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Pakistan’s Politics and the Urban Middle Class

Posted on December 26, 2007
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Thailand’s parliamentary elections on December 23 provided fresh evidence (if evidence is still needed) of the futility of military intervention as a means of changing the fundamental political trends of a nation. The Economist recently referred to Thailand as “Southeast Asia’s Pakistan.” The fundamental problem in both countries is the same: an overbearing military, which often receives support from the urban elite and professional middle class, and argues that the poor peasants simply do not elect the right people.

Even now, as the Pakistani middle class is engaged in supporting civil society’s struggle for rule of law, the contempt for electable politicians is visceral and visible. While the criticism of politicians both in Thailand and Pakistan is often justified, the question we must address is whether politics can really be wished away.



Successful third world democracies are born out of cooperation between politicians with vote banks and middle class professionals with ideas about good governance. In countries like Pakistan and Thailand, however, such cooperation is scant. There is a tendency on the part of the professional middle class to look down upon the politicians with vote banks, which then creates a gulf between them and electable leaders. In the case of Pakistan, the educated urban elite have gradually turned against the very process of politics. The middle class dismisses all politicians who have a real chance of being elected with refrains like “They are all the same.” But after many attempts an alternative political leadership has also not emerged because vote banks are not easy to create or destroy.

First a word about Thailand, to enable the comparison with Pakistan. Thai voters gave the largest number of seats in parliament to the Peoples Power Party (PPP) which comprises supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was overthrown in a September 2006 coup.

The Thai military barred Thaksin and 110 of his closest associates from contesting the polls. His Thai Rak Thai party (TRT) was also disbanded by the generals on grounds of “corruption.” Thailand has witnessed 18 military coups since 1932 and its meddling in politics has usually been supported by professionals who resent the country’s “feudal” and “corrupt” politics. (Sound familiar?). But Thailand’s PPP, which campaigned on a platform of ending Thaksin’s exile and exclusion from politics, won convincingly despite the military’s opposition. Quite clearly, Thai officials did not go beyond skewing the election rules against Thailand’s PPP and the actual balloting was not significantly rigged –something one hopes Pakistan’s rulers will bear in mind on January 8.

According to The Economist,

“Pakistan is not the only Asian country where a dodgy military regime is running a general election under dubious electoral rules in the hope of keeping out a similarly dodgy civilian whom it overthrew.”

Thailand’s civilian politicians, including Thaksin, are obviously not perfect and can be criticized for the same reasons that the Pakistani middle class is often disillusioned with Pakistani politicians. But isn’t the point of democracy to let people choose whomever they like and then vote them out of power upon discovering that their chosen leaders did not fulfil the people’s aspirations?

The problem is that the populist politicians like Thaksin (and in Pakistan’s case the Bhutto family or even Nawaz Sharif), whom the army and the professional elite dislikes, do not necessarily disappoint their own voters. As The Economist explains,

“Middle-class Bangkokians, who are as snooty about their country cousins as any metropolitan elite anywhere, often say that ‘uneducated’ rural voters… were bribed and tricked into voting for Mr Thaksin. But rural voters were quite rational in handing him landslide victories in 2001 and 2005. He was Thailand’s first party leader to promise and deliver a comprehensive set of policies aimed at the mass of voters. The allegations of corruption, conflicts of interest and vote-buying that surround him are serious but hardly unusual: such practices are endemic in Thai politics.”

In other words, the poor who vote for populist leaders actually benefit or think they benefit from their policies even though these might not impress generals or World Bank economists. If only the generals understood that there is no trickle down from F-16s and the urban professionals and business elites realized that their lifestyles and attitudes are part of the reason for the success of the populists, there would be no need for frequent coups to settle the dispute between professionals with ideas on good governance and politicians who control the vote banks.

In country after country, military backed efforts to change the pattern of politics in accordance with plans advocated by the urban elite have cracked whenever the rubber of high-sounding (and most likely theoretically rooted) politico-economic ideas has met the road of actual electoral politics.

During the 1960s Pakistan’s urban middle class preferred Ayub Khan and his top-down Convention Muslim League only to find that the party had no roots by the time of the 1970 general elections. After the peasantry had voted the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto into office, during the 1970s, the middle class preferred Air Marshal Asghar Khan and his Tehrik-e-Istiqlal (TI). The PPP was supported by the progressive intelligentsia until the 1970 elections but that support ended once Bhutto came to power. His real and perceived flaws became more important to the middle class than the need to persist with his party in the hope of eventually reforming it. The 1977 Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) campaign revealed that the anti-PPP vote bank was mobilized not by TI or Asghar Khan but by the Islamist religious parties.

