Pakistani politics will move on from dynasties and cults only when the
contradiction between the values and ideals that the state purports to represent and what it actually does is resolved
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
Rich and educated Pakistanis — both within the country and in the diaspora — spend lots of time pontificating on the cause of the country’s myriad social and political ills. More often than not, ‘landlordism’ or alternatively ‘feudalism’ is decried as the bane of our existence. ‘Feudal and tribal lords’ supposedly keep ‘their’ people ignorant by preventing the building of schools and the introduction of modern technologies. In short, a handful of incredibly powerful despots espousing medieval values have kept Pakistan locked into a time-warp.
These days the most vilified ‘feudal’ of the lot is President Zardari. Following the recent death of Hakim Ali Zardari, the president reportedly announced that his son Bilawal would take over as ‘chief’ of the Zardari ‘tribe’. Even though events much more important than this one are unfolding in Pakistan on an almost daily basis, Bilawal’s accession to the ‘tribal throne’ elicited substantial reaction from the chattering classes. Needless to say, most of our enlightened arm-chair critics were spitting fire.
I am hardly a fan of the president. I do, however, recognise Asif Zardari’s mandate to occupy the presidency given that he was voted into office by the people’s representatives in full glare of the many doubting Thomases throughout the country. I also find remarkably shallow our chattering classes’ analysis of the problems that we face and their proposed solutions. Three years since Zardari and his party came to power; there is still a resounding body of (educated) opinion in this country propagating the notion that all will be well in the land of the pure if and when Zardari is ‘removed’.
That Pakistani politics is saddled with an abiding colonial legacy is a no-brainer. The British did create and sustain a class of so-called ‘feudals’ in the interests of maintaining order throughout what was then a largely agrarian society. Many of the families that prospered through the colonial period continue to be economically and politically powerful in today’s Pakistan, and their cultural entrenchment will not be undone just because the chattering classes think it should. But the typical analysis implies that very little has changed since the middle of the 19th century, and so grossly overstates the extent to which the old ‘feudal’ clans still dominate the polity and economy.
Our chattering class (unwittingly?) speaks the language of our militarised state when they decry ‘tribal’ sardars in Balochistan for fomenting unrest, depriving their own people of basic human rights, and preventing development from taking place. They refuse to recognise that state and many ‘feudals’ have been hand-in-glove for as long as Pakistan has existed. Those ‘feudals’ that break with the established order tend to represent a politics that emphasises change rather than status quo.
The Zardaris are a Baloch ‘tribe’ that is settled in interior Sindh. They actually speak Siraiki in their homes, and have never been in the category of big landlords. They made money through their businesses and Hakim Ali Zardari was one of the founding members of the Awami National Party (ANP). Is Asif Zardari’s family part of the dominant classes that are the primary beneficiary of the existing social order? Without doubt. And to that extent alone so-called ‘feudals’ like Zardari should be considered responsible for Pakistan’s plight. But is it at all accurate to suggest that ‘feudalism’ or ‘landlordism’ is our country’s most suffocating structural constraint and the main cause of our woes? Not in the least. ‘Feudalism’ does not even exist in the caricatured form that our chattering classes continue to project.
I am just as keen as any other political worker to see an end to the dynastic practices that colour our politics. But I refuse to reify an image of cruel despots that maintain private jails and hold the law and state to ransom. Such images may contain elements of truth but they greatly misrepresent the structure of power and, therefore, undermine attempts to challenge this structure.
Our state — since British times — has consistently depicted itself as the repository of modernity in a ‘backward’ society. That this state has invented customs, instrumentalised religion in the most retrogressive way possible, and shielded itself from ethnic rebalancing and democratisation has been conveniently ignored both by ‘enlightened’ autocrats such as Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, and Pervez Musharraf, as well as the rich and educated in society.
A reading of history permits explanation of the patronage-based political order that persists in this country. Instead of viewing the ‘poor’ and ‘illiterate’ masses as being in a state of perpetual subservience to omnipotent ‘feudals’, our rich and educated classes need to recognise that our state institutions — and the military in particular — have kept the spectre of the ‘feudals’ and ‘tribals’ alive as a means of warding off the necessary political transformation that usually accompanies the kind of social transformation that has taken place in the past few decades.
Even when the military ‘saviours’ to whom we are regularly subjected marginalise certain clans, it so happens that these same clans reappear when the general in question is eventually forced to step aside. The Bhuttos (and Zardaris, I guess) are perfect examples of a so-called ‘feudal’ family that never falls by the wayside. The Bhutto phenomenon cannot, of course, be conflated with the case of ‘feudals’ more generally. But it is instructive because it should force the chattering classes to consider why a set of ‘feudals’ is able to maintain the loyalty of so many ordinary people, not all of whom are ‘illiterate peasants’.
It is high time that we recognise that while the so-called ‘feudals’ and ‘tribals’ fall into the broad category of dominant classes, they neither dictate terms to the arbiters of power in this country (and the state’s external patrons), nor are ordinary people beholden to them in the way that one could argue was the case in the colonial period, or even in the first couple of decades after the state’s inception. Pakistani politics will move on from dynasties and cults only when the contradiction between the values and ideals that the state purports to represent and what it actually does is resolved. Perhaps our chattering classes should start paying attention to the dynasties and cults that have been established by those who project themselves as the champions of modernity.