Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


New leadership

March 13, 2018


THE desire for new leadership is strong in Pakistan, especially in middle-class bosoms sick of traditional leaders. For many of them, despite their education, the emergence of new leadership is a mysterious chance event, influenced only by prayers and chants.

But for social science trained minds, the emergence of new leadership is caused by major socioeconomic changes in societies and the economic interests of new powerful societal factions. New leaders recognise and respond to these changes and interests and beat others to grab the leadership mantle. Since they undermine existing power brokers, new leaders must also have the opportunity to survive attempts by the old guard to eliminate them.

The agenda of new leaders mostly reflects the interests of their core coalition. But to win power, they usually expand their appeal beyond their core coalition to other factions whose interests may be dissimilar and even conflicting. Many of them then have to juggle conflicting interests in order to keep everyone happy. A review of the manner in which new leadership has emerged in our history can help us go beyond prayers to a serious analysis.

The analysis revolves around the core factions and their interests that propel new leaders, their attempts to broaden their coalition and develop an agenda accordingly and the opportunities that may be available to prevail over the old guard.

Pakistani politics have remained elitist till today.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah, our first leader, was a professional lawyer who belonged to a wealthy business community. To a large extent, his politics reflected the concerns of Muslim professional and business groups in India’s Hindu-majority areas about living in a Hindu-ruled India. But this limited coalition was not a winning one, as shown by the 1937 election results. He expanded it by gradually winning over the landlords and tribal leaders in Muslim majority areas and elements of the clergy. His ability to challenge the colonial power was facilitated by the latter’s weakening after the Second World War and the desire to leave India via constitutional means. Given the coalition was united only by the desire for freedom, his agenda too prioritised freedom and remained vague on many post-freedom matters. This has an impact even now.

Political leaders became marginalised after 1947. But this soon created dissent among groups whose interests were ignored by unelected rulers. Eventually, new leadership emerged to represent this dissent in the shape of Mujibur Rehman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Both espoused leftist politics but their social backgrounds differed significantly, reflecting the huge differences in the social structures of the country’s two wings.

Mujib had a humble background and rose through the ranks via grass-roots student politics. Bhutto was an aristocrat and was plucked laterally by a dictator and, later on, built a political career. Thus, Mujib’s core constituency was more mass-oriented, while Bhutto’s included both the aristocracy and socialists, with the former gaining control over his agenda with time.

While Bhutto’s rhetoric was mass-oriented, his rise also reflected a desire by rural elites to wrest back power from urbanites. Both Bhutto and Mujib were arrested by the dictator but eventually survived given the latter’s poor health and collapsing political support.

Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were the next two major leaders to emerge. Benazir inherited Bhutto’s legacy once the Zia dictatorship started weakening. Nawaz was sponsored by the establishment as part of its desire to return power to Punjab-based urban elites. Eventually, this coalition fractured as Nawaz appeared to fall out with Punjab’s urban middle-class elites, with Imran Khan emerging as the preferred choice for many of the latter. But PML-N has developed stronger roots among Punjab’s masses through patronage, leaving Imran still hunting for a winning coalition.

This review indicates that the major leaders in current-day Pakistan’s history came from elite backgrounds and did not rise through grass-roots politics. Their practised agendas largely reflected the concerns of upper- and middle-class constituencies despite the lofty rhetoric of some of them. Thus Pakistani politics and economics have largely remained elitist till today.

The masses have remained leaderless and being an aggrieved majority represent large numbers and unmet desires from which new mass-oriented leadership could emerge. But they have been divided along ethnic and sectarian lines, often by the establishment. The latter has also imposed a conservative, faith-based narrative on the country.

All this makes it difficult for anyone to espouse a progressive agenda and survive and rise in politics. While the elite leaders survived attempts by older elites to eliminate them, this is much more difficult for budding mass-oriented leaders, whose politics gets nipped in the bud. So the prospects for the emergence of grass-roots, progressive leadership in Pakistan remain bleak.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2018