Men went there [to the British parliament in the eighteenth century] to make a figure, and no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others may eat it; which is perfectly normal and in no way reprehensible.

(Lewis Namier)1

The fidelity of the martial classes of the people of India to their immediate chief, whose salt they eat, has always been very remarkable, and commonly bears little relation to his moral virtues or conduct to his superiors ... He may change sides as often as he pleases, but the relations between him and his followers remain unchanged.

(Sir William Sleeman)2

Patronage and kinship form the basic elements of the Pakistani political system – if water, chemically speaking, is H2O then Pakistani politics are P2K. Political factions are very important, but they exist chiefly to seek patronage, and have kinship links as their most important foundation. Factions which support individual politicians or alliances of politicians are not usually made up chiefly of the kinsfolk of these leaders, but the politicians concerned almost always need the foundation of strong kinship networks to play any significant role.

By contrast, ideology, or more often sheer exasperation with the regime in power, might be compared to the energy propelling waves through water. These waves can sometimes assume enormous size, and do great damage; but after they have passed the water remains the same. In Pakistan, waves of public anger (or, much more rarely, public enthusiasm) can topple regimes and bring new ones to power; but they do not change the basic structures of politics.

It is possible that the floods of 2010 have brought about a major transformation of this system, by so damaging local agriculture and infrastructure that the old patronage system is hopelessly short of benefits to distribute, and by driving so many rural people into the cities that traditional patterns of kinship allegiance and social deference cease to operate. If this proves to be the case, then the analysis set out in this chapter – and indeed in this book – will be a historical portrait of Pakistan as it existed in the first six decades of its existence, rather than a guide to the future.

However, it is still too early to draw this conclusion. The patterns and traditions concerned are very old and very deeply rooted in local society. They have adapted to immense upheavals over the past 200 years, and are likely to be able to do so in the face of future upheavals, unless ecological change is so great as eventually to threaten the very basis of human existence in the region.

So one can most probably continue to speak of certain long-lasting and enduring features of the Pakistani political system. Among these is the fact that the alternation in power of civilian and military regimes has also been carried along by a sort of deep political wave pattern common to both. In the case of military regimes, the wave that has buoyed them up has lasted longer, because they have had more autonomy from political society and not been so dependent on parliament; but in the end they too have plunged into the trough between the waves and been overwhelmed.

The pattern has worked like this. Every new Pakistani government comes to power making two sets of promises, one general, one specific. The general promises are to the population, and are of higher living standards, more jobs, better education and health services, and so on. The specific promises are to smaller parties and to individual politicians, who are offered individual favours to themselves, their families or their districts in return for their political support.

The problem is that the poverty and weakness of the state make this process rather like trying to get a very skimpy blanket to cover a very fat man, and a man, moreover, who will never keep still but keeps twisting and turning in bed. In other words, there just isn’t enough patronage to go round. This is even a circular process, because a large part of the favours that governments hand out are meaningless but expensive ministerial posts (more than sixty in the civilian governments of the 1990s and after 2008), tax breaks, corrupt contracts, state loans (which are rarely repaid), and amnesties for tax evasion and embezzlement – all of which helps keep the state poor.

As a result, governments simply cannot keep most of their promises, either to the masses or to the political elites. As time goes on, more and more of the political elites find themselves disappointed, and unable in turn to pass on favours to their followers and voters – which means the likelihood of not being re-elected. What is more, even giving a serious favour to a political family is not enough. In parts of the countryside, local politics is structured round competition between particular landowning families, branches of the same family, or family-based factions. That means that the state favour not only has to be large, but has to be visibly larger than that given to the local rivals. No contract or ambassadorship will compensate for seeing your enemies become ministers, with all that means in terms of ability to help local friends and allies.

Meanwhile, at the level of parliament, Pakistan’s deep ethnic, regional and religious divisions mean that no party ever succeeds in gaining an absolute majority, even if it is army-backed; and even if it could, it wouldn’t mean much, because for most politicians party loyalty means little compared to personal advantage and clan loyalty. So governments find that their parliamentary majorities are built on shifting sand.

Sooner or later, the ‘outs’ have come together and found that they outnumber the ‘ins’; and also find that the state’s failure to improve the lot of the population means growing discontent on the streets, or at least a public mood of disillusionment which inclines more and more people to support whoever is in opposition. As Abida Husain, a great Punjabi landowner-politician, said to me candidly: ‘You know, a normal Pakistani with a normal human heart can’t be really pro-government no matter what the government is, because governments always look indifferent to the hardships of the people.’3 This permanent mood of simmering mass irritation with government is catalysed by specific events or developments – economic crises, especially gross instances of corruption or autocracy, foreign policy humiliations or all of them together.

