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Opinion

April 23, 2018

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The greatness of the Chaudhrys of Gujrat

For more than a century, anthropologists have been fascinated by the culture of Melanesia, a region comprising small islands close to Australia. Among others, Marshall Sahlins, a leading American anthropologist, has analysed the characteristics of the Big Man, a leader in a very simple Melanesian society where the typical size of a group was often only 70-300 persons.

The Big Man achieved de-facto leadership of a group through conspicuous generosity, essentially building a bond of obligation between himself and his followers. His power was not inherited, and conflict was common during leadership transitions. While anyone could aspire to be a Big Man, the leadership pool was in fact limited to families with sufficient wealth to permit lavish gift-giving. Through persistent sharing, the aspiring leader created what Sahlins refers to as a “fund of power”.

The Anthropology of Melanesia can be one good source to understand the recently published autobiography of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain: ‘Sach to Yeh Hai’ (Here is the Truth). It is essentially a book by a Big Man about his bigness. Comprising a collection of events, ghost written without a doubt, the book aims to elaborate the generosity and greatness of the great Chaudhrys of Gujrat. If nothing else, the book can help us understand how our Big Men, the electables, gain and retain power and how they fail us again and again.

Though the Chaudhry family has been in politics since the 1950s, Chaudhry Shujaat does not touch upon a single policy issue in any significant way. For example, the book does not contain anything on terrorism and the war on terror that defines the era of Pervez Musharraf when the Chaudhrys were at the height of their political glory.

The Big Man is not about policy. His life revolves around patronage. Even the most fiercely independent political activists and writers have enjoyed the generosity of the great Chaudhrys. Habib Jalib, for example, refused to receive the state grant of half a million rupees, coming through Chaudhry Shujaat of course, because his basic needs were already being met through the largesse of the Chaudhrys.

However, such large-scale patronage requires reliance on state resources and accumulation of immense personal wealth. According to Chaudhry Shujaat, the political persecution of the family turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the family. The value of their properties escalated as politically motivated litigation stopped them from any transaction. At least, this is how Chaudhry Shujaat explained his wealth to Pervez Musharraf.

We know that the Chaudhrys have been accused of borrowing from state-owned banks and having those loans written off, using their political clout. We also know that the Chaudhrys are sugar baron – and the sugar industry is the very symbol of crony capitalism in Pakistan. But as Chaudhry Zahoor Ilahi, the father of Chaudhry Shujaat and founder of the dynasty, once said during an interview, when the Almighty wants to bestow riches upon you, wealth can pour down from the ceiling.

The Big Men in Pakistan operate in the framework of a patron-client relationship, forever recruiting new clients and switching their own loyalties from one patron to another. We can get some interesting insights from the unpublished PhD thesis of a British anthropologist, Stephen M Lyon, titled ‘Power and Patronage in Pakistan’.

According to Lyon, the patron-client relationship defines power relations in Pakistan at all levels, from a village to the highest offices of the state. “The fundamental cultural relationship that Pakistanis seek out with other individuals is asymmetrical. Close relations of equality are problematic for Pakistanis and seem to occur only in very limited conditions. In general, when Pakistanis meet, they weigh up the status of the person in front of them and behave accordingly.”

Chaudhry Sahib’s book answers some of the questions raised by Lyon in his thesis. “When do individuals become patrons and when can they be considered clients. How do patrons attract clients? How do clients attract patrons? Why does anyone participate in what is obviously an asymmetric relationship? Why do Pakistanis not shun these relations of inequality as they enter the global economy and have greater contact with Europe and North America, where equality and democracy have become fetishized and made sacrosanct?”

The Chaudhrys served all three military dictators, though Chaudhry Zahoor Elahi, fell out with the Nawab of Kalabagh, the headstrong governor of General Ayub Khan. Zahoor Elahi’s interaction with Ayub started with a fabricated case just as Chaudhry Shujaat’s interaction with Musharraf started with inquiries by NAB. However, things fell into place soon after the unpleasant beginning that did not mean more than a polite reminder.

The Zia period brought much power, and relief from the persecution the family had faced on the hands of ZA Bhutto. However, Chaudhury Zahoor Elahi was murdered by an Al Zulfiqar terrorist in 1981. The bitterness between the Bhuttos and the Chaudhrys ended during the PPP rule (2008-2013), when the party was led by Asif Ali Zardari, who himself is a Big Man, bigger than Chaudhry Shujaat perhaps.

Chaudhry Shujaat reserves his bitterness for the Sharifs of Lahore. Chaudhry Shujaat suggests that the Chaudhrys deserved to be patrons of the wily, scheming Sharifs who succeeded in turning the Chaudhrys into their clients. He narrates the first interaction with Nawaz Sharif, when the latter, a fair complexioned Kashmiri young man, waited outside the Chaudhrys’ drawing room in 1977 only to offer donation for upcoming elections. The offer was declined and Nawaz Sharif was returned without getting a chance to peep inside the drawing room.

The next time they met the fair complexioned Kashmiri young man was at the Governor House where they had been called by General Jilani, the powerful martial law administrator of Ziaul Haq. At the time, the Chaudhrys were all set to get Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, cousin of Shujaat, elected as the chief minister of Punjab. However General Jilani, patron of both the Chaudhrys and the Sharifs, appointed the young man as the chief minister. However, it was promised that all important ministries as well the offices of the speaker and deputy speaker would go to the Chaudhrys.

The Chaudhrys assumed that Nawaz Sharif would be a chief minister in name only, an indebted loyal client. However, the fair-complexioned young man soon turned the tables on the great Chaudhrys and easily aborted a coup with the help of the patron of patrons, General Ziaul Haq. The Chaudhrys were condemned to bide their time as clients of the Sharifs until Pervez Musharraf reloaded the game in 1999.

The Chaudhrys were thrown out of Eden once again in 2008. The bitterness again creeps into the narrative. An international conspiracy had been hatched against the great Chaudhrys and Pervez Musharraf, the patron they had served so diligently, had also decided to ditch them. Three American senators told Chaudhry Parvez Elahi that they would not accept the election results if the PML-Q won them.

Some lesser mortals may argue that all opinion polls were indicating at the unpopularity of Musharraf and his Q League. The international players were afraid that another rigging on the lines of 2002 elections could be extremely disruptive for Pakistan, putting the American ‘war on terror’ in jeopardy.

The book also reveals the limitations of the Big Men. The Chaudhrys are the chiefs of the powerful Jatt clan of Punjab, closer to the ultimate patrons – and yet they have been upstaged by the fair-complexioned boy belonging to a smaller and marginal urban Kashmiri clan. The Kashmiri boy has mastered a dangerous game that the Big Men cannot even understand.

More dangerously, Chaudhry Shujaat has been replaced by a new kind of Big Man, and his party has been replaced by a new kind of pre-fabricated Q-League. Imran Khan can serve everything that Chaudhry Shujaat had to offer – and he can offer it with much public applause. Though sugar mills remain relevant, no sugar is needed in the recipe. The enemies can be hounded through an invincible army of trolls. Welcome to the age of authoritarian populism. Melanesia is changing.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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