What is Pakistan’s elite?

Published: June 30, 2012
The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.

A few days ago in a morning show, I saw a top journalist hold forth about the reckless elite of Pakistan. While there is no doubt about the fact that Pakistan’s elite is irresponsible towards itself and the people, it was more interesting to see the gentleman refer to Altaf Hussain, Asif Ali Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rehman as part of the elite. Not that these people are not part of the elite, but the person commenting on them was elite himself and was pretending to be a common man.

The fact is that the term and concept, ‘elite’, is misrepresented and misunderstood in this country. Intriguingly, those who are part of the elite themselves carry out most of the anti-elite commentary. In fact, castigating the elite at popular forums is a way to gain legitimacy that could lead to acquisition of greater power. For instance, the MQM condemns its opponents as elite, while being a part of the power circle itself. Similarly, the PTI leadership, which comes from an elite background, sells a middle class narrative to gain access to greater power and control of government. Even the judges challenge the elite when they are historically part of the power establishment of the country.

Popularly, the term ‘elite’ invokes the image of the landed-feudal group, which was originally part of the ruling elite in 1947. However, over the years this began to change with the state’s civil and military bureaucracy getting integrated into the elite and also using state resources to create other elite groups such as business and industry.

From a definitional perspective, the elite comprises individuals or groups of people that have greater capacity to manipulate the distributive system of the state and thus comparatively gain greater personal advantages. Although the Pakistani state often pretends to distribute land and money to the dispossessed and the landless, the fact of the matter is that such acts are carried out to hide greater resources that are siphoned off by the elite. A glance at how the Capital Development Authority in Islamabad or any other land development authority distributes state land is a case in point. Over the years, prime property has been distributed to senior civil and military bureaucrats, politicians, and elite journalists. The case of how a three-star general chopped off prime property that was part of the cricket stadium in Karachi for further distribution amongst fellow generals is another such example.

So, it is necessary to properly contextualise the elite debate. First, there is no elite-less society. Every state and society has its elite. The elite appear very sinister in a heavily class-oriented society like Pakistan’s.

Second, ‘elite’ is not a static concept but is forever evolving. What constituted elite yesterday may not be the same today or even tomorrow. Historically and popularly, the elite referred to the landed-feudal group because this was the dominant group in an agrarian economy like Pakistan’s. Later, as mentioned earlier, other groups were formed. The evolutionary process also meant that newer elite groups emerged almost every decade due to state patronage that replaced the traditional elite and the older ones merged into the newer formations.

Third, the elite are not just a group, but also the name of a process that facilitates a constant cycle of change in a society. In case of a powerful, yet easily manipulated state like Pakistan, the process of elite formation is directly linked with the ability of a group to manipulate the state, its power and resources. This means that what may be the middle class or lower middle class of yesterday can be the elite of today. For instance, who could imagine a few decades ago that one day, people belonging to lower middle or middle class backgrounds, like Altaf Hussain, Qaim Ali Shah, Malik Riaz, Humayun Akhtar, Ijazul Haq, or Arsalan Iftikhar will be powerful millionaires and part of the elite? Not to forget the fact that today religious leaders like Maulana Fazlur Rehman or jihadi leaders such as Hafiz Saeed, Fazlur Rehman Khalil, Malik Ishaq and others are also part of the power elite.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 1st, 2012.

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Reader Comments (21)

  • Jun 30, 2012 - 11:57PM

    Now that is breaking down the term ‘Elite’ – an ever changing group. Yesterday’s Elite maybe today’s middle class, who really knows.
    Really, the term ‘elite’ used by journalists drive me crazy. Money, power, influence. That’s all that matters in this country and we’re all going down the drain for it- elites too. There is no where to hide my loves. The ever changing dynamics will run you down. You can have all the money in the world but you will not be an elite if you don’t have that power or influence. That’s important. Its a combination. When the wrong people get influence and power (by the gun) and money illegally, we’re set to become one chaotic nation… Cheers Pakistan- change will come when you REALLY want it.