As politics has become disorderly and government unmanageable, the army and senior bureaucracy have engineered the downfall of a civilian government and replaced it either with a new civilian government or with their own rule; or, after the military themselves have been in power for a few years, they have managed a transition from their own rule back to civilian rule; and the whole cycle of patronage has begun again. Developments since the 1990s, and both main parties’ fear of renewed military rule, may have modified this pattern to some extent, but I very much doubt that they have fundamentally changed it.

It would be quite wrong to see these features of Pakistan as reflecting simply the absence of ‘modern’ values of democracy and the law. Rather, they also stem from the continued presence of traditions of overriding loyalty to family, clan and religion (often in a local form, which is contrary to the precepts of orthodox Islam as well as the Pakistani legal code) and to the rules of behavior that these loyalties enjoin. Similarly, ‘corruption’ in Pakistan, as in so much of the world, is not the kind of viral infection instinctively portrayed by much of Western analysis.

In so far as it is entwined with patronage and family allegiance, corruption is an integral part of the system as a whole. In fact, to reform Pakistan radically along the lines of how Western states supposedly work would require most of the population to send itself to gaol. Corruption cannot therefore be ‘cured’. Rather, as in South Korea and other societies, it may over time be possible to change it organically into less destructive forms of patronage. To quote a local proverb, ‘Dishonesty can be like flour in salt or salt in flour. It’s a question of the proportion.’

As far as most of the political parties are concerned, these do not exist in the form taken as the norm in the West. With the exception of the MQM and the religious parties, all of Pakistan’s ‘democratic’ political parties are congeries of landlords, clan chieftains and urban bosses seeking state patronage for themselves and their followers and vowing allegiance to particular national individuals and dynasties. Most of these individuals inherited their positions from their fathers or (more rarely) other relatives. Where new individuals gain political power, they invariably found political dynasties of their own, and seek to pass on their power, influence and followers to their sons (or occasionally daughters).

Thus the Pakistan People’s Party is built around the Bhutto dynasty, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) around the Sharif dynasty, and the Awami National Party around the Wali Khan dynasty. The smaller building blocks of these parties are also local political families. These often break away to form new alliances with other families, or to create a new small party based on one leader and his family, like the PPP (Sherpao), founded by a dissident local PPP politician from the Frontier, or – on a much larger scale – the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam), created by the Musharraf administration but put together and led by the two Chaudhury brothers from Gujrat.

As will be seen, ideology does play a certain part in political loyalties, but outside the Jamaat Islami it is not dominant. Furthermore, a long-term loyalty to one party, sometimes taken by observers to reflect ideological allegiance, may in fact be reflective of something more like a medieval allegiance: an obstinate personal loyalty to a particular leading family. In many ways, the kind of politician who is personally admired today (for more than simply his or her ability to gain patronage for supporters) is still very close to the Pathan chief described by Mountstuart Elphinstone more than 170 years ago:

Proud, high-spirited and obstinate; frugal, but not sordid in expense, steady in his attachment to his party, and strict in conforming to the notions of honour which prevail among his countrymen ...4

Long-term loyalty to one party can also reflect the fact that the individual and family concerned have no alternative, because they have burnt their boats as far as all the other potential loyalties are concerned. Thus in my travels round Pakistan, I have quite often been told in private (sometimes by the politicians themselves): ‘Of course, So-and-So Khan would like to join the ruling party; but he can’t, because the Sharifs [or the Bhuttos] will never forgive him for what he did to them when he was in government’; or, sometimes, because a rival local faction, or set of cousins, is so firmly entrenched in one party that their local rivals have no choice but to stick to the other, come what may.

In the Pakistan of 2010, there are only two areas where this is not the case: the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which were never fully part of the state patronage system, and much of which have been removed from state control by the Pakistani Taleban; and to some extent the MQM-controlled areas of Karachi, where the removal of the Mohajirs from their ancestral roots in India, and the disruption of their kinship networks, as well as their old urban culture, has produced a more ‘modern’ form of ethnic party politics.


