Unravelling the Pakistani Elite

VIEW: Unravelling the Elite — Saleem H Ali
Daily Times, October 27, 2007

A few weeks ago, I met an award-winning New York Times writer, who has written numerous news stories about Pakistan. As we started a conversation about Pakistan’s politics, he remarked that he had many friends there and I’d probably know them since everyone seems to know everyone in the ‘elite circles of South Asia’.

While there is indeed some truth n this statement, I also felt a bit slighted to be lumped with the “elite”, implying perhaps a less-than-deserved career-trajectory on an inflated cushion of prestige.

My immediate response was that I was not one of the elite, despite my professorial credentials. That my father grew up in abject poverty near Bhati Gate and was the first in his family to attend college. Not too long ago, I had also conversed with award-winning Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy who takes pride in mentioning that she is the first woman in her family to have attended college.

It is a refreshing indication of our times that privilege is no longer an indelible mark of merit and individuals can take pride in their humble origins. However, in the larger context of global society, family names and ranks still mean far too much and it is hard for us to escape the allure of celebrity which in the case of Pakistan is often associated with land and business holdings. Life is still much easier if your last name belongs to one of the elite families. One of my old friends from Aitchison changed his surname to his mother’s family name since it would potentially help him with political aspirations.

We were reminded of the power of names last week with the momentous return of Benazir Bhutto. While she and other women leaders such as Khalida Zia are often heralded as examples of Muslim emancipation, they cannot escape their lineage and elite branding. Would they have managed to rise to the top of a patriarchal society purely on the basis of merit? Probably not, but that should still not detract us from acknowledging their aptitude and potential for leadership.

Yet if Ms Bhutto and many other feudal politicians are truly committed to pluralistic democracy and shedding their elite baggage, they will have to first consider a more equitable distribution of their land base. This should not be caricatured as a call towards old-world socialism but rather a levelling of the marketplace in land tenure that benefits all, and once and for all dispenses the shackles of feudalism that have paralysed our democratic growth.

As a starting point, all politicians should commit themselves to a comprehensive land reform law that will provide a stable resource base for those who toil tirelessly in our fields. The matter is particularly acute in Southern Punjab where feudalism is most acutely entrenched and where we have also seen a rise in extremism.

Some of the arrests in the recent suicide bombing have also been linked to this area and we are left to wonder how discontent with the elite is now finally beginning to take its toll. If we turn our eyes to Swat, we see the roots of much discontentment also with the old, elite families of the valley who were once unquestionably revered but are now quite emphatically reviled. It is in such inequality that extremist elements take easy roots.

The power of the elite is also pervasive in other parts of the world. Most notably, the Bush family in the United States has managed to pave the way to success for even their most mediocre progeny by getting them admitted to prestigious schools and universities and gaining access to networks of influence.

In the United Kingdom, feudalism is still pervasive, particularly in Scotland where 90% of the land is owned by 1% of the population. However, market forces are at least allowing for the transition towards more equity to occur with the land base. The lords and ladies are no longer able to afford the management of these huge tracts of land because the political support to subsidise their holdings has vanished.

The poor crofters who used to work on the land herding sheep have in many cases moved to other professions, leaving the aristocracy with little else to do but donate their land holdings. In many case the beneficiaries have been environmental land trusts or tourism businesses.

If such market forces were ever to come about in Pakistan, the beneficiaries most likely should be village land councils with carefully monitored profit allocation mechanisms for the community. India was able to have meaningful land redistribution and I am confident that if we really put our minds to the matter, we can do the same.

Yet, leadership for this must come from the feudal politicians themselves who are so successful in galvanising their minions for rallies. While some level of inequality is perhaps a metric of differential human aptitude, the flagrant feudalism in our country and elsewhere is a sign of differential human apathy. Let’s use this week of sombre reflection in the aftermath of the tragedy in Karachi to consider the structural causes of blind political fervour that marked and marred the celebrations on October 18, 2007.

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