather than forcing voters to follow their lead on the basis of economic dependency, most landed elites now serve as conduits to the state and access to public goods and services. As such, they shape electoral outcomes through their ability to navigate the state, rather than their power to provide, or restrict, benefits directly. In addition, the character of this control over voters differs across villages, and these differences are tied tightly to variations in the nature and history of structural inequality in the region.

Khan Mohmand is able to draw these conclusions through the use of multiple conceptual moves that serve to clarify dynamics of individual-level bargaining power and village-level political engagement, as well as focus our theoretical attention on village-level characteristics that may plausibly shape the likelihood of particular individual outcomes. Key to the conceptual framework is the notion of vote blocs, which she defines as “territorially-bounded, village level informal political institutions that are organized and led by local political intermediaries…Vote bloc leaders organize political action at the level of a village through these institutions, and recruit voters on different bases to make collective electoral decisions. Vote bloc members and leaders may identify with political parties but they are not organized by them and they may often change their support from one party to another” (121-122). What is particularly important about this conceptualization is that it allows for Khan Mohmand to consider a different type of voting behavior than simply the decision to vote and for whom. Instead, she focuses on whether individuals choose to participate in a vote bloc and, if so, which vote bloc. Even though the members of the blocs are understood to vote, generally, for the same candidate, and so have been perceived previously to hold limited individual agency over vote choice, Khan Mohmand highlights the important ways in which prior decisions about participation in vote blocs themselves demonstrate opportunities for individual political decision-making.

She then develops an index of village-level political engagement that measures electoral contestation and the degree of political inclusion. The measure of contestation takes into account both political competition overall, as well as the degree of political independence for the lowest caste group. For inclusion, she considers both how individuals are recruited into a vote bloc and how, if at all, they are included in decisions over whom to support. By measuring these four characteristics across her case studies and broader sample, she is then able to provide an estimate of the degree that political engagement varies within the district and the ways in which it does so. It would be particularly interesting to see this framework applied in similar contexts, as it goes a long way to productively bringing together an important set of complex dynamics into a single measurement framework. The result of this analysis is clear descriptive evidence that individuals and villages across Sargodha differ quite dramatically in the character of their political engagement, and this variation cannot be explained by existing theoretical accounts.

Why then does this variation occur? Khan Mohmand’s argument is that, unlike past accounts emphasizing solely the role of “feudal” landlords, kinship groups, clientelism, or class and party ideology, explaining local politics involves all of these dimensions, but must start with attention to the drivers of structural inequality in rural areas. Key to her explanation is the persistent role of varying land tenure patterns that derive from British colonial land allocations. Specifically, differences in whether a village’s land was allocated as a “proprietary” village, with most, if not all, land falling to a single individual, or as a “Crown colony” village, with land rights allocated more broadly (though only to agricultural castes), have long-lasting implications for structural inequality and, thus, political characteristics of a village.

A secondary driver of variation across villages comes from changes over time in economic opportunities for individuals who historically have held dependent relationships to land owners. Where changes in land tenure rules or accessibility of nearby towns opened up new options for tenants or wage laborers, this weakens (or possibly even eliminates) the control of landed elites over individuals and vote blocs. Previous subjects are then able either to acquire land themselves, or to establish economic bases outside the village, thereby shifting from a relationship of dependence on local landholders to one based on social or other ties. It is these characteristics of historically-rooted and dynamically changing inequality, then, that determine whether a particular village and its vote bloc(s) are characterized by politics that we might otherwise describe as feudal, kinship-based, clientelistic, or class and party-oriented.

What is the implication of this argument and findings for our understanding of Pakistan’s democracy now and in the future? As it stands, the book demonstrates that Pakistan’s democracy is, at least in certain ways, more robust than many accounts suggest. There are clear examples of political contestation and individual voters are frequently making decisions about how to achieve their political goals and when to vary their strategies in this regard. 

Yet, the continued reliance of vote blocs on landed leaders, and the generally limited role of political parties in shaping political decisions on the ground, suggest that overall movement toward a party-based, programmatic style of politics remains in doubt. As Khan Mohmand elaborates in the final two chapters, more dramatic political change of this sort will require both improvements in the quality of public service delivery and the emergence of more direct ties between viable political parties and individual voters.

Related to the issue of democratic consolidation, Khan Mohmand’s volume also hints at a potentially important area of further research that aligns with other recent work on Pakistan in Political Science. Despite the general emphasis in the empirical evidence on men as political leaders, on multiple occasions women appear as important (or potentially important) actors in Pakistani politics. There is Malika, the widow of an established landed leader in the important initial village case, who goes on to be a successful politician in her own right, navigating shifts in political dynamics over time with great aplomb. And then there is the example, from Khan Mohmand’s return visit to her case villages in 2013, of a vote bloc made up primarily of women and led by a woman who was a lady health worker and had benefited from a programmatic policy to improve maternal care across the country. While the majority of women surveyed deferred to their husbands on questions of vote choice, these examples, and Khan Mohmand’s more informal conversations with women across the villages, suggest important ways in which women may influence politics that are far from understood. Interestingly, related work by Khan Mohmand and co-authors on possible drivers of election turnout among women, by Sarah Khan on gender-based differences in preferences over public goods, and by Asad Liaqat on the varying effects on politician behavior of information on women’s versus men’s policy preferences, all suggest that understanding the relationship between gender, public goods and services preferences, and representation by political parties may be core to the dynamics of potential democratic consolidation that Khan Mohmand describes in her Conclusion. Political parties that can identify the preferences of female voters, make credible promises to act on these preferences, and mobilize women to vote, as difficult as each of these activities may be, might find clear opportunities to develop strong, direct ties to voters on the basis of programmatic politics.

In conclusion, Khan Mohmand offers in Crafty Oligarchs Savvy Voters an insightful, well-designed and implemented study of rural democracy in a context that has been, it seems, too frequently assumed to be undemocratic. While the character of political decision-making may differ from that in consolidated democracies, Pakistani citizens are increasingly working within the confines of their structural situations to press leaders into delivering benefits. The degree to which this is feasible, and successful, depends on patterns of structural inequality, but even in the most unequal areas we see shifts and changes toward greater political choice. The conceptual and methodological approaches provided here, as well as the keen insights into every day democracy in Pakistan, offer important contributions to the study of South Asian politics and comparative politics more generally.


Ahmad, Saghor. 1977. Class and Power in a Pubjabi Village. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Cheema, Ali, Asad Liaqat, Sarah Khan, and Shandana Khan Mohmand. “De Facto Suffrage: A Field Experiment to Improve Women's Turnout in Pakistan's General Election.” Working Paper.

Khan, Sarah. “Personal is Political: Prospects for Women's Substantive Representation in Pakistan” Working Paper.

Liaqat, Asad. “Representation Through Information: Politician Responsiveness to Citizen Preferences in Pakistan,” Working Paper.

Rouse, Shahnaz. 1988. “Agrarian Transformation in a Punjabi Village: Structural Change and its Consequences,” PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Shandana Khan Mohmand is Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK and Associate Fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, Pakistan.

Jennifer Bussell is Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent book, Clients and Constituents: Political Responsiveness in Patronage Democracies (Oxford University Press, 2019), considers when and how elected politicians provide non-partisan constituency service to voters, in India and elsewhere.

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