The nature of the Pakistani political system has made possible three military seizures of power, and the long periods of military rule that have followed. Even more common have been military attempts to manipulate politics from behind the scenes, to influence and put pressure on journalists, to bring down civilian governments that have fallen out with the military, and to shape the results of elections.

Retired officers, or serving officers speaking off the record, are usually quite unapologetic about the military’s role in politics. As Admiral (retired) Arshad Gilani told me in November 1990:

Democracy has failed – it is not suited to our temperament. It took Western countries hundreds of years to develop and we have only had forty. The military is the only force in the country which has some discipline, which can guarantee stability and economic growth. If there has been army rule for most of Pakistan’s history it is not the military’s fault. Benazir complains that the military did not give her a chance – well, grow up. This is a serious game. Let’s accept that no force that has power wants to give it up. If the PPP wants to keep power, then it has to prove itself to be better at government than the army.5

Because real political power is spread among so many local actors, and depends so heavily on patronage, this also places limits on the ability of the military to control things for long – because, as I’ve said, there just isn’t enough patronage to go round. On the other hand, both civilian governments and the ISI have other means of influence, as sketched for me by Murtaza Jatoi, son of the caretaker chief minister of Sindh, in 1990:

If this were a political government running a political campaign, then PPP candidates would have no water for their land, all the state loans to them would be called in, there would be raids on Asif Zardari’s home and those of his relatives to pick up known dacoits taking shelter there, and every vehicle with a PPP flag or sticker would be pulled over to see if its licence is in order or its tyres in proper shape. That’s how governments in power run elections here.6

The key military institution for the manipulation of politics is of course Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In private, the army is unabashed about the need to keep an eye on politics as part of internal security in general. As a retired senior general pointed out to me with considerable justification, since its foundation the Pakistani state has been faced with parties in the NWFP, Sindh and Balochistan which have been committed to breaking up the country, and have also had close links at different times with India, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. ‘No country in our circumstances could do without a strong domestic intelligence service,’ he told me. He pointed out that while the ISI has helped Pakistani military regimes against their domestic opponents, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has been used by different civilian regimes, first in one direction, then in another, ‘to the point where they have become almost paralysed as a force to defend Pakistan’ (not of course a judgement with which the IB would agree).

In July 2009 one of the ISI’s senior officers gave me an account of its political role and its limits, an account which needs to be taken with several pinches of salt, but which is nonetheless interesting:

I just have to laugh when I hear these conspiracy theories about how the ISI controls everything in Pakistan. If that were true, don’t you think that General Zia would still be in power? Or that Nawaz Sharif and his party would have stayed our loyal servants instead of becoming our enemies?

As to political manipulation, I must tell you that every single civilian government has used us and the IB to target their political rivals and to rig elections, so their complaints about this are also a bit of a joke ...

We have never controlled elections either on behalf of civilian governments or the military – Pakistan is much too big and we aren’t nearly strong or numerous enough for that, and we also don’t have the money. Remember how much money is involved in winning one Pakistani assembly seat, and then multiply it by hundreds. What we have sometimes done is pushed a bit – usually if things were moving in that direction anyway. There are various ways in which we can help get the result we want in some individual constituency. But across the whole country, no.

This is certainly a very considerable understatement of the ISI’s ability to influence politics, but it is accurate on some points – firstly, the fact that the civilians themselves have used the intelligence services for unconstitutional ends. As Iqbal Akhund, adviser to Benazir Bhutto, admitted, ‘From early in Pakistan’s history, rulers lacking support from a strong political party relied instead on the intelligence agencies to consolidate their rule.’7 A key role in building up the ISI’s political wing was played by Z. A. Bhutto. Ten years later, under Zia, this section of the ISI played a key part in putting together the new Muslim League and the IJI political alliance that ran against Z. A. Bhutto’s daughter Benazir.

My ISI contact was also truthful when he said that the ISI has to work with the grain of the existing political system, and not against it; and that, during elections, its heavy power is usually brought to bear to produce results in particular parliamentary constituencies, rather than across the board – which means that they can have a big effect in a close-run race, but cannot stop a really big political swing, whether to the PPP in 1988 and 2008, or the Muslim League in 1997. As the leading Muslim League politician Chaudhury Shujaat Hussain told me in 2008: ‘The army and the ISI will only go with you as long as enough of the people are with you. They are like a horse that carries you only as long as you have strength in your own legs.’8

One important group whom the ISI can influence very heavily, however, is the senior bureaucracy, because a negative security report from the ISI will blast their careers. This means that while, ever since Z. A. Bhutto’s time, civil servants have been subjugated by the politicians, there is no possibility of a serious movement to resist military influence or a military takeover emerging in the bureaucracy.

