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Untitled Document
Power and Political Culture in History
Dr. Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: The Daily Times
  • Revised Edition
Dated: Thursday, December 04, 2003

One of the abiding features of Pakistan’s polity is that underlying apparently modern governance structures (whether military dictatorship or democracy) feudal forms prevail in both political culture and the practice of political power. This is manifested in the fact that political power in Pakistan has been historically constituted within the framework of patron-client relationships: The ruling elite has accessed state resources for arbitrary transfer as patronage to selected individuals. The purpose was to build a basis of political support within a structure of dependency. Tracing the origins of this phenomenon in terms of the dialectic between individuals and history may be important in explaining some of the essential features of Pakistan’s crisis of state and society: For example, (a) the failure to arrive at an underlying political consensus that could impart stability to the constitution; (b) the failure of the economic elite to transform themselves into a dynamic entrepreneurial class that could establish an efficient and diversified industrial base, vital for a modern democratic state, (c) the failure to establish institutions that could nurture tolerance, democratic restraints to political conflict and economic advancement of individuals based on merit rather than ‘connections’.

Let us start with the principal proposition that inspite of a whole range of economic, social and political changes in Pakistan (e.g. growth in GDP, urbanization and emergence of political parties) there has been no decisive break from the past in terms of economy, political culture or consciousness that characterized the emergence of democratic states in Europe. In this context Professor Imran Ali has posed an important question: “Why and from which segment of historicity should it be assumed that culture, society, psyche and deeper rooted values in Pakistan have changed significantly enough to re-arrange the pre-existing ordering of things?” Indeed it can be argued that the persistence of feudal forms in the conduct of economic policy and political power, signify that inspite of modernized terminology (economic development and democracy) Pakistan’s society has remained essentially traditional. Inherent to this continuity are moments in Pakistan’s history when a break from the past could have been initiated. Yet the actions of individual leaders prevented the promise of these moments from being actualized.

In a recent paper I have argued that feudal forms of power through patronage have characterized Pakistan’s politics and economic policy. These feudal forms of power have been constituted in Pakistan by means of two instruments: (a) The arbitrary transfer of state resources to individuals and factions to create a constituency of dependents who owe loyalty to the government (during the colonial period), or personalized loyalty to individual politicians and bureaucrats in the post independence period. (b) Discretionary appointments and transfers of personnel within the state sector.

Both in the colonial period as well as in post independence Pakistan, such patronage has been given to particular individuals, yet it has served to consolidate a particular kind of state power. Let us briefly examine the form and function of state patronage in these two periods to illustrate the dialectic between individuals and history.

In the nineteenth century, the British colonial government attempted to build a basis of political support, by consolidating the agrarian elite in the areas that later came to constitute Pakistan. In Sindh the British sought the support of the traditional agrarian elite by accommodating large landholder families (the waderas). In the Punjab by contrast, the British formalized the proprietorship over land of the zamindars, who had newly emerged from the upper peasant strata following wide spread peasant revolts at the end of the Mughal period (See the pioneering work of Imran Ali). In both cases the colonial government in its early years created a political constituency through establishing patron-client relationships with selected members of the rural elites. In the subsequent decades the British created new clients amongst the rural elites through offering lucrative appointments in the British Indian Army almost exclusively to the agrarian hierarchy.

The most important and far-reaching form of patronage through enrichment of clients was done by means of the development of canal irrigation and the process of agricultural colonization that accompanied it. From 1885 onwards the colonial government enabled extensive areas that were previously arid waste, to be brought under cultivation, through the construction of river-spanning weirs and extensive networks of perennial canals. Large parts of this newly arable land were transferred as land grants to loyal supporters in the agrarian elites of Punjab and Sindh. Additionally a number of legislative measures were taken by the colonial government to strengthen and protect the position of the loyal rural elites against the operation of market forces. The most important amongst these measures were the Punjab Land Alienation Act 1900 and the Punjab Pre-Emption Act 1913, which prohibited transfer of land from land owners to “non-agricultural” classes (See: Cheema, Khwaja and Qadir; Imran Ali; H. Alavi; M. Pasha).

