Nepotism in politics

It was vigorously practised in India which until recently had a more developed political system than Pakistan

Shahid Javed Burki February 24, 2020
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Maryam Nawaz. PHOTO: EXPRESS

I am an economist not a political scientist but I often write about political development. I do so in the strong belief that we can’t understand economics without developing a feel for politics. In their path-breaking work, Why Nations Fail, two scholars, one an economist and the other a political scientist, made a strong case for bringing the two disciplines together to appreciate how the world works and how it changes. Therein, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson focused on what they called inclusive political and economic systems. These are the systems in which rewards of development are widely distributed. The modernisation of political and economic systems interacts with one another.

Political modernisation depends on the development of political parties. They intermediate between the people and those who hold the reins of power. Without well-developed political parties, political systems tend to veer towards authoritarianism. Party-development is neither linear nor unidirectional. Even mature political systems can see parties give up their roots and attach themselves to leaders that have populist views. This is precisely what is happening to the Republican Party in the United States as it has given up its identity. It has been captured by Donald Trump, the current resident of the White House. Several experts have written the obituary of the Republican Party. Whether this particular organisation is able to reverse its political decline will depend upon the next presidential election. That will take place in November this year.

A bit of what is occurring in the US, the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, is also happening in Pakistan. At the current stage of political development, the political landscape in Pakistan is dominated by three parties with broad appeal and several smaller ones with limited reach. How is the system likely to evolve? This is an important question for the simple reason that the resolution of Pakistan’s economic difficulties will depend upon the reshaping of politics. However, of the three mainstream parties only one, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), can be described as inclusive. The other two — the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) — are family-owned enterprises. They are not organisations that strive to serve the masses. In fact, the first of these two carries the name of an individual in its nomenclature. Nawaz in the name refers to Nawaz Sharif, the head of the Sharif family. All the senior leadership of the party comes from the same family.

This is also true for the PPP. In spite of the word ‘people’ in its name it is entirely run by the Bhutto family. The PPP has no pretension of being democratic in the way it manages its affairs. When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated after she had addressed an election rally, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, revealed that in a will she had left behind, she had appointed him as the party head. There was no provision that he would be elected by the party membership. Zardari did not stop at that. Looking ahead, he appointed his son, Bilawal, to be the party’s co-chairman. Not only that, he hyphenated the son’s name by adding Bhutto to his surname.

Nepotism is not unique to Pakistan. It was vigorously practised in neighbouring India which until recently had a more developed political system than Pakistan. After a brief pause, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was India’s prime minister for 17 years, was succeeded by his daughter, Indira Gandhi. After she was assassinated by her Sikh guards, her son, Rajiv Gandhi, stepped into her position. He too was assassinated and his wife, Sonia Gandhi, would have followed him had she been Indian-born. Her son, Rahul Gandhi, now heads the Congress Party and is responsible for the near-extinction of the party that had fought for India’s independence.

Nepotism is central to the management of the two parties. As Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in a recent article, “nepotism has been part of politics as long as there has been such a thing as politics. The term itself, which is derived from the Latin word nepos, which means nephew goes back to the early Renaissance. Then ambitious popes, who at least in theory did not have offspring, appointed their nephews to positions of great power in the Catholic Church.”

While some sociologists have found nepotism to be of some use in keeping ambitious people at bay, there is little place for it in modern politics. The most egregious practitioner of this in recent times has been Donald Trump, who has brought in his daughter and son-in-law into the White House as senior advisers. To go back to the Mendelsohn article, “if the nepotistic ambitions of certain prominent people offend us these days, it may well be out of some buried sense of guilty embarrassment. The feeling is likely to linger. As its long career in politics, religion, the arts, and culture suggest, nepotism is one of the oldest of power plays — one that, if we are to judge from recent history, looks as if it’s going to be very, very hard to beat.”

Both the PML-N and the PPP now have a record of governance from which it should be possible to draw some conclusions about the beliefs of the people who lead them. They alternated in power after the military let go of the reins of power. Of the two, the PML-N governed reasonably well, especially in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province which also happens to be its base. It took note of the serious energy crisis that was hurting the country’s economy. Its leadership worked hard to get Beijing to help with creating new electricity generation capacity to reduce the number of hours that were being lost to load-shedding. A couple of large power generation projects were included in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) investment programme. There was little of note from the five years the PPP spent in power. Both parties developed reputation for poor governance as well as corruption. This was used successfully by Imran Khan to sell the PTI to the electorate that had become tired of the way the rulers had conducted themselves while they were in power. It would take serious work in the field of psephology — the scientific study of elections and polling — to identify the people who joined the PTI’s camp. But it won’t be wrong to suggest that the urban youth were enthusiastic about Imran Khan and the PTI. They wanted to be governed well.

Returning to the role of nepotism, it is important to note that the current leading political party, the PTI, is not burdened by dynastic connections.

Although Imran Khan comes from a large family — some of whom have held high government positions — he has not invited them to join his administration. It is important that he takes other steps to make the party he leads a modern political organisation. He should banish nepotism from Pakistani politics and put in a structure of governance within the party.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 24th, 2020.

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