Dy­nas­ties and Democ­racy

The ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Pak­istan are noth­ing more than dy­nas­ties. This phe­nom­e­non also ex­ists in other South Asian coun­tries.

Southasia - - FRONT PAGE - By Waqas As­lam Rana The writer is a com­men­ta­tor on is­sues of pub­lic pol­icy, po­lit­i­cal econ­omy and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, with a fo­cus on South Asia and the Mid­dle East.

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.

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