  • Awans
    Jul 1, 2012 - 12:02AM

    Great Article. You are absolutely right. Your sentence “the person commenting on them was elite himself and was pretending to be a common man.” sums up everything. Pretending to be a common man and then blaming elite happen on a fairly quotidian basis in our media. Anyone having power is elite. In my view SHO of every Police Station and a Patwari and a Maulana Sahib of nearby Masjid is a part of Elite as well.


  • The Invisible Hand
    Jul 1, 2012 - 12:19AM

    I agree with you that elite is found in every society of the world but here in Pakistan the case is ironically worst. Anyone who has got nothing could not be made Prime Minister or President or even a Minister. The bottom line is that in order to become a part of the Pakistani ruling elite one must be at least a millionaire.


  • Hasan
    Jul 1, 2012 - 12:44AM

    Not a particularly insightful article.

    What exactly is the crime behind rallying against the ‘elite’ as a means of gaining political power? I wouldn’t consider myself a devout PTI folllower, but I don’t see why they should be hesitant to gain votes by speaking out against elitism. If we go by what the author says, anybody who has power in Pakistan is an ‘elite’ and is therefore a blood sucker – which fits nicely into the growing international media chorus of the country being doomed, ready to collapse, a failed experiment, blah blah blah…

    Frankly this author has made a pretty successful career out of bashing the army, from time to time with good reason as well, but its a little strange how she lectures us on the dangers of criticising the establishment even though she herself has done so, freely and without hinderance – and no doubt made some good money in the process.


  • Hedgefunder
    Jul 1, 2012 - 1:12AM

    Ask this question to common man, the answer is very simple ! Those Who Simply Do Not Pay Their Taxes and hoard their Money in Overseas Banks !!!!!


  • Falcon
    Jul 1, 2012 - 1:26AM

    Ayesha – A very logical article. However, I would like to add few additional strands to your narrative. Firstly, anti-elitism is a global trend, Arab springs in Eest and ‘Occupy Wall Street’ in the west are symbols of the same trend. As a whole, this points to resurgence of socialist undercurrents in societies. Secondly, being an elite is not a bad thing per say, but what is wrong is their lack of willingness to pay their due share for betterment of rest of the society. For example, recently an estimate was released that in Pakistan about 800,000 people evade taxes despite having a lot of wealth. So, when people (such as IK) refer to elite in negative terms, they are essentially referring to the indifferent and socially irresponsible segment of the elite, rather than the whole strata. Finally, this is the process of self-introspection for the society and can lead to evolution of complex but better social structures in the long run with more equitable distribution of resources in all societies.


  • Ali
    Jul 1, 2012 - 2:07AM

    The words elite and Pakistan doesn’t go together very well.


  • Jul 1, 2012 - 2:19AM

    Damning your opponents as “elite” is a popular tool everywhere. Powerful politicians do it most often but powerful journalists do it too to identify themselves with the “common” people.

    It works well in democracies, real or imagined. For example, Obama ran as an outsider, winning sympathies of liberal whites and huge money contributions from Wall Street tycoons, and then he bailed out the powerful banks while millions of members of the middle class lost their jobs and homes since he took office. Obama’s foreign policy too closely resembles Bush in spite of his rhetoric….at least Bush was honest about it when he addressed his campaign contributors as “Haves and Have-Mores”.



  • Muhammad Ramzan
    Jul 1, 2012 - 7:45AM

    Ayesha please write such articles on other terms i.e. secularism, establishment, subsidy and soveriegnty that are being misused and misinterpreted by the the elite (Power Circle) to maintain their power over the masses.


