Anti-elite attitudes in Pakistan are rising, and it is dangerous

Anti-elite attitudes in Pakistan are rising, and it is dangerous

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Anti-elitism has always been the intellectual stuff of the progressive left, liberal academics and every social movement throughout the world, and Pakistan is no exception to this deep-rooted phenomenon. Unlike many developing countries, including India and other South Asian states, Pakistan remains mainly feudal and tribal-- not that others don’t have similar social structures-- but in its case, this is the dominant social and political configuration. Those perceived lower in the social hierarchy have generally remained docile, passive, considering their plight as fate determined by forces beyond their control.

The relationship between lords and peasants, the general public and  rulers, monarchs and subjects and the political class and common man, remained stable as long as there was some sense of fairness, legitimacy, and general acceptance. All anti-elite rebellions and revolutions ultimately confronted the fundamental truth—the right to rule.

As we are witnessing in Pakistan today, the legitimacy of the social, economic, and political order has broken down, and it is no longer an intellectual in the corner questioning the concentration of wealth, the life of the privileged or the power of the mighty. Instead, it is the common man in the streets, tearing up electricity bills, torching official vehicles with green number plates and besieging the offices of power distribution companies.

These are not merely anti-power bill protests. They reflect deep-seated anger, frustration and resentment against the ruling classes or the elite in Pakistan. It is spreading like wildfire, and it is dangerous, because it appears to be spontaneous without any leader or political party organizing it. The reason is obvious; that political parties, dominated by dynastic political elites at all levels, are part of the system of privilege, power and the aggrandizement of public resources.

There is also another reason, the real cause of the troubles that Pakistan is going through—the power-purchase agreements with independent power producers, unfair terms and conditions negotiated and signed by major political parties. In many ventures, it is speculated some of them are silent partners, or that they got front-loaded benefits. Interestingly, while mainstream media arranges celebrity political-talk shows to weave their narratives, it leaves critical voices out. Meanwhile, on alternative digital media platforms, this official, elite-controlled truth has been continuously under attack for a long time and is showing effects.

All anti-elite rebellions and revolutions ultimately confronted the fundamental truth—the right to rule. 

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

The ruling classes by pressing for more privilege and benefits at the expense of the public—bureaucracy, military, and politicians—have created a gulf between the ordinary people and themselves. The conversation about this wealth gap in society is much older, and goes back to the Ayub Khan era, when the country’s most celebrated former chief economist of the Planning Commission of Pakistan, Dr. Mahbub ul Haq talked about just 22 families controlling two-thirds of Pakistan’s industrial sector, 80% of its banking and 79% of its insurance. This triggered a big political debate on the ‘decade of development,’ which had been celebrated around that time, and politically fed into the political struggles of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. 

At that time, there was a leader and a new party to turn public resentment against Ayub Khan into electoral success. This time around, there are two major changes. First, nobody is talking about the industrial class-- instead, it is the political class, inclusive of all its parties, the bureaucracy, the state-run utilities’ companies and the establishment. There is yet another change. They are all seen as a part of one ruling class with intertwined interests, cronyism and part and parcel of the hybridism— the military’s overriding influence in politics.

This system of consociated elite has brought two Pakistans into sharp relief—one associated with it and benefitting, and the general masses at the receiving end. The ruling classes have the best parts of the cities to live in, great financial benefit, properties in posh housing societies, free residences, free expensive vehicles, free fuel, free electricity, and free healthcare including in foreign countries. Besides, every department of state has its own housing society, the biggest and the only business in Pakistan.

Unprecedented in the history of the parliaments, its members have hefty pensions, overseas trips for families and much more when the country is crushed by the debt burden.

With more open alternative media, the narratives targeting the elite and their privileged positions in society are becoming increasingly popular. They touch the right chords, as all breaking news is the bad news of fuel and power price hikes, the rupee losing value and inflation rising. 

Everyday, commonplace conversation blames the ruling classes and this has turned more and more aggressive and vitriolic. This time around, they are not waiting for anyone, and if they take matters into their own hands, there will be chaos, fire, smoke, and a lot of destruction.

— Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Twitter: @RasulRais 

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