During the Pakistan Movement the Muslim League had an opportunity to bring the nascent bourgeoisie into positions of leadership. Instead in the decade before partition, following its defeat in the 1937 elections, the Muslim League brought members of the feudal elite into its fold.

My recent research shows how in the post independence period, the patron-client model of governance continued, as the bureaucracy in the Ayub government granted licenses and contracts to favoured individuals in the private sector within a highly regulated economic regime. At the same time lucrative appointments continued to be made in the state sector to establish a domain of patronage for the military bureaucratic ruling elite. During the 1960s the government systematically encouraged import substitution industrial growth, and nurtured an industrial elite dependent on state patronage. This was done by means of high protection rates to domestic manufacturers, cheap credit, and direct import controls on competing imports. Further more the bonus voucher scheme was introduced through which an exporter not only earned the rupee revenues from exports, but also an additional premium through sale of bonus vouchers.

The protection measures and concessions during the Ayub regime enabled the industrial elite to make large rupee profits without the market pressures to diversify into high value added industries or to achieve international competitiveness. These tendencies persisted in varying degrees for the next four decades. It has been estimated for example that even in 1990-91, by which time the rate of effective protection had been considerably reduced, the increase in the share of manufacturing attributable to protection amounted to 5 percent of GNP.

The Ayub period illustrates the historically rooted tendency of the government to seek political support amongst nascent elites through state patronage. In the subsequent Z.A. Bhutto period this old tendency was manifested in new forms. Inspite of his socialist rhetoric Mr. Bhutto purged the party of its radical elements and brought the feudal elite into dominant positions within the People’s Party. One of the most important initiatives of the government was the nationalization in 1972 of 43 large industrial units in the capital and intermediate goods sector. This was followed three years later by the nationalization of much smaller industries such as cooking oil, flour milling, cotton ginning and rice husking mills. While the first set of nationalizations impacted the “monopoly capitalists”, the second set of nationalizations in 1976 hit the medium and small sized entrepreneurs. Therefore nationalization in this regime cannot be seen as state intervention for greater equity. Rather the rapid increase in the size of the public sector served to widen the resource base of the regime for the practice of the traditional form of power through state patronage.

General Zia ul Haq who overthrew the Bhutto regime in a coup d’etat aimed to acquire a political constituency amongst the conservative religious strata of the lower middle class. This was part of his attempt to restructure state and society into a theocracy. The institutional roots of what later came to be known as “Islamic fundamentalism” were laid when government funds were provided for establishing mosque schools (madrassas) in small towns and rural areas, which led to the rapid growth of militant religious organizations. This particular form of state patronage enabled General Zia ul Haq to establish a political constituency both within the institutions of the state and in the conservative urban petit bourgeoisie for his version of military dictatorship. Zia’s political power so constructed proved to be transient but not the associated theocratic trends in political culture.

The decade of the 1990s once again presented an opportunity to elected governments to enlarge the space for civilian rule by establishing the institutional and economic basis of democracy. Instead, successive democratic governments of both Ms. Benazir Bhutto and Mr. Nawaz Sharif, systematically weakened institutions, and used financial resources from the nationalized banking sector for political purposes. At the same time state resources were used to grant contracts and licenses to enrich political allies. According to an estimate by S.J. Burki and H. Pasha, the overall cost to the country of corruption at the highest level of government, was 20 percent to 25 percent of the GDP in 1996-97, or approximately US $ 15 billion.

Pakistan’s history shows that the functioning of feudal forms of constituting political power gradually weakened its institutional structure as well as the economy. This process was integrally linked to the choices of individuals. The personal proclivities of individuals in positions of power within the state structure not only found increasingly free play as the civilian institutional structure weakened, but in turn individual leaders unrestrained by institutional accountability were able to further undermine the state institutions themselves. Thus the dialectic between individuals and Pakistan’s history has now produced another paradox of power: The institutionalization of military rule within an ostensibly democratic dispensation.

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