  • Feroz
    Jul 1, 2012 - 9:06AM

    The article is brilliant because it tackles a complex topic with simplicity and grace. The clarity of thought and the articulation of the same in words, is simply outstanding. When I read other authors trying to create contrived logic out of nonsense and fool the gullible masses, this author comes across as a beacon of hope. In a country that is bent on self destruction and one where the best and wisest counsel is never heeded — great to know that sane people still exist.
    Ayesha is a terrific and courageous writer, not the one to be providing useless sugar coated pills for sure.
    Hats Off !!


  • Syed Hussein El-Edroos
    Jul 1, 2012 - 9:20AM

    Right on the money, as always.

    However, we should not give up hope. At one time there was a rule that a former President, Governor, Army, Air and Naval Chiefs could import one car duty-free. Later most would sell the car and pocket the profit. This rule has now be abolished, if I am not wrong.

    If we keep at it, we can hope for a level playing field in the future.


  • Ali
    Jul 1, 2012 - 11:30AM

    I think major criticism on elitism in Pakistan comes from the groups with a tinge of socialism.


  • Riaz Khan
    Jul 1, 2012 - 1:58PM

    As usual fantastic article from a very brave & intelligent lady! We are extremely proud of you. God bless you.


  • Jul 1, 2012 - 2:54PM

    Ayesha indeed this article covered many aspects of our now-a-days-prevailing elite. For me elite isn’t all about the social class, actually it refers to all that stuff which has a power as a tool for manipulating social, democratic, religious or sentimental jargons. This begins from lower patwari to the higher judiciary and between them don’t forget to count media as well.


  • abushinawar
    Jul 1, 2012 - 4:21PM

    I think Madam forget to mention media houses of today as the elite group who influence much power and opinion.


  • hazrat wali kakar
    Jul 1, 2012 - 5:50PM

    thanks to share such a valid concepts with us about elite.the concept is written very well from start to end which kept the reader in every moment interesting to known about new things.the way you have write no doubt very well.PTI view as you have write i am 100% agree with you that all top class leader belongs to elite family background like Janghir Tareen,Sadar asfi ali,Azam sawati and even Imran himself.second point about religious elite in our society ,me as Pashtun strongly effected by bleedly policies of these elite Mullahs like mulvi Fazul rehamn.and so on.


  • khalid
    Jul 1, 2012 - 10:19PM

    very true u r mam

    The pitty for allof us in a world of today aviable ways to stop it


  • qaswar
    Jul 2, 2012 - 12:46AM

    i will put it this way,there are different catagories of elite.i,e
    1)permanent elite groups
    2)Temporary elite groups or individuals.
    permanent elite groups incude military,establishment.civilaian establishments.
    where as temporary elite groups or individuals incude,politicians land lords buisness community and media.
    In the permanent elite catagory military remains the most powerful and dominant group with the ability to create temporay elits and influence all other elite groups.
    In a nutshell, its the military elite group which is at the helm of affairs and therefore answerable to the nation.
    Kudos, ayesha sadiqua


  • Adeel
    Jul 2, 2012 - 11:45AM

    why do we then vote for elite people in pakistan? we should now getup from deep slumber if we want to change statusquoRecommend

  • Aizaz
    Jul 4, 2012 - 3:05PM

    Sadly the nation lacks empathy. They say, if you give a man charity he can feed his family once but if you give him a spade he can feed his family for ever. I have seen there are many private charities in the country that are far and few. In London during the early part of this year ONE charity raised £23million at a time when the country is in recession. Do we have such genrosity in Pakistan? I will leave the reader to consider this simple question. Could you give a man his spade?


  • Maham
    Jul 4, 2012 - 11:43PM

    Pointing fingers out to the rest is a national norm of our people. Who calls themselves a common man and who is an elite. The point stands straight that we need to stop electing looters who have left our country with no future. I am the future of my nation and leaving for my Masters to UK this september. When I come back, I want to see and make the change happen!
    I maybe from the Elite, but I love my country and I am ready to sacrifice my life for it. Proud to be a Pakistani, always!


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