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Understanding dynastic politics

August 09, 2010


THE ability of our political families to keep winning could attract the envious fascination of a cat looking for ways to push the number of its lives into double digits.

For our educated class though it is a matter of enduring mystery and frustration, with the finger of blame often pointed at the 'low IQ of the masses' who get swayed by catchy slogans instead of policies. However, in reality, the masses are being perfectly rational.

Pakistanis can be divided into two classes. The first is the privileged quarter of the population born into families able to send their wards to good schools. After graduation, such persons face mouth-watering employment prospects globally. While a timely call from well-placed, affectionate uncles still occasionally proves helpful, this class is able to rely mainly on 'merit', and its economic fortunes are delinked from its cultural contacts.

Since political choices are closely linked to economic considerations, there is little linkage then between the cultural coordinates and political choices of this class either, and it has the luxury to focus solely on politicians' policies.

Then they are the teeming masses born into families who can, at best, send them to poor-quality schools. After graduating or dropping out they compete for scarce, poor economic opportunities with thousands of other poorly skilled people. The most sensible strategy for such families is to have one of their own attain political power or to link up with local power brokers, with either of them then linked into a complex web of relationships with other power-broking families all the way to the national level.

In supporting such power brokers, these families hope to fractionally increase their life prospects. For such families, then, their cultural, economic and political lives are inextricably fused and their family-based political contacts rather than degrees constitute their most precious assets — that is, who they know and not what they know. Asking the uneducated not to use these contacts is like asking the educated not to use their degrees. Family-based political nexuses obviously run within families across generations and this gives rise to dynastic politics. The power-brokers' corruption does not matter then, especially since part of it goes towards distributing patronage among supporters. Thus corrupt dynastic politics, an abhorrent aberration for the merit-possessed minority, is the perfectly understandable outcome of the socio-economic situation of the merit-deprived majority.

But then why do these people not vote for honest politicians who can usher in broad-based opportunities? Several problems preclude this possibility. The first is of credibility. So many false saviours have fooled us that any politician promising progress is viewed with scepticism. Once bitten, twice shy — how many times will those be shy who have been bitten repeatedly?

The second has to do with the uncertain results of good policies. There is little agreement among experts on which policies produce progress. Some policies may produce good results for the middle classes, such as Musharraf's consumerist policies, but may not help the poorer classes. Even the right policies may fail due to external factors. Even a good policy with a favourable external environment yields results gradually. This may be too slow, too little, for those living near poverty.

So by sticking to tried and tested patronage politics the have-nots are not being foolish but rational given their situation. A bird in hand is worth two in the distant skies.

Short cuts don't help the poor either. For example, martial law may slightly improve governance but also cuts off patronage flows that keep many have-nots going. Our martial law regimes have never improved the country's economic performance so dramatically as to free the majority from patronage politics. Growth rates were only modestly higher under the four dictatorships than under the three democracies (1947-51, 1972-77, 1990s). Even this was the result of not just better economic governance but also greater American attention and a better global economy. But these modest improvements pale in comparison with the costs of violence stoked by dictators. Five major, violent upheavals — East Pakistan, rural and urban Sindh (1980s), 'Balochistan 2' and Taliban terrorism — were caused by dictators' policies and only 'Balochistan 1' by a (dictatorial) democrat. Which is better? Lessons to learn and points to ponder. For me, dictatorship is the flashy, unpredictable hare and democracy the slow, steady tortoise which ultimately wins. While it brings down economic performance slightly, it poses far less risk of violence.

This does not mean that we are forever doomed to dynastic politics with democracy. Migration and remittances are expanding economic freedom at the grassroots level and the hold of traditional power brokers is weakening. Give it another 25 years, when we will hopefully be an upper-middle-income country with historical GDP rates. Coupled with our population growth rates, there will be enough people then choosing policy over patronage to ensure there are decent politicians in parliament.

Unfortunately, this time frame seems too long to the upwardly aspirant, impatient, educated class which yearns for seductive but illusionary short cuts such as martial law, the Bangladesh model and graduate degree requirements for MPs to turn the mindset of the rest of the country in its own image overnight by magic. What it fails to grasp is that what must change first is not the mindset but the socio-economic situation of the poor, and that may require some reduction in the privileges of the upper classes. In a country where the majority has little chance of attaining it, merit is also a reflection of unfair power relations and not individual hard work alone.

For the educated class, then, my advice is to empathise with the have-nots instead of looking down contemptuously, remembering that our ability to transcend dynastic politics ironically derives from dynastic economics the good fortune of being born into a family that could afford good education. A slight reshuffling of the babies' delivery database at the time of our birth and we may have been one of the rest instead of one of the best. So, in return for being born fortunate, be patient with democracy, not for two to three years but for 20 to 30 years as it better serves, however tenuously, the interests of the less fortunate majority.

The writer is a research associate on political economy issues at the University of California at Berkeley.