Elite consensus under strain in Pakistan

Elite consensus under strain
By Tasneem Siddiqui: Dawn, August 30, 2007

IF you watch television these days or read the newspapers, you will find nothing but heated discussions and screaming headlines about political bargains, predictions and pronouncements about the return of the exiled leaders. Excited discussants make us believe that some sort of a revolution is round the corner.

To an outsider, issues like ‘deal’ or ‘no deal’, the difference between ‘agreement’ and ‘understanding’, the president’s election in uniform or without it, would appear quite amusing, if not surrealistic. But to those who know the Pakistani political scene well, it is nauseating to watch retired generals talk about the pernicious effects of military rule in Pakistan, or former civil servants become hysterical about the virtues of democracy.

Would these stalwarts have the courage to say that Pakistan was achieved through a democratic process and was supposed to be a social welfare state? That it soon was converted into a national security state? Would they also admit that it was they and their predecessors who were responsible for derailing the process, losing half the country and bringing the other half to the brink of disaster?

What were the dreams of the teeming millions of undivided India? They looked forward to a future free from the tyranny of the ruling classes and the oppression of the feudals. They had hoped for justice and fair play in a state that would provide equal opportunities to the people and take care of their basic necessities like health, education, housing, drinking water and sanitation. But what did they get in the bargain? A garrison state spending most of the resources on defence and making the poor poorer.

This came about because our founding fathers opted for the viceregal system where decision-making was concentrated in the hands of a few. Before long, a coterie of people assumed power to rule the country in the same old colonial mould. The ‘gora sahib’ was replaced by the ‘brown sahib’ (who, unfortunately, was more arrogant and inaccessible than the former). For the downtrodden and disadvantaged, nothing changed.

How did the elite oligarchs seize control and how did they operate? It is a well known fact that the Muslim League was not an organised political party but a movement of people of all shades and colours. Its leadership mainly came from the landed gentry, but in UP, which was its home, and in Bengal, it no doubt had some leaders belonging to the professional classes as well.

The jagirdars, feudal lords, tribal chiefs and pirs initially opposed the idea of Pakistan but joined Mr Jinnah when Pakistan became a reality. He had no choice but to accept them if the Muslim League was to consolidate itself.

Sensing the weakness of the Muslim League leaders, the British-trained officer corps seized the opportunity to gradually assume all powers. Forming a sort of a supra-cabinet, where all important decisions were taken before they were placed before the cabinet, these oligarchs also became self-styled guardians of the ‘ideological’ frontiers of Pakistan. They were basically mercenaries and careerists working for their colonial masters and failed to develop a nationalistic outlook even in the post-1947 years.

Initially, there was a nexus between the bureaucracy, military and the feudal politicians. Handpicked industrialists and businessmen later joined the club. Professional classes, the mullahs and newspaper barons were the last ones to be co-opted. This oligarchy included almost all vested interests. The class divide was total with those in a position to exploit the resources of the new country ranged against the teeming millions who were powerless.

India may not have been a good neighbour, but the hype of enmity and permanent hostility was deliberately created. As a result, the social sectors were relegated to the lowest priority and most of the resources were diverted to nonproductive uses. In our first budget, over 60 per cent of income was allocated to defence, and in Oct 1947 Mr Jinnah requested the US government to sanction a loan of three billion dollars to modernise the Pakistan army.

It may be debatable whether Pakistan was supposed to be an Islamic or a secular state, but there is no doubt that it was meant to be an egalitarian state, with its federating units assured of autonomy. Having assumed all powers, the generals and senior bureaucrats started hobnobbing with the Pentagon and volunteered their services in the Cold War and became an American satellite. This relationship has continued ever since in one shape or another.

Internally, this oligarchy created an atmosphere of intimidation, harassment and coercion. On the economic front, they adopted a policy which concentrated all economic power in a few hands. Dr Ishrat Hussain (exgovernor State Bank) has given a graphic description of this approach in his book ‘Pakistan, The Economy of an Elitist State’, in which he has admonished military regimes for colluding with other elite groups to monopolise the state’s resources.

Intriguingly, his perception of the military seems to have undergone a dramatic shift since he wrote his book, as pointed out by Dr Ayesha Siddiqa in her recent book ‘Military Inc.’ Ishrat Hussain appears to have completely abandoned his earlier standpoint on the policies of military dictators after he joined the Musharraf government in 2000.

Starting from 1947, we have had all types of governments, both civilian and military dictatorships. But those who have remained in power are the same people and groups with changing names. Their policies have remained unchanged, the same old wine in new bottles.

For example, if Benazir or Nawaz Sharif come to power again, as is expected, will anything change? Will the provinces become autonomous? Will there be no arbitrariness in decision-making? Will there be rule of law? Will antioor policies and regressive tax structures change? Will there be laws to improve working conditions for workers, peasants, landless haris, and those employed in the informal sector? Will our heavy reliance on foreign loans come to an end? Will the National Assembly discuss the defence budget and redefine the role of the ubiquitous intelligence agencies?

Unfortunately, we do not see any signs of the political parties having done their homework in this regard.

Does this sound too dismal? It does but one should not lose heart. There are some silver linings visible. Firstly, the above description relates to the ruling oligarchy which is a small part of the total population. Although it has power and resources, and is well entrenched, it is gradually losing control. Leaving aside the middle classes, which are about 20 per cent of the population, there are 75 per cent people who are surviving not because of the state, but in spite of the state. They are yearning for change. They are bitter and angry and are waiting for a chance to show their strength. They only need social organisation and leadership.

Secondly, for the first time in 60 years, the elite consensus is under heavy strain as one of its major partners, the judiciary, has declared its independence. At least for the time being, it is not listening to the establishment.

Thirdly, people from Punjab are openly raising their voice against the military’s role in politics. If this trend becomes allit will change the nature of Pakistani politics for all times to come. Fourthly, there are very strong antiAmerican feelings across the board. Those leaders who want to remain in power only with American support, will find it increasingly difficult to survive.

And lastly, civil society, though still weak and disorganised, is slowly realising the importance of its role in making the government accountable. This trend is likely to increase and more people will follow the lead given by the black coats. In sum, the country seems to be reaching out to the future.

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