Class and politics

Published: March 27, 2012
The writer is professor of political science at LUMS

The writer is professor of political science at LUMS

One cannot explain the way politics works in a country like Pakistan without gaining an understanding of the political process. Queries about political workings give rise to another question i.e., what factors shape them? These factors relate to social relations, social structures, castes, tribes and the other hierarchies that are present in society. Not all societies have similar social structures, as some are more elitist, hierarchical and unequal than others.

Pakistani society is one of the most elitist societies of the region and of the Islamic world. Here we have a top layer of roughly 500 to 600 families that own large tracts of land, or head a tribe, sub-tribe, a caste or a sub-caste. On account of relative social dominance in a particular district, region, an electoral constituency or a cluster of constituencies, these families exercise great influence over social and political processes.

Depending on whether or not the ownership of their landholdings are fragmented within the family, they enjoy economic power as well.

However, in almost every part of Pakistan, except the tribal regions of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, we can now witness the emergence of new economic classes; like traders, businessmen, industrialists, and more importantly, a rising rural middle class.

The question is why do the old social classes of Pakistan continue to dominate electoral politics of the country even after more than half a century? This question is pertinent and worth pondering over because in neighbouring India, which has a rigid caste system, the post-independence middle class has created a wide political space for itself and presents a challenge to the old social classes. This may eventually happen in Pakistan, too, but the progress towards meeting that end is very slow. We see the middle classes in Pakistan making progress in economic terms, particularly the professional and the rural land-based segments, along with business groups from small retailers upwards, but they are yet to coalesce or galvanise into a political force.

Among the many factors that impede the political path of the middle classes, two are important in keeping politics the exclusive domain of the dominant social classes. The first is the incumbency factor; those who have been in politics for decades have used power, privilege and patronage to solidify their social support base. There is political competition at all levels of the electoral process but it is generally restricted to the members of the elite class. For others, gaining a stronghold in the electoral process remains a distant possibility. Interestingly, change may come about in terms of the emergence of new political players and an increase in the political influence of the middle classes but their route will be the same, that of electoral politics. Such an outcome will depend on the state of democracy within the political parties and political entrepreneurship among the new middle classes. They may not replace the old social classes, but they make them more responsive and politics, over time, may become inclusive and responsive in Pakistan.

The second reason behind the dominance of the old social classes are the four military interventions. Apparently, the military regimes comprised the state elite — bureaucracy and the military. For a very long time, these two institutions have provided a base for social and economic mobility for the lower-middle classes. The members of the echelons of these two institutions were as elitist as caste and tribal leaders. Filled with arrogance, power and newly-acquired riches (urban properties and land acquisitions), they struck an alliance with large sections of the old social classes. In more ways than one, these regimes stunted the growth of democracy by blocking true competition in politics, and rigging the system to benefit their interests.

Some reformists make an argument for land reforms to disempower the old social classes. In this regard, we have missed the bus of history. Class and politics will only be redefined as democracy takes roots in the country, along with the realisation that it is the only way forward for Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 27th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (9)

  • Mar 27, 2012 - 1:57AM

    I couldn’t agree more. There has always been a very strong link between class and politics in Pakistan. Middle-class, although emerging strong in the economic sphere still lacks control over political sphere and may continue to remain so unless any effectively implemented land reforms take place, which again seems to be a hopeless solution as such reforms would conflict with the interests of the “powerful feudal class”.


  • Ammad
    Mar 27, 2012 - 2:32AM

    I agree with you sir, these few 500 600 families have made deep roots in Pakistan. And I think change will come when we will be able to change the mindset of our people who still think that government and high posts are to be run and taken by only the ‘waderas’ or sardars or nawabs not the common man. They have got used to the fact that politics is always going to be done the traditional way. They don’t even understand what a new party is promising and what change it wants to bring. We need to change this old made up mindsets that you have to vote for only those two parties who have been screwing people for 65 years. We have to tell them that once a party does not perform, you should not vote for it in the next election. Vote is your power. But we see jayalas keep on voting for the same party irrespective of their performance. Any rational person would never do this. We need to change this mindset and make them think for country, not personal interests.


  • Max
    Mar 27, 2012 - 3:41AM

    Rasul Bukhsh Jee, The traditional landed elite have always been the key player and almost in all societies of the world. So it is not something unique in case of Pakistan. The landed elite draw their political power (influence) from their social status (deeply rooted in land ownership) and claim it to be their right. The newly emerging middle class does not compete against them simply for the reason that their social roots are not deep enough in rural-side where bulk of the voter lives. The urban bourgeoisie, on the other, finds it convenient to govern by forming an alliance with other social forces of the society, i.e.,religious elite, civil and military bureaucrat, and obviously landed elite. Just have a look at the Karachi-based urban capitalist (so called 22 families) in the formative phase of Pakistan. They were too busy in accumulating wealth that politics was left to the wadairas of Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, or Pakhtunkhawa. They, however, very successfully forged an alliance with the civil-military elite and the the legitimacy to their plunder was provided by our religious self-rights.


    Mar 27, 2012 - 5:22PM

    Well I believe the middle class in Pakistan is still Ghairatmand and believes in achieving success through hard work, education and competition this is not the case with the so called Elite of Pakistan where every thing has to be achieved through power or politics.


  • Mar 27, 2012 - 5:30PM

    Class system exists in all societies, rich and poor. In the richest and most powerful country in the world, USA, class difference is very much evident. In Pakistan elite exercises their power through use of police. They use police to intimidate their foes, make use of it at the time of elections, and avoid arrests by police if they commit crimes including murders. Only thing that can mitigate the oppression by this elite group is to reform our police on the pattern of USA or Canada. We should have local govts and local police that is independent of the provincial and federal control.


  • naji ullah shah
    Mar 27, 2012 - 10:55PM

    pakistan politics will be changed if political procss would not stop by dictators.dictators came to stop corruption but thay had been involed in corruption also.democracy and more democracy is the only way to prosper.


  • reasonable
    Mar 27, 2012 - 11:48PM

    I think politicians and parties need to be given a extended run to achieve some kind of stabilization, military interventions have not helped. An extended run of civilian governments would allow people and the political parties to mature. I know initially it will look bad or the situation may worsen ex power, gas education etc but things will improve. You cannot expect civilian governments to achieve or govern the country nicely overnight. Thing with Pakistan has been that people have been impatient and are ready to support military interventions within two or four years of civilian rules.


  • Mar 28, 2012 - 8:41PM

    @Walayat Malik:
    “Only thing that can mitigate the oppression by this elite group is to reform our police on the pattern of USA or Canada.”

    “…to reform our police on the pattern of USA …” It may be a better idea to start by reforming the US police.


  • Deb
    Apr 28, 2012 - 12:10AM

    This post will hold true for India and Bangladesh as well.


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