Dynasties and Democracy
The major political parties in Pakistan are nothing more than dynasties. This phenomenon also exists in other South Asian countries.
Arecent speech by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was a stark reminder – both comic and tragic – of the fact that the lives of almost 180 million Pakistanis continue to be in the hands of royal families. The British need not have left.
At 25 years of age, Bilawal shares the PPP’s chairmanship with his father, Asif Ali Zardari. His only credentials are that he is Benazir’s son and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s grandson. But it would be unfair to single out the PPP; the Sharifs also run their PML-N as a family business (pun intended), while the Wali Khans have a stranglehold on the ANP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And let’s not forget Moonis Elahi, scion of the House of Zahoors.
Most major political parties in Pakistan are nothing more than dynasties. But does this phenomenon also exist in other South Asian countries?
The Gandhi family in India has dominated not only the Congress, but politics in general since independence. Nehru’s offspring may have the Gandhi’s surname, but it was the former patriarch’s founding role in setting up the modern Indian republic that still translates into unrivalled political power – a kind of power that even the Bhuttos of Pakistan can only dream of.
In Bangladesh, the emergence of dynastic politics can be traced back to the night of August 15, 1975 when Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was assassinated along with most of his family members by a group of junior army officers. His daughter, Sheikh Hasina, was spared by virtue of being in West Germany at the time. General Ziaur Rehman subsequently assumed the presidency. Now his widow Begum Khalida Zia has been slugging it out with Sheikh Hasina for the past two decades in a game of musical chairs, both sides using history and hatred to fuel the passions of their followers.
It is beyond the scope of this article to examine dynastic politics in all of South Asia, but it should be clear how entrenched and pervasive it is. A closer look at Pakistan can offer some answers to why this status quo exists.
It is a well-known story how democracy in Pakistan never really took off, and partly to blame is the composition of the original Muslim League. True democrats like Jinnah were an exception and, after partition, the party came to be dominated by the landed elite of Punjab and Sindh. In contrast to India, the absence of land reforms allowed this class to further consolidate its interests.
Add to this the system of political patronage based on racial and ethnic identities, particularly in rural areas, and you have an ideal environment for the emergence of personality cults and big family names. Notwithstanding Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s personal charisma, this is how the Bhutto clan has come to dominate the PPP.
This state of affairs continued until the 1980s, when the urban industrial and trading class finally started to throw its weight around in Pakistani politics. Blessed by Ziaul Haq’s special attention, the Sharifs came to dominate the Pakistan Muslim League of that time. Given a free hand and an open check book, they ensured their complete dominance in the Punjab and still continues, with senior Sharif’s third stint in power at the national level.
Had Nawaz and Shahbaz allowed upward mobility in the PML-N, at least the urban middle classes would have had a chance to taste power. Unfortunately, the Raiwind throne has so far kept it all in the family. The
MQM is perhaps the only party to have genuinely brought in a section of the middle class into politics. But the party’s alleged use of violence as its major political tool has outweighed the benefits of such inclusion.
The stranglehold of personalities and families over Pakistani politics also has a lot to do with the army’s regular disruption of the democratic process. With the generals officially calling the shots for almost half of the country’s existence, it is a bit much to expect organic political parties to develop that are able to generate future leaders.
What is more tragic is that the army’s actions have made martyrs out of national leaders, which has actually strengthened dynastic politics. The best example is the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after he was deposed, giving his progeny a perpetual sympathy card to appeal for votes. Similarly, in hindsight it can be argued that the coup against Nawaz Sharif in 1999 paradoxically prolonged his political life. Back then, his government had come to be largely reviled and if not for the coup and his subsequent exile, it is quite probable that he would have lost his grip on the PML-N.
One last factor needs to be highlighted briefly: the absence of a credible system of local governance in Pakistan. This has contributed to the lack of options when it comes to national leadership. Both the khakis and civilians are to blame for this. While Ayub Khan instituted ‘Basic Democracies’ and Pervez Musharraf installed his own version of local government, both were intended to keep themselves in power by overriding provincial politics rather than encouraging the emergence of genuine local representatives.
Civilian leaders for their part have not proved any better and rightly fear that effective local governance will erode their power. Hence the ridiculous practice of giving development funds to MNAs and MPAs and preferring to rule through the ever pliant bureaucracy. As things stand, it is difficult to see a big change in the near future. Forces like the PTI have temporarily jolted the system, but it remains to be seen how much Imran Khan can do to keep out nepotism and clan loyalties within his own party.
However, with a couple of more election cycles, the hold of big families on major parties cannot be taken for granted. An ever-watchful media, an increasingly aggressive superior judiciary and an army averse to overt takeovers should combine to create an environment where politicians are held to greater scrutiny than we have seen so far.