A picture of some ISI political tactics emerged in 2009 with revelations from a former ISI officer, Brigadier Imtiaz, about his organization’s role in bringing down the PPP government of Benazir Bhutto in 1990 (‘Operation Midnight Jackal’). This involved, among other things, bribing PPP deputies to defect from the party, and a whispering campaign to the effect that she was about to be sacked by the president for corruption, and therefore that her MPs and ministers should switch sides in order to keep their positions.


Generally portrayed by both Western and Pakistani analysts as wholly negative, the Pakistani political system is in fact two-sided. On the one hand, it is very bad for the overall economic development of the country, for reasons summed up for me in 1988 by former Finance Minister Mehboob-ul-Haq, and equally true twenty years later:

Growth in Pakistan has never translated into budgetary security because of the way our political system works. We could be collecting twice as much in revenue – even India collects 50 per cent more than we do – and spending the money on infrastructure and education. But agriculture in Pakistan pays virtually no tax because the landed gentry controls politics and therefore has a grip on every government. Businessmen are given state loans and then allowed to default on them in return for favours to politicians and parties. Politicians protect corrupt officials so that they can both share the proceeds.

And every time a new political government comes in they have to distribute huge amounts of state money and jobs as rewards to politicians who have supported them, and in short-term populist measures to try to convince the people that their election promises meant something, which leaves nothing for long-term development. As far as development is concerned, our system has all the worst features of oligarchy and democracy put together.

That is why only technocratic, non-political governments in Pakistan have ever been able to increase revenues. But they cannot stay in power long because they have no political support ... For the same reasons, we have not been able to deregulate the economy as much as I wanted, despite seven years of trying, because the politicians and officials both like the system Bhutto put in place. It suits them both very well, because it gave them lots of lucrative state-appointed jobs in industry and banking to take for themselves or distribute to their relatives and supporters.9

It is important to note that the speaker had been finance minister under the ‘military dictatorship’ of General Zia-ul-Haq (no relation); but, as he candidly admitted, this regime had been almost wholly unable to change these basic features of the Pakistani system. Lack of revenue, and the diversion of what revenue there is to political patronage, are especially disastrous for Pakistan’s ability to develop its national infrastructure – something which in the area of water conservation could in future literally threaten the country’s very survival.

On the other hand, the Pakistani system creates immense barriers to revolutionary change, including that offered by the Taleban and their allies; and these barriers are formed not just by the raw power and influence of ‘feudals’ and urban bosses, but also by the fact that, for a whole set of reasons, the system requires them to use at least some of that influence and patronage for the good of poorer sections of the population.

As Stephen Lyon and others have emphasized, patronage in Pakistan should not therefore be seen as the preserve of the elites, and as simply a top-down relationship. A mixture of the importance of kinship loyalty and the need for politicians to win votes, and – on occasions – to mobilize armed supporters, means that quite wide sections of society have the ability to exploit and even distribute patronage to some extent. Quite poor people can thus form part of ‘human resource networks’ and mobilize some degree of help or protection from their superiors. Even the very poorest in the villages often benefit from the deg tradition, whereby local landowners and big men distribute free food to the entire village to celebrate some happy event, to boost their local prestige through public generosity, and by the same token to try to cast local rivals into the shade.

People gain access to patronage by using their position within a kinship network to mobilize support for a politician who then repays them in various ways when in office, or by using kinship links to some policeman or official to obtain favours for relatives or allies. In certain circumstances, this can benefit whole villages through the provision of electricity, roads or water. Of course, everyone complains bitterly about this in public when others do it successfully, while following precisely the same strategies themselves. In the words of Professor Iqraar, vice-chancellor of Faisalabad University:

The problem with Pakistan’s political and government system is not so much feudalism as what I would have to call South Asian political culture in general. Everyone here seeks personal and family power by all means and then misuses it. The feudals just have more of it, that’s all.

Rather than being eaten by a pride of lions, or even torn apart by a flock of vultures, the fate of Pakistan’s national resources more closely resembles being nibbled away by a horde of mice (and the occasional large rat). The effects on the resources, and on the state’s ability to do things, are just the same, but more of the results are ploughed back into the society, rather than making their way straight to bank accounts in the West. This is an important difference between Pakistan and Nigeria, for example.

