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December 30, 2017
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All in the family

Opinion

December 30, 2017

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Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s announcement that his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif will be the party’s candidate for the country’s chief executive after the 2018 elections, is well-rooted in the national political culture.

In the West, before the advent of representative democracy in the 19th century, the political process was dominated by narrowly-based cliques and factions grouped around powerful princes, dukes, barons and lords. When political parties appeared on the horizon, the same factions took control of them.

With the growth of business and industry, the nobleman made way for the bourgeoisie – bankers, merchants and industrialists. But politics retained its elitist character. It was only gradually that political parties assumed a democratic character to reflect the changing national culture.

In the 20th century, several less developed regions borrowed the Westminster or American constitutional model. However, since most of these countries were pervaded by strong feudal or tribal traditions – which, in effect, put a high premium on personal loyalty – politics has remained a largely tribal or dynastic affair that is controlled by ‘charismatic’ personalities. Pakistan is one such society.

Although feudalism as the dominant mode of production may be dead in Pakistan, the feudal psyche remains a powerful element in the national political culture. Central to feudalism is the notion of the fief – a piece of land held by a lord or overlord. In his fiefdom, the lord reigns supreme. His word is the law.

The status of a feudal or a tenant is an ascribed rather than an acquired status. Logically, in a feudal society, leaders are born, not made. Leadership is regarded as a gift of nature rather than an outcome of nurture or hard work. Leaders are considered to have some congenital qualities of head and heart that set them miles apart from the ordinary mortals. The same feudal values run through politics and political parties.

ZA Bhutto – in his day the pope of popular politics and, even today, arguably the biggest icon of democracy in Pakistan – ruled the country first as president and civilian chief martial law administrator and then as premier. After he had been ousted and imprisoned, the mantle of his party’s leadership was assumed by his spouse Nusrat Bhutto, who finally made way for her daughter Benazir Bhutto. Benazir was elected prime minister twice and was all set for a third term when she was assassinated. After her death, the party leadership passed on to her husband – who held the highest office of the land for five years – and son.

After the Bhuttos, the most famous and, at present, the most powerful political dynasty of Pakistan is the House of Sharif. Mian Sharif, the family patriarch, was not a politician, though he was in the good books of the Gen Ziaul Haq regime (1977-88). His eldest son Nawaz Sharif’s political career took off under the tutelage of the general when he was appointed Punjab finance minister. Since then the Sharifs have never looked back.

Nawaz Sharif has served as prime minister thrice – a feat in which he is only in his own league. Had he not been disqualified by the apex court in July 2017, he would have been gearing up for a fourth term. His younger brother Shahbaz Sharif is already the longest-serving chief minister of Punjab. If the PML-N wins the upcoming polls and the elder Sharif turns out to be as good as his word, the junior Sharif will be the nation’s next master. And that’s not all. The second generation of the Sharifs – Maryam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz – is also shining on the political horizon.

Then there are several other prominent political families – though of a lesser stature. These include the Chaudhries of Gujrat, the Khars of Muzaffargarh, the Gilanis of Multan, the Maulanas of DI Khan and the Khans of Charsadda.

It follows that in Pakistan, politics is, by and large, a family affair. A political party – one of the most important entities in democracy – is regarded as a fief whose ownership is the lord’s inalienable right. Leadership, like property, is bequeathed to the next of kin. No outsider can stake claim to that. It’s inconceivable that anyone who is not related to the Bhutto-Zardari family will rise to the top in the PPP. By the same token, anyone can assume the highest slot in the PML-N provided he or she is a member of the Sharif family. If anyone within the PML-N can defeat Shahbaz Sharif’s political ambitions, it’s only another Sharif.

As in an absolute monarchy or a totalitarian state, the authority of the supreme leader in a party governed by a dynasty seldom comes under question. Once a party leader, always a party leader. Benazir was elected the PPP chairperson for life – something rare in a functional democracy. Nawaz Sharif got the law amended to restore himself as the head of his party. Zardari is likely to remain in-charge of the party as long as he wants. At some point, he may abdicate in favour of his son – just as kings occasionally do. But, then, that will be a transfer of power within the family.

In the past kings would send their sons – who were otherwise brought up in the lap of luxury – to military expeditions so that they might become adept at warfare by the time they ascended the throne. Similarly, political dynasties groom their scions by giving them party or official assignments. Like monarchs, our political leaders are sure that they will be succeeded only by their descendants.

Leadership is one side of the equation while the other side consists of its followers. If in a society, leadership is regarded as a right by birth, subservience is also considered a duty by birth. If a handful of families are destined to rule, the rest of society is condemned to be their followers. This, again, is comparable to the feudal system, where the scions of lords are lords and the children of tenants are tenants by birth. The people love to live and die for their masters. For instance, in 2012 the then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani preferred quitting the high office to ‘betraying’ his president. It’s like a game of chess where the pawns are sacrificed to protect the king.

Being strongly embedded in the national ethos, the dynastic tradition is not confined to politics or political parties alone. It also runs through businesses, which largely remain a family enterprise. When a seth dies, his son or daughter succeeds him regardless of his credentials to rule a business empire.

Though we may look askance at dynastic politics, we can’t deny that it has performed a useful function for the parties concerned. The PPP without a Bhutto or the PML-N without a Sharif at its helm is likely to see its fortune go down. Today when we talk about the PPP’s revival, the name that instantly comes to mind in spearheading the effort is none other than Bilawal Bhutto. The flipside is that dynastic politics does not augur well for democracy.

Democracy may have its genesis in the West but its practice at a particular place is shaped by the given milieu. And in our culture, authoritarianism and the cult of the personality are powerful factors. Intra-party democracy is hard to come by in such an ethos. This factor alone makes our democracy so different from that practised in Europe or North America. In those regions, people come and go but institutions persist and thrive. But in our part of the world, institutions are meant to serve the people in whose veins blue blood runs.

The writer is a freelancecontributor.

Email: [email protected]

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