Conducting research in Karachi is exciting. Every summer, I look travel to this city and speak to its inhabitants about their water problems. Hanging around with officials and listening to everyday people describe how they navigate Karachi’s hydraulic chaos; I have heard some truly marvellous stories about life in this city. This summer, however, the stories have changed. Election fever has gripped Karachi, and the city’s residents are keen to respond to questions about water with answers about politics. Often, dry pipes are explained in terms of false promises made by “bad” politicians. The stories go something like this: “electable candidates” from various political parties promise to provide amenities like water if voted into office.They make considerable pomp and show about visiting their potential constituents to guarantee an immediate fix to water problems personally. Seemingly convinced by the most charismatic of these individuals (and their inexplicable magical powers), the people vote in his favour. Once elected, however, the compelling agent of change quickly morphs into a bad politician who doesn’t so much as remember the promises he made before the polls. The entire process then repeats itself during the next elections. It is easy to dismiss this pattern as an intrinsic feature of Pakistani politics. But, the stories people tell about things like water raise a question that is glossed over a little too quickly every election year; what do people vote for?A knee-jerk reaction would be to say that people are duped into voting for charlatans. In other words, the “masses” — as they are affectionately referred to — unreflectively vote on the basis of promises rather than material changes. When those same promises turn out to be hollow, the people vote for a new face that makes the same commitments without stopping to question the rigged nature of the entire system. Critical scholarship, in turn, suggests that the real problem lies with the issue of consent. Marxist scholars of postcolonial societies have argued, for instance, that the urban poor suffer from false consciousness. The absence of resistance through protest or civil society for things like clean drinking water is presented as negative proof that the urban poor have, at least tacitly, accepted a structure of power in which they are highly disadvantaged. Living at the margins of states and markets, these groups are said to accept their lot in life simply. This perspective suggests asking what people vote for is, therefore, a moot point. Instead, it is more important to show how practices like voting reproduce marginalisation at a structural level.“Electable” candidates should not be surprised when people spurn their campaigns and say they prefer to vote for self-stylised ‘pious men’ rather than material benefits, which, as they have repeatedly learnt, are as full of air as their water pipesBut consent is a heavy-handed concept that does little to capture Karachi’s diverse electoral landscape. It is therefore instructive to momentarily look beyond Karachi to reflect on what might be going on just under the surface in the city of lights.In Rule By Aesthetics, a wonderfully humanising study of slum demolitions in New Delhi, Asher Ghertner describes how the city’s informal residents refuse to become collateral damage in the name of progress as their homes are razed to make way for a “world-class city.” Rather than protesting and marching in the streets, however, New Delhi’s urban poor accept the world-class city narrative, using the very descriptive categories invented by city planners, like “slum” and “world class”, to shame their own living conditions as having no place in a shining new city. Crucially, however, in consenting to these narratives, the urban poor actively make space for themselves in a new future even as it seeks to exclude them.Ghertner’s study suggests that rather than being the end of politics, consent gives rise to new political spaces when overt resistance is impossible, unrealistic, or simply undesirable. Just as settlers in New Delhi accept the power-laden categories of slum and world-class to make space for themselves in a modernist future actively, Karachi’s urban poor, too, continue to accept voting as a legitimate practice even though elections have been an instrument of their continued subjugation. But in consenting to this structure, Karachi’s poor also claim the idealised premise behind voting as a distinctly moral and desirable practice. Using the same language of democratic rights touted by the city’s political class, the urban poor draw sharp distinction between bad politicians that game the system and good politicians that care for their constituents and listen to their problems sincerely, even if they cannot personally resolve them.It is not the relative truth content of these moralised distinction between good and bad politicians that matter, but their potential for turning the wheels of political change. With normatively valorised forms of political action like protest rendered structurally ineffective or impossible, stories of good and bad leaders become powerful justifications for political action.One needs to look no further than the revival of hard-line religious and nationalistic politics in Karachi to see the extreme effects of such discursive politicking. Rather than promising new roads, a cleaner city, or abundant water, these outfits have instead claimed the high ground in a game of moral chess. And yet, their gains are not indicative of a suddenly more pious electorate. Instead, the ground ceded to the mélange of right-wing religious parties is a cumulative by-product of years of failed promises which have convinced Karachi’s urban poor that a morally deficient political class is the root cause of their problems.Organising weekly rallies and shouting promises of promises of clean water, “electable” candidates will continue to ignore the fundamental question of what people vote for. They should not be surprised, then, when people spurn their campaigns and say they prefer to vote for self-stylised “pious men” rather than material benefits, which, as they have repeatedly learnt, are as full of air as their water pipes.The writer is a freelance columnistPublished in Daily Times, July 4th 2018.