Social and Political Transformation of Pakistani Political Elites

October 11, 2008

Talks & Interviews

Dr. Saeed Shafqat

Islamic Philosophical Association of Pakistan was established in 1982. Its members comprise of business, industry, banking, education, law, medicine, bureaucracy and judiciary. A relatively small professional organization, once a month it invites an expert, scholar or policy maker to share respective views/research with its members. : Dr. Saeed Shafqat, Director, Centre for Public Policy and Governance delivered a talk on Social and Political Transformation of Pakistani Political Elites at the Gymkhana Club on the 4th of June, 2008

Dr. Shafqat started the talk by making a basic point that the political parties have to become institutions of public representation and sustain a representative form of government, if they aim to dislodge and disengage the military from Pakistani politics. He articulated that theoretical literature can be summarized in four basic approaches that explain the flourishing of democracy in a society. First, that democracy is a function of level of economic development; the higher the level of economic development, the better is the prospect of flourishing of the democracy. Economic development leads to a vibrant middle class whose interest is in sustaining free market economy, protecting rights and freedoms and building democracy. Second, that democracy is a function of level of education; the higher the education levels of a society, the greater are the chances of having a democracy. Third, that democracy is a function of cultural pluralism and work ethics; that a correlation exists between the culture of a society and its chances to create a representative form of government – a Weberian hypothesis arguing that the rise of democracy in Western Europe was directly linked to the Protestant ethic. He postulated that it is the fourth approach; that democracy is a function of elites’ ability to bargain, comprise and build consensus on normative aspects of democracy – rule of law, respecting dissent, protecting minority rights, and mainstreaming gender that could be most helpful in explaining the Pakistani case.

To pursue this logic, Shafqat started with the premise that the masses and the general public may be able to help in sustaining democracy but constructing democracy is a function of the elites. It is thus important to study the evolution and transformation of Pakistani elites to opine on the prospects of democracy in Pakistan. He propounded that in the last 37 years the structure of Pakistani elites has undergone social and political transformation and at least five trends are visible. In particular he looked at the military, civil bureaucracy, political parties and the religious elites. Among these elite structures, the role of military is peculiarly different because it has been involved in the construction of other elites. If history is an indicator, each military regime in Pakistan has indulged in patronizing a new set of individuals to construct political elites who would adopt the political system projected by the military.

Closely looking at the institutional make up of Pakistan’s military, in particular since 1979, an enormous change in social origins can be observed. Generals Jehangir Karamat and Pervez Musharaf and their cohorts were the last breed of pre-independence born military elites. 2007 has been an unprecedented year; it marks the ascendancy of an indigenous Pakistani, born after independence at the helm of military decision making. Until 1971 the base of military elites (Brigadier to General) was relatively small totaling around 120 officers. Today there is a five fold increase – the base of military elites has considerably expanded to over 600. However, the strategic decision making is confined to 10 Corps Commanders and another 30-40 top staff officers. Their ethnic, social class and educational composition has also become noticeably diffused. There is considerable speculation on the ideological orientation of military elites. During the 1960s and until mid 70s, the generals from rural background and the Pothwar—the so called ‘martial races’ were dominant; the new breed is much more urban and has a humbler social origin. Shafqat argued that Pakistani military has moved beyond the soldierly profession and assumed constabulary functions. In the post 1979 period, with the exception of Kargil conflict (1999), the military has increasingly been involved in combating internal disorder, fighting internal insurgency and planning counter-insurgency. Further it has performed U.N. and policing functions and managed industrial, business, commercial and real estate ventures. Thus, the first noticeable trend is that military has become a corporate entity, its role and relationship in Pakistani society has undergone transformation—it has acquired a new sense of confidence that hinders it to accept the supremacy of civilian leadership.

The second visible trend is the changing composition, orientation and educational background of the emerging bureaucracy. The Pakistan civil bureaucracy which is the pivotal pillar of governance and till late 1980’s was the backbone of administration; is now, plagued with crisis of moral authority and institutional decline. Unlike the 1950s, 1960s to early 1970s, it no longer attracts the brightest, who instead opt for business schools and IT. Since the mid 1990’s the recruitment pool has changed from upper to middle and lower middle social classes who for status enhancement and limited choices of personal advancement still find competitive examination as the only vehicle for social climbing. He argued that in public perception and also in reality, the integrity of the Federal Public Services Commission (FPSC) has eroded considerably. Since 2001 Police is the most preferred occupation group. The yearly reports of the FPSC pointing to the choice of service indicate that the change in composition is not conducive for promoting representative government but appears more supportive for authoritarianism and clientelism.

The third visible trend is that the political elites leading the political parties are becoming more dynastic and their leaders unabashed in giving key party positions to family members. Political Parties are in decay, organizationally weak, lacking vision, without ideological commitment and have no leadership succession plan. The current ruling coalition has banded together not on the basis of any principle but on simple Machiavellian notions of power. Thus the outcome has been a cosmetic change in the procedural dimension of democracy because they have acquired a degree of legitimacy through elections. But the normative dimension of democracy – respect for rule of law, dissent and core values of tolerance, accommodation, bargain and consensus is still missing. Shafqat raised the question of how political parties, who do not have a democratic culture, who pursue power without regard to public good, whose leaders are disconnected from ordinary workers and who still need an outside ‘international broker’ to communicate among each other can provide an alternative to the military?