After the end of Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship in 1988, and a concerted decade-long effort by the military-intelligence combine to break the back of the PPP, Benazir Bhutto still commanded more votes than the middle class’s new choice, Nawaz Sharif. By the time Nawaz Sharif created his own vote bank, the urban professionals had turned on him and preferred Imran Khan and his Tehrik-e-Insaf.

Even now, on many English-language blogs it is clear that the educated elite that supported General Pervez Musharraf right after the 1999 coup has now shifted its loyalty to the anti-politician politicians (like Imran Khan and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry) rather than putting their support where the majority of voters seem inclined. In the aftermath of the Musharraf regime’s attack on the Supreme Court there is opposition to military rule among the middle class but there has been no softening of attitudes towards the popular politicians.

“Politics,” said John Kenneth Galbraith “is not the art of the possible. It consists of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”

But urban professionals in countries like Thailand and Pakistan fail to recognize the difficulties and realities of the political world. They want a planned and structured solution of all problems, backed by governance literature and economic theory. Votes are not won by these methods. Popular politicians may not rise to the “high” standards of the educated elite but they have a way of connecting with the people.

Pakistan was created as a result of a political process. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a politician who worked in three political parties (The Home Rule League, Congress and the Muslim League) during his half century in politics and, of course, cannot be described as a “lota” for moving from being the “Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity” to the leading exponent of the two-nation theory. For the Muslim League’s success in the 1945-46 election, Quaid-e-Azam embraced every influential landowner who was willing to switch from Punjab’s Unionist Party until the eve of the election. Like any politician, he raised funds for the Muslim League and did not shun donations from the Hindu Seth Dalmia (who wanted to insure his investments in a future Pakistan) or Parsis like Rustomjee Fakirjee Cowasjee (father of columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee). The Quaid-e-Azam’s integrity is above board but the purpose here is to point out that there are some things inherent in the political process that are unfairly condemned when lesser mortals engage in them.

Participation in politics leads to one becoming a public figure and therefore vulnerable to attack. Even the most leading professionals can afford to lead a somewhat anonymous life by comparison. Rumours and allegations, both true and false, circulate about political figures—something not faced by physicians, engineers, accountants, businessmen, bankers, college professors or financial sector managers. Political figures can be ridiculed even when they are not at fault. (Remember the widely circulated video clip of a woman journalist-turned-politician being wrongfully touched at a rally and how it was circulated on the internet by educated Pakistanis for recreation?)

Pakistan’s middle class professionals have never paid the price paid by the political class for its role. Politics requires resilience. It can’t be easy to be jailed for long periods of time, harassed by the Intelligence services and being exposed to attack from all sides irrespective of personal conduct. The media eats the politicians alive. Gossip about them abounds. Their assets and property (even if legitimately acquired) do not have the protection of the law when they are in opposition.

Electable politicians have often reached out to professionals for help and support but consistently spurned. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto invited Dr Mahbub-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s leading development economist and a progressive humanitarian to join his government as head of the planning commission. He refused only to serve in the same capacity under the military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq. Many of the professionals currently agitating against the excesses of the Musharraf regime served in it soon after the 1999 coup –including Javed Jabbar, Athar Minallah, and even Muneer Malik, to name a few.

The very fact that Shahid Javed Burki, Moin Qureshi, Dr Naseem Ashraf and others like them are willing to serve military regimes but not elected civilian ones shows the anti-politics prejudice of Pakistani professionals. The few who work with the political parties –Sartaj Aziz, V.A. Jaffery—serve in government but show no stamina for opposition. Contrast that with, say, Manmohan Singh and his consistent support for the Indian National Congress whether in power or in opposition.

Quite often, the middle class critique of Pakistan’s politics is based on rejecting its “feudal” nature. Urban professionals tend to describe any rural politician who owns some land as ‘feudal’, which is incorrect. Feudalism refers to a system of land tenure that creates reciprocal obligations upon Lord and Vassal. It exists in parts of Pakistan but in many cases, those described as feudals in Pakistani political discourse are simply influential landowners who succeed in politics by acting as intermediaries between poor peasants and the overbearing (and in many cases ‘external’) state machinery. Thus, the landed gentry of Sindh and Punjab do not “own” their peasants or sharecroppers. They earn their loyalty by creating a parallel system of dealing on behalf of “natives” with the civil service, police and military that usually comes from outside the local area.

We need an empirical contemporary study on the residual feudal influence in Pakistan’s rural politics. Many of the famous feudal names have been marginalized since independence but the myth of feudal dominance endures. Among those wiped out electorally (except for occasional inclusion in caretaker cabinets by the army): Khuhros of Larkana, Tiwanas of Sargodha, Daulatanas of Vehari, the Qazi Fazlullah family of Sindh, the Gardezis of Multan, the Nawabs of Qasur and the Mamdots of Ferozpur/Lahore.

