The untouchables of Pakistan

Pakistan movement revolved around a few ideologues but most others were the landed rich of UP and Bengal


Shahzad Chaudhry October 08, 2021
The writer is a political, security and defence analyst. He tweets @shazchy09 and can be contacted at [email protected]

The journey to be counted an elite in Pakistan is fascinating as well as instructive. If power today conflates between the landlords, the industrialists, the property magnates, media tycoons and the ultra-rich among former government servants that is exactly how this journey has mapped out. Just to reinforce, the trichotomy of power links the establishment — civil and military — the politicians who come from all shades of the ultra-rich mentioned above, and the civil society elites who conjure an atmosphere of unrestrained debauchery of public resources aka plunder enabling unchecked pillaging, stealing and pilferage of resource which is laundered and parked abroad in safe havens. This money — good or bad, white or black — remains undeclared evading a nation’s tax laws forcing poorer nations to irrecoverable levels of emaciation. The rich grow richer by multiples while the poor only get impoverished.

The Pakistan movement revolved around a few ideologues but most others were the landed rich of UP and Bengal who were lavished with estates and titles by the ruling British to garner a class of people in their support. They rallied to form a union to find political leverage against the likely Hindu domination in a post-Britain India. When Punjab finally succumbed to the idea of Pakistan it were the Punjabi landlords that were already politicians of different shades that added to the Muslim League numbers — not without great persuasion and British help, one might add. The original composition of Pakistan’s power elites thus included mostly the landlords, the Sirdars and Nabobs of various tribes and denominations. Princes and the royalty added colour. The common man only got attached to this idea of the Muslim League because of Quaid-e-Azam’s impeccable reputation and matchless integrity and charisma. The society still valued moral integrity and a financial probity.

The civilian Bureaucracy soon entered the power struggle when it found the traditional politician fighting for spoils after the Quaid passed away. Rather than give the new nation a constitution the assembly began a circus of power which was joined by the bureaucrats. The civil-military cohort arrogated complete control of the country in due course away from the politician. Ayub Khan conjured a constitution with limited ends but helped the country settle into political and legal structures that endured into apparent stability. His ten years marked the institution of an economy that seemed to be galloping.

The old trading and manufacturing families of India, now Pakistan, held on to their businesses and slowly shaped an economy around their inherited areas of economic production. Under Ayub Khan they increasingly began to be referred as the twenty-two families that formed the industrial base of the country under World Bank specialists. Licence for a specified industry was granted by the government and many with access and influence in the government were able to not only add to their assets but became neo-industrialists in an era when international financial support was lavishly possible. They became the new ultra-rich industrial class of the society in a reshaped economy. The money was still fair and the rich were justly so except for the privilege of those few with access to the licence and the resource. The society more or less was still very disciplined and benefited from a fair trickle down through jobs and a sense of public probity. Bribe, unfair acquisition of money, or graft were unheard of and widely despised.

This discretion of the state to permit opportunity led to a simmering backlash which the suave Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was not only quick to build on to turn the sentiment against the Field Marshal. He used it to vie as an alternate for power and formed his own political party, the PPP. The 1965 war and its aftermath became a handy tool to whip a frenzy of a sell-out by Ayub to India. He first germinated the sentiment and then used it to his utmost political advantage. That he also espoused socialist economic trends was both populist and opportune. Ideologues and those that despised a Field Marshal’s monopoly over power converged in large numbers and the Bhutto phenomenon took on. The 1971 dismemberment only reinforced his credentials as the only alternate power broker. He became the most consequential leader in country’s history after the Quaid when he restructured and reformed almost every aspect of political, cultural and social life in the country.

Not everything went well and a lot that has gone off-rail can be traced back to how the system was disrupted under him. When Bhutto nationalised every industry personal wealth and assets became vulnerable. Through a simple tweak in policy a politician could usurp a person’s wealth. It proved a major setback to private enterprise and the safety of private capital. With Bhutto out the industrialist and the trader found it incumbent to join the power-race to safeguard personal and familial wealth. The part-businessmen and part-politicians which is now an increasing incidence in our politics is a product of that consequence. Legislation suffered at the cost of public interest when policies favoured trading and industrial dynasties.

The richer found even more ways of accumulating riches at the cost of the common man. Indirect taxes amount for some 85 per cent in our revenue stream which then forms the reserve from which the privileged steal. Every effort to increase direct taxes fizzles out in the face of institutional backlash. The nation remains poor while the rich multiply their wealth. The next to enter this free-for-all melee include property tycoons who are the fastest growing group in wealth among the elites. A large number of them now contest elections on the basis of their wealth and contributions to the established political parties and double as hustlers in a polarised and hotly contested grab for power among the elites. Many of these traditionally moneyed groups have found a fetish for also owning media outlets which become their next layer of safety against financial misappropriation. It thus becomes the unholy nexus of dirty money laundered through helpful legislation safeguarded by the toxic power of media which cloisters their riches.

That they find an international acceptability in safe havens which are legally covered means most wealth evades tax when placed in those accounts overseas and offshore. Panama earlier and now the famed Pandora only point to this unholy nexus between dark money and safer shores to keep the rich in good health. They then buy and invest in properties and businesses abroad while impoverishing home economies. Dirty money becomes Kosher thus. Shell-companies hide transactions and acquisitions which remain undeclared and untaxed. Most of the money is laundered under instruments created by helpful parliaments. And when an amnesty arrives, which is frequently the case, black money gets cycled back changing colour to help those at home to contend for more power. No law or its guardians check such unabashed stealing, pilfering and amassing. International economic structures benefit from such accumulation while poorer nations become even greatly reliant on handouts by the rich nations.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 8th, 2021.

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