The fourth visible trend is a significant change among religious institutions and religious leadership. Last thirty years have seen a rise of Madaris as a primary source of social status and political power. It is significant that these Madaris have produced a new breed of the religious elite that claims religious scholarship as well as leadership of their own political parties. They have increasingly become assertive and uncompromising in projecting and introducing their own form of Sharia. Since the late 1970’s state patronage, Afghan Jihad (read U.S and Saudi Arabia) and trading communities have been at the forefront in supporting these new religious elites. This has greatly influenced the Pakistani political discourse as religiosity rather than religious principles and ethics has made strong inroads leading to constraints on the social, cultural, political and economic activities. Shafqat argued that the critical question is to what degree this religiosity has produced the jihadi culture? He observed that there is considerable evidence to argue that without state connivance and support, neither religious elites could flourish nor militancy would have become the monster it has become. In any case, the main casualty has been the liberal political space which has shrunk as a consequence.

But the transformation of greatest significance is the structural presence of the US in Pakistan’s policy and strategic decision making because of overexposure, connivance and collaboration of the Pakistani elites— military, bureaucratic, political, religious and business; resultantly, it has become hard to differentiate between the interests of the US policy makers and these domestic elites. According to newspaper reports, he said it is worth pondering that out of the 240 plus members of the 2002 national assembly, 35 members had US nationality. During the 1950s the military elites set the ball rolling with the provision of air space, later extending to logistical support and then intelligence gathering post 2001. Now almost all aspects of internal law & order, regional relations, centre piecing terrorism, money laundering, nuclear proliferation and most ministries (to name a few, Interior, Defense, Commerce and Finance) have a bilateral arrangement with the US. The commander of CENTCOM, (US Central Command overseeing the Middle East, Persian Gulf, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia comprising of 27 countries) makes regular trips to Pakistan. What is important to realize is that the Pakistani state is hard put to make a case for sovereignty as sovereignty is but ‘organized hypocrisy’ in its case. Pakistan’s governance issues are no longer internal as outside help and support has become imperative in governing the country. This is the paradox that while power elites collaborate, connive and compromise in consolidating this structural presence, it breeds emotional outbursts and antagonism on the street. There is thus a growing disconnect between the power elites and the civil society.

“The Pakistani state is under duress …
The critical challenge is whether the
Pakistani state will be able to acquire
a legitimate basis of authority through
institutions or a credible political
leader, or will it continue to be seen
without legitimacy”

As a consequence of change in the social and political composition and the orientation of the Pakistani elites, Shafqat conclusively claimed that the very structure— ‘institutional landscape’ of the Pakistani state has undergone change. While the primary function of the state is monopoly of legitimate coercion; there are various areas of Pakistan where writ of state either does not exist or is being nibbled and eroded. To assert and resurrect itself, the state instead negotiates, mediates and uses force sometimes successfully and others not. The Pakistani state is under duress and battling with the idea of how to accommodate competing interests not confined to any one area or group. The critical challenge is whether the Pakistani state will be able to acquire a legitimate basis of authority through institutions or a credible political leader, or will it continue to be seen without legitimacy. Shafqat considers the answer to this question and the nature of the elites to decide whether the interests of the lawyers’ protests and political parties converge and whether the state would be able to dismantle and disrupt the terrorist networks. Would these elites be able to negotiate sustainable peaceful settlement with the Pakistani Taliban—at what cost and against which political and social freedoms?

Responding during the question-answer session; when asked whether a feudalistic society is conducive to democracy? Shafqat argued that though feudalism exists but it is not simply a class issue; it’s the feudalistic state of mind that is the bigger problem as it promotes autocracy by creating a hierarchical relationship in every institution. For much a mind set, respecting individual rights would mean that certain amount of power must be conceded. The constellation of Pakistani elites is crumbling but is still resistant to learn and make that change.

Answering another question if ideology plays a part in elite institutions and if the ideology of Pakistan’s Military has changed? Shafqat replied that the motto of Pakistan military changed from Unity, Faith and Discipline to Imaan, Taqwa and Jihad during Zia-ul-Haq’s time. Zia injected Islamic ideology in all institutions of the state and transformed the role of the military from defending the territorial boundaries of Pakistan to protecting the boundless and imaginary ‘Ideological frontiers’ of Pakistan.

Asked about his opinion on the lawyers’ movement and transformation of civil society, Shafqat observed that he had yet to see the lawyers’ protest as a movement because it had neither caught the imagination of nor penetrated the masses—it remains an urban phenomenon. However, he was emphatic in pointing out that this was the first time urban professionals belonging to the relatively prosperous sections of society including doctors, lawyers, teachers and mostly private university students agitated against the state. That was a very positive and encouraging development and could auger well for flourishing of the democratic process, but any change begged the question, if the lawyers’ protest can transform itself into a people’s movement?