It is interesting that even non-feudal rural politicians are identified by urban professionals mistakenly as “feudals.” Thus, Tehmina Daulatana who ran a school in Lahore before entering politics is identified through her relationship with the erstwhile Punjab Chief Minister and Ambassador to London rather than as an educator. Nisar Khuhro, a humble self-made lawyer from Larkana who studied in England on scholarship, is often confused with the feudal Khuhros because of the same last name. No one recalls that the Chaudhries of Gujrat and their rivals the Pagganwalas and Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar are not feudals but industrialists. The original feudals from Gujrat district, the Nawabzada family, has long been marginalized in politics.

There is no dispute about the undesirability of feudal influence in Pakistani politics, just the extent of its pervasiveness. Since Ayub Khan, feudalism has been used as an excuse to deny the validity of electoral politics. In the process, urban legends and the oft-repeated clichés negate the emerging political dynamic, which is the result of sub-divisions within feudal families due to division of inheritance as well as increasing urbanization. Also, a distinction needs to be made between dynastic politics and feudal politics. Quite often the two are mixed up in Pakistan’s urban political discourse.

Political dynasties are common to all democracies, including advanced ones. Some argue it has to do with name recognition and the sentimental dimension of politics. The US has had, and still has, several dynasties: The Adams of Massachusetts (including 2nd and 6th President), the Harrisons of Ohio/Indiana (incl 9th and 23rd President), the Tafts of Ohio (incl. 27th President and several Governors, Senators and presidential candidates), the Bush family of Connecticut and Texas (41st and 43 rd President and several other high offices) and the Kennedys of New England ( 35th President and several members of congress from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York). Several states have regional dynasties. Just google the names Long of Louisiana or Udall of Arizona/New Mexico and see how many members of these families have won governorships, mayoralties or seats in Congress in recent years.

If Hillary Clinton gets elected in 2008 and wins a second term as well, the US would have been ruled by a Bush or a Clinton for 28 uninterrupted years from 1988 to 2016.

Reform of the feudal structure in Pakistan is important and desirable. It is equally important to stop using it as an excuse to put off democracy in Pakistan, which unfortunately urban professional supporters of military rule have consistently done since 1958. If India, Sri Lanka and the US can evolve democracies with political dynasties so can Pakistan. Reform of land tenure and feudalism can be part of the democratic process, not something that must precede democracy. The remaining feudals would lose influence over time and after successive (and honest) elections. Considering that successive military regimes have failed to accomplish it, quite clearly a non-democratic approach to ending feudalism has not worked.

Instead of constantly judging politicians with an unrealistic yardstick, Pakistan’s urban professionals should embrace the political process. They can act as pressure groups within the major popular parties rather than a loose grouping that helps discredit popular leaders only to pave the way for further military intervention in politics. Politicians should be criticized by all means but the anti-politics mood of the middle class must give way to active engagement in politics with a view to change it.

Once military intervention in politics recedes and more normal politics starts, Pakistan political parties would be able to deal with intellectual dissent and even hold intraparty polls like their counterparts in India, South Korea, Indonesia and dozens of other third world countries with functioning or emerging democracies. It is difficult to expect embattled politicians, like Thaksin and Bhutto to reform their parties while also dealing with unending judicial proceedings, imprisonment or threat of imprisonment and exile. In Pakistan, for example, political parties have technically been banned or suspended for considerable periods of time (as they were from 1979 to 1985 and then again from 1999 to 2002) or have been subjected to hostile takeovers by the Intelligence services. Such circumstances are hardly conducive to democratic reform within the political process.

It is time for the metropolitan elites in political basket cases like Thailand and Pakistan to recognize that politics has its own dynamic. Instead of simply railing against “imperfect politicians” and thereby virtually advancing the argument for non-political solutions like coups d’etat, the educated middle classes should work with existing political parties and gradually advance the transition and transformation so eagerly sought by civil society.

33 comments posted

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  1. Khwaja Aftab Ali, Florida, USA says:
    June 13th, 2009 12:02 pm

    Who says there is no feudal in Pakistan. Rural Pakistan is control by the feudal, even in urban areas one can see the people who work hard and other who exploit the situation and make money in the name of Muslim saints or family lands. Our ruling class of so called politicians is from feudal and then industrialist follow them for power in authoritarian society. Law making body-the Majlish Shora, parliament -the senate , national assembly, provincial assembly and district council , every where the members are feudal, indusrialists, drug barons and /or Rtd. corrupt police officers with few Rtd, army officers as well. The writer of the this article and a leading scholar Dr. Aisha Siddiqa is also from feudal class with extra ordinary intelligence. I agree with some people that one should do some thing instead of suggestions. I have done some thing by leaving my home land as it

Comment Pages: [5] 4 3 2 1 » Show All



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