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Pakistan’s Elite In A State of Tumult

Pakistan has nebulous elite which is, as the elite generally are in every country, indifferent to the fate of the multitudes of impoverished people. Rosita Armytage takes on a daunting task in exploring the inner world of Pakistan’s business, political, and military elite in her recently launched book, “Big Capital in an Unequal World: The Micropolitics of Wealth in Pakistan”.

She puts significant weight on identifying and laying out the social mores of the “established elite”. Perhaps if she looked at what passes for society in Pakistan from a more historical perspective, she would realize that we do not have an established elite. The true established elite – the “Omrah” pre-dating the colonial times – were either reduced by the British to nothing or co-opted as willing surrogates in ruling India but regardless, their power, wealth and influence was significantly reduced by the British.

She does not take any names to protect the identities of her informants, but an astute observer of the Pakistan business and political scene would not be too hard-pressed to decipher who is who. In the examples she gives of the “established elite”, they are mostly who have earned their fortune or made their mark on the Pakistani political landscape merely a couple of generations ago. There is nothing wrong in distinguishing between old money and new money “Navay Raje” as she labels, but in Pakistan the distinction is not as solid as it is in Britain for example, where the landed gentry have had wealth, estates, social and political connections passed on to them through many generations – amounting to hundreds of years. In comparison, Pakistan’s old money families are the ones whose forefathers were beneficiaries of British rule and were given lands, titles, and grants in return for their loyalty a mere hundred or so years ago. In fact, the true Muslim nobility and elite in central India and the princely states slowly withered away with a very few denizens of that class left after the British left for good.

After partition, the newly created country’s landed gentry, businessmen, bureaucrats, and army officers saw themselves as the successors of the colonial regime. What that meant was acting as the “pukka sahib”, drinking their “chota pegs” while forgetting that they were supposed to be building a new country than lording over the “natives”.

Rosita brings a very interesting idea in her book that no one; not the politicians or the businessmen, not the media anchors or the waderas, neither the bureaucrats, and nor the military men claim responsibility for what is a rotten, corrupt and inefficient state. They all try to look for the malaise in every other place but within themselves. That reminds one of poetry misattributed to Ghalib, “Omar bhar Ghalib, yahi bhool kerta raha.. Dhool chehre pe thi, aur aina saaf kerta raha.” (rough translation: my whole life, I made the mistake of cleaning the mirror while the dirt was on my face).

The hardest thing in studying the elite anywhere is going deeper into their lives and investigating what they do, how they do it and more importantly, why they do it. If Pakistan’s elite were as much of a close-knit and exclusive group as those in France where one’s status in society is judged not by how much wealth they have accumulated but their mannerisms and claims to social distinction, then apparently, Rosita may not have been even able to observe, judge, and critique Pakistan’s fabled guardians that close enough. The very fact that an outsider was able to gain such easy access to and confidence of these elites says something about them; their lack of eliteness maybe. In which other country, a man who has supposedly been both President Musharraf’s and President Zardari’s advisor tells the tricks of the trade to an Australian researcher.

Pakistan does not have a true elite class, maybe we did before Zia’s time, before the nationalization of the 70s; but now, other than the cushion around themselves which a few select families have steadfastly maintained through the travails of time, to get to that vested pedestal is easy pickings as long as you have enough money-bags and political clout.

There can be no elite in a country where the sons and daughters of that vaulted lot do not go to the country’s own universities. If Aitchison is the best and highest level of educational playground that is available to new aspirants to Pakistan’s upper crust, then the supposed elite have failed to cultivate a culture of higher education within the country. It would be a folly to again compare our wretched land to Britain or France. While the elite in the UK have been products of Oxbridge for the most part, we have no such institutes of higher learning, no Harvards, French Ecoles, or even take India’s example, IITs or IIMs, to give the last touch of grooming to the nation’s wheeler-dealers. LUMS is a solitary beacon of hope in the midst of Pakistan’s educational doom and gloom but along with other new universities popping up in the country, it serves as the hunting ground of the bourgeois, not the class superieure (French for upper class).

A representative of true nobility believes in noblesse oblige and has traditions which run back generations. A false claim of being a Syed does not make someone elite. If it were not for his belief in his divine right to provide for the less privileged, the Nawab of Bhawalpur would never have opened a massive relief camp for the refugees pouring into Pakistan. He would never have loaned generously to the newly formed state of Pakistan and even cover salaries for a whole month for all government employees. Dr. Mehboob ul Haq identified Pakistan’s richest 22 families who controlled 70% to 80% of the nation’s commerce back in 1968. That was a different era.

Barely was the country’s elite willing to come out of the vice i.e. the grip of the pseudo English gentlemanisque mannerisms, and towards finding an identity for themselves. Meanwhile, Bhutto’s nationalization and Zia’s opening up of industries to hardy and heady entrepreneurs from the middle class quashed them. Ever since, the Pakistani elite has been in a state of tumult, trying vainly to find alliances to preserve their wealth – those who are of the old ilk, and amongst the new lot, those trying to vie for an entry into what they perceive as the gilded class. These are the parties and the scenes that Rosita Armytage witnessed. In this tumult, mega entrepreneurs like Malik Riaz have emerged to ride roughshod over whatever vestiges of culture and refinement our supposedly “established” elite tried to maintain.

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Naya Daur