As this parallel suggests, part of the reason is the nature of the resources concerned. Unless you are right at the top of the system and in a position to milk the state as a whole (like Zardari in the PPP governments of the 1990s), to make really large individual fortunes in the poorer parts of the world today requires the ability to make, extract or steal something which can then be sold in the economic metropolises of the world – in Nigeria’s case, oil.

Pakistan exports textiles and agricultural products, together with limited amounts of steel and copper – not the kind of goods or raw materials that can generate this kind of fortune. Even its most successful legitimate businessmen do not have really large fortunes by international standards because the things they make and export do not generate that kind of profit. Nor can even the biggest Pakistani landowners hope to make huge fortunes from their lands. Urban landowners enjoy large rents – but rents which are still limited by the overall poverty of the country; as witness the fact that even Karachi has hardly any skyscrapers worth the name.

In fact, very often to make a fortune in Pakistan means finding some way to milk the state – including of course international aid flowing to the state, which is one of the principal ways in which the Pakistani elites make money from the West. What is more, given the lawless nature of Pakistani society, you usually also need influence over the state (especially the police and the courts) to defend what you have from predatory neighbours or the forces of the state themselves.

This has a whole set of crucially important consequences. First of all, it usually sets a limit on how much you can take. Most politicians are not in power for very long, and partly for the same reason (because their political patrons lose office) most officials are not left for long in the most lucrative positions. Furthermore, an individual minister or official who steals an outrageous amount for himself will attract the envy of colleagues, who will try to replace him so that they can share.

Thus the great majority of senior politicians of my acquaintance have some sort of property in a posh part of London, which in most cases was certainly not paid for out of legitimate earnings. Most have flats in Knightsbridge or Kensington, or houses further out; and so have good reason not to condemn other people with flats in Knightsbridge. However, families like the Bhuttos, who buy whole country estates in Britain on the strength of their profits from government, will attract unfavourable notice, and earn a bad reputation which can have a serious effect on their political fortunes.

Even more importantly, if to make a lot of money generally means gaining influence over the state, to gain influence over the state generally means procuring some kind of political power. Political power requires supporters – individuals and families with power of their own, gunmen to protect you, and ordinary people to vote for you; and followers have to be rewarded. In other words, a very large proportion of the money made from corruption has to be recycled downwards through patronage or straight gifts – because otherwise the ability to extract corruption would itself dry up. The patronage system therefore has a strongly cyclical aspect, which once again strengthens its anti-revolutionary character.

If the political power of the kinship group in Pakistan depended only on the distribution of patronage, then this power might well have declined over time, given that patronage will always be limited; but it is also rooted in the oldest of social compulsions: collective defence. But while the power of kinship is necessary to defend against the predatory state, it is also one of the key factors in making the state predatory, as kinship groups use the state to achieve their goals of power, wealth and triumph over other kinship groups. So the ancient Pakistani kinship groups and the modern Pakistani state dance along together down the years, trapped in a marriage that ought to be antagonistic, but has in fact become natural to each.

This system has a critical effect on Pakistan’s remarkably low inequality rating according to the Gini Co-efficient, measuring the ratio of the income of the poorest group in society relative to the richest. In 2002, according to UN statistics, the figure for Pakistan was 30.6, compared to 36.8 for India, 40.8 for the US, and 43.7 for Nigeria. Part of the reason is obvious if you sit down with someone from a Pakistani political family and work out their income and expenditure. By the time you have accounted for payments to servants, gunmen and supporters (in the biggest families, sometimes even permanently hired musicians, to sing their praises), for political transport (including constant travel to weddings and funerals) and political hospitality, and shared the rest among several relatives, even in some very powerful families what is left does not usually amount to a large income by world standards, unless the family has a member who is actually in senior office at the time.

All this can also be illustrated visually by the houses of leading Pakistani political families. Of course, these are very luxurious indeed by the standards of the vast mass of the population. However, when it comes to size, at least, the grandeur of these houses can sometimes be exaggerated – because they contain far more people than initially meets the eye: political workers, servants and family members themselves.

Take an unusually large but otherwise typical example: the rural home of Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat, a leading politician from a Shia pir family in Jhang, who started with the PPP before switching to the PML(Q) in order to join the Musharraf administration, and as of 2010 is back in opposition. At first sight, the frontage of this vaguely neo-classical monstrosity is on the approximate scale of Buckingham Palace, a resemblance strengthened by the glaring floodlights by which it is illuminated at night.

