The people vs expats, aunties and urbanites-by Mosharraf Zaidi

If a functional democracy that produces popular and electorally legitimate government is too much for Pakistan’s uber-smart expat and urban elite, then they had better close their eyes. They ain’t seen nothing yet. When the PPP is done with the national exchequer things will seem a lot more like 1996 than they have since 1996. That’s got nothing to do with corruption, and everything to do with a political system that is dependent on patronage and rewards its agents through a complex but indisputable spoils system. The trouble is that the naïve coffee-table class that reads and writes in the English language press is so uncontrollably narcissistic that it fails to recognise the inherent legitimacy of a spoils system in a country where there are over 40 million people below the official poverty line, and another 80 million that probably cannot afford to eat most of the food advertised in this newspaper.

Desktop activism, and “auntie” politics has not achieved anything of note in Pakistan’s young history, yet having a desktop and being an “auntie” seem to have become qualifications to determine the fate of Pakistan’s 172 million people. This is sheer arrogance of a magnitude for which there are no words. Moreover, this is a kind of arrogance for which there is little evidence of justification. It is inexplicable why freshly minted Harvard and Cambridge graduates think they are smarter than illiterate, fifth-grade dropouts from villages across Sindh and southern Punjab. After all, it is the villagers that rule Pakistan, their representatives and leaders in the highest offices in the land. What have the expats, aunties and urbanites got? Not much, except a few YouTube clips of a washed up politician reading poetry.

There can be no questioning the courage of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry. He is, and will be remembered as, among the most fearless public officials Pakistan has produced. His courage empowered and enabled not only sixty other judges to do what was right, but forced other institutions to think about their role in Pakistan’s steady slide. The military, the bureaucracy and the political elite, all have tried in varying degrees to either discredit the lawyers’ movement, or to co-opt it. This, more than anything else, should be the lens through which Pakistan’s lawyers should view their historical success. They have moved mountains on the back of the courage of one judge, and the efforts of thousands of lawyers.

No matter how genuinely spectacular this spasm of integrity was, and it was truly spectacular, the lawyers’ movement was never going to transform Pakistani politics. This is not because the judges weren’t doing the right thing. They were. This is not because the lawyers weren’t sincere. They really were. This is not because the PPP has a lot to lose by reinstating Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. It does.

The real reason the lawyers movement will not, can not, and should not be transformational in Pakistani politics is that the lawyers movement is outside the bounds of power politics in Pakistan. It is driven by appeals to the higher senses of educated and discerning Pakistanis who feel strongly about rule of law, and the way things should be. It is almost exclusively urban in character and, most importantly, its leadership is compromised by its own dissonance. From the judges that have eventually succumbed to the pressure to take new oaths, to Aitzaz Ahsan’s political banishment to no-man’s land—the movement has been torn asunder by its own internal inadequacies.

Again, this is not to suggest that the movement was anything but heroic. It was, but it has run its course, and it has delivered what it could. It has forever expanded the imagination of Pakistan’s educated urban dwellers about what is possible if there is real commitment.

Where the lawyers’ movement left off needed to be where something else picked up. This should have happened immediately after the restoration of the judiciary, and well before its illegal dissolution by the declaration of emergency in November 2007. What should that something else have been? Political action. It needn’t have been the lawyers’, but it needed to be some political force that demonstrated the reach of the movement, beyond the street, and into the voting booth.

The fact is that Pakistan’s discerning and self-righteous urbanites simply don’t have the stomach for that kind of action. Ghinwa Bhutto does. She was there at an election booth on Feb 18, going toe-to-toe with an old-school PPP heavy, Mr Nisar Khuhro. The Khuhros and Bhuttos have stomach aplenty. So do the Daultanas, which is why both aunt (Tehmina for PML-N) and nephew (Azeem for PPP) are members of the assembly from Vehari. So do the Khars, the Chaudhrys, the Jamalis, the Qureshis, the Bilours, the Gilanis and all the others whom Pakistan’s English-language elite love to hate. They call them the feudals, which is convenient but bogus. Land fragmentation since the 1990s has meant that it is now probably more profitable to be a real-estate agent for DHA than it is to be a “feudal lord.”

Moreover, it is not just the rural elite that demonstrate the panache to deal with the challenges of electoral politics in Pakistan. In Karachi, Pakistan’s most cosmopolitan and most important city, the MQM has been politically untouchable now for an entire generation. The MQM has the stomach for the kind of action that enables it to make important decision on behalf of millions of Karachiites.

Even beyond Karachi, there is a vibrant culture of political action in Pakistan’s cities. It is this culture that the PML-N has wagered its political future on. It is a great bet. Pakistan’s cities are exploding with the potential for industrial growth, the current economic downturn notwithstanding. The PML-N’s only weakness is that those cities are all in the Punjab. That is hardly the point, though.

The point is that whether it is the rural, or the urban, the feudal or the industrial, there is an existing political spectrum within which Pakistan’s game of power politics is played. The two outliers in the political spectrum equation are the “religious” parties, and the military, which for reasons of brute strength and history, also have important political voices.

Where are the aspirations of the high-minded, urbane and sophisticated Pakistani articulated in this spectrum? Quite simply put: nowhere. That is sad and tragic, and perhaps should be lamented on a daily basis. But it is not grounds for de-legitimising a very vast, well established and legally robust system of give and take between political actors. The fact that English-speaking urban Pakistanis care for Pakistan does not qualify them to decide on what is best for Pakistan, above the opinion of Pakistanis who may not have degrees and laptops, but who have the presence of mind to vote when elections are held. Those same Pakistanis may not have phones that support GPS and Google Earth, but they know where their representatives live. That’s a lot more potent political information than what’s available on a Pakistani expat’s Blackberry. This really is the crux of Pakistan’s challenge.

The current political dispensation, this spoils system that is giving so many urbanites so much heartache, can continue unchallenged. If it does, Pakistan is guaranteed to remain a global backwater. No amount of promoting Pakistan’s ridiculously titled and pathetically pursued “soft-image” can change that. The biggest enablers and patrons of the “soft-image” exercises were the same expats, aunties and urbanites who are now so wildly offended by a Zardari presidency and a political dispensation that has left them out in the cold.

Challenging the existing political spectrum is not a task for the mild-mannered, and easily offended doyens of the lawyers’ movement, or their middleclass-mindset urban supporters. It is a tough and gritty intergenerational challenge which will cost blood, sweat and tears. The PPP’s ascent to the Presidency or the PML-N’s not-so-distant future rise to power has been earned through exiles, jail terms and the deaths of political workers. So far the best that expats, aunties and urbanites have to offer are a few indignant op-eds about Mr Zardari’s presidency. This is not simply inadequate, it is pathetic. Until we (the expats, aunties and urbanites) do better, Pakistan is better left in the hands of those whom the people have elected.

The writer is an independent political economist. Email: mosharraf@

Source: The News, 16/9/2008

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