Tenacity of the political class

The country’s political class has undergone transformations and evolved

Tenacity of the political class


Pakistan has a constitutional heritage, political ethos and electoral practices that makes it a serious candidate for democracy. The political class, capable of contesting and winning elections, has been subject to transformation throughout its history. The social, economic and political pyramids have been shifting through generations as well as with the induction of new blood. Karl Marx viewed and interpreted class in the dichotomy of haves and have-nots squarely on the basis of economic resources. This understanding of social stratification was later revised and re-interpreted by Max Weber, who is known as the ‘Marx of the middle class’. Weber held that traditional, rational-legal and charismatic sources of authority sometimes overlap; at other times, one or more of these provide validity to a person to play a leadership role.

Inter-generational transition and shifts in political careers are aspects of the Pakistani politics that for long have repeatedly received the attention of powers playing extra-constitutional political-roles/ engaging in political engineering. For several decades now, the national political discourse about this factor, termed generally as ‘dynastic element,’ has been mostly adverse. The middle class has been told that the dynastic leadership is tenaciously perpetuating its hold on political parties. In the absence of a mature political culture and in the presence of frequent challenges to political parties from apolitical forces, the dynastic aspect is the glue that has kept several political parties intact. The cult of personality is a reality in South Asian politics.

Leadership is one of the most important factors in the structural domain of political parties. The founding chairpersons (Altaf Husain, Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan), offspring of the founders (Asfandyar Wali Khan, Akhtar Mengal) or other dynastic descendants (Bilawal Bhutto) carry a superordinate position in their respective political parties. This is logical because in the absence of clear ideological position or policy orientation, leaders meet the public need for easy identification. Moreover, it satisfies the messianic hopefulness of the followers who consider their leaders as deliverers from their mundane hopelessness in social and economic spheres.

Interestingly, and quite contrary to the general perception, one finds absence of the linear relationship between successive generations of political leaders. For example, no one has survived in linear terms as a leader from among the top-ranking first generation of leadership including Liaquat Ali Khan, Nazimuddin, Mumtaz Daultana, Shaukat Hayat, Iftikhar Mamdot, Feroz Khan Noon, Abdurrab Nishtar, GM Syed, Qayyum Khan and Suhrawardy. Sometimes, there is a shift of delayed charisma such as Fatima Jinnah’s presidential candidature in which she was able to mount huge pressure on the military junta. In a fair and free direct presidential election, she might have won. It was the charisma of the ‘father of the nation’ mostly that attracted public acclaim and propelled Fatima Jinnah to a leadership position.

Mohammad Waseem argues in his recent book, Political Conflict in Pakistan, that the question of the dynastic politics of the House of Sharifs was something of an enigma. The younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, had emerged as a kind of heir apparent from 1990 onwards. However, for nearly three decades, he failed to establish himself in this role. When Nawaz Sharif was ousted through a controversial judicial verdict, his daughter Maryam Nawaz took to the streets to protest against the court and received immense response from the people. She was soon recognised as a crowd puller and there were reports of fissures in the family on account of the potential rivalry between the lady and her uncle for the party leadership.

Another source of generational shift was the establishment’s pressure for ‘fresh blood’ to get rid of some popular leaders. However, these efforts only resulted in passage of leadership positions to the former leaders’ kith and kin. Ayub Khan’s long stay in power (1958-69) got away with a whole generation of political leadership who were EBDOed (Elected Bodies Disqualification Order) or PODOed (Public Offices Disqualification Order).

A new generation emerged in the 1970 elections. It was decimated by Zia’s martial law regime (1977-88). He helped introduce the third generation of political and constituency leaders through party-less electoral exercises and local governments. Most of the present political elite owe their entrance into the political landscape to the Zia regime. They have proved their tenacity by surviving subsequent pressure from the establishment.

Gen Musharraf, too, attempted to bring in ‘new faces’ to the political scene in 2002. However, he was largely unsuccessful in this regard. Resultantly, only 18 percent of the candidates in that election were running for the first time; 33 out of 119 MNAs had more than thirty years of political experience. However, he did set a minimum educational requirement (university degree or equivalent) for holding public office. Madrassah certification was given equivalence to enable some people to contest elections. This affected 25 percent of the MNAs and 22 percent of the senators. It was an attempt to outclass the political class. The regime also NABed (National Accountability Bureau) the political class during 1999-2008 and cobbled together the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) as the king’s party.

The easy-money factor has played an important role for the party leadership as well as for the constituency. According to Waseem, MNAs in 2004 held higher social and economic standing than before, average assets amounting to Rs 17,289 million. For many of them, it has been argued, politics is imperative to keep, consolidate and perpetuate power. During the Musharraf regime, the propertied and moneyed class such as the beneficiaries of real estate projects entered politics for the projection of social power and upward social mobility. Besides real estate, some CNG tycoons, too, got in.

The rural-landed elite had been most visible in politics before and after 1947. However, the trend has waned for some time now. This transition is reflected in the assent to power of Nawaz Sharif from the mid-1980s onwards. He represented a shift in the party leadership from rural to urban sector. The new power matrix drew heavily on big business. It opened doors to the business community and the professional middle class. Recently, the presence of land developers has been more manifest in power politics than the traditional landholders.

Despite the diminishing trend in the domination of landlord politicians, some old landholder families have retained their place in Pakistani politics by adapting to the political realities by enhancing their educational and professional skills as well as augmenting their resources through industrial and commercial enterprises.

The writer has a PhD in history from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He heads the History Department at the University of Sargodha. He has worked as a research fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London. He can be reached at abrar.zahoor@hotmail.com. His X handle: @AbrarZahoor1 

Tenacity of the political class