A closer look reveals something closer to Sandhurst or West Point. It is in fact a giant political barracks, and the great majority of the rooms are bleak, barely furnished sleeping cells for political workers and visiting supporters, and bleak halls for political consultations. Similarly, as with most of the houses of politicians, the lawn in front is not part of a private garden, but is an arena for political rallies and entertainments.

Then there are the servants. Every big ‘feudal’ family I have visited has far more of them than it actually needs. It doesn’t pay them much – but then again, according to strict free market capitalist rules, it doesn’t need to employ most of them at all. One reason is of course to display wealth and power through the number of one’s entourage. The other was summed up for me by a lady in Lahore:

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for one hard-working servant with a vacuum-cleaner instead of having to pay and keep an eye on ten who sit around eating and staring into space and getting into all kinds of trouble which we have to get them out of again. But of course it’s impossible. They all come from my husband’s village, and some of their families have been in our family’s service for generations. If we sacked them, the whole village would start saying how mean and treacherous we are.10

Her husband was not a politician – but his brother was, which comes to the same thing; and he needed to be elected from his village and district, in the face of rival politicians from his own kinship group appealing to inhabitants of ‘his village’ for their support.

One can, however, be too cynical about this. This lady’s old nursemaid, to whom the family was devoted, was now looking after her own children. There was thus a commitment to look after the nursemaid’s family, which was emotional and indeed familial, and not just political. During my stays with Pakistani elite families, I have seen servants treated with appalling arrogance; but I have also seen those elite families paying for their servants’ children to be sent to school, making sure that they go to the doctor when they are ill, that the daughters have at least modest dowries, and so on.

Finally, there are the families themselves. According to the cultural ideal prevalent across most of Pakistan, the ideal family is the joint extended family of patriarch, sons and sons’ families resident together in the same house (albeit often with separate cooking-spaces). As so often, this cultural value also has a practical political underpinning in collective familial solidarity and self-defence against rivals and enemies. This is connected to the fact that among rural landowning families a mixture of land reform and the subdivision of land by inheritance means that many estates are the collective property of several brothers and other relatives, but are administered jointly for the sake of economic efficiency and political weight.

Joint families are by no means an aspect only of rural society. Even many very wealthy and powerful urban families, for example the three sons of the late General Akhtar Abdur Rehman (chief of the ISI under Zia-ul-Haq) and their children in Lahore, still live together; and obviously the size of any house has to be divided by the number of people in it.

Thus in conservative joint families, the hidden presence of large numbers of women and children may be revealed by muffled howls of joy, sorrow or imprecation from behind closed doors. In more liberal ones, those doors may open to disgorge a seemingly endless flow of relatives – and it is remarkable how even a very large room may suddenly seem quite small when filled with two or three mothers, a grandmother, sometimes a great-grandmother, a couple of nursemaids, a horde of children and an entire assembly line of aunts – all of whom have to be fed and clothed, and, in the case of the children, educated, and jobs found for the boys and dowries for the girls.

In grander and more liberal families, this increasingly also means jobs for the girls – including elected positions. This change was given a tremendous push by Musharraf’s requirement that members of the national and provincial assemblies possess college degrees. Musharraf’s educational requirement eliminated a good many male politicians, but, since the law was cancelled by the new PPP government in 2008, the effects may not prove long-lasting.

On the other hand, the move of women into politics reflects other factors. Even more than elsewhere, being a politician in Pakistan requires a particular set of qualities of which the women in a given family may have more than the men. Their choice by the family is also an extension of the fact that in Pakistani ‘feudal’ families the political representative of the family was never necessarily the eldest son, but whichever son seemed fittest to be a politician. Thus, while the younger brother or even wife may stand for election, the elder brother or husband may keep a more secure and equally lucrative job as a civil servant, policeman or whatever.

In 2002, a senior customs officer from a big landowning family from Sarghoda sketched for me what this meant for ‘feudal’ politics, in the context of his family’s general political strategy. There was obviously no question of his giving up his own job to run for election, since customs is not only among the most lucrative areas of state service, but one where it is possible to do a great many political favours:

There are three branches of my family, and we rotate the seats in our area between us. My uncle has held one seat for the Jamaat, but the Jamaat is now in alliance with the PPP, so my wife is now standing for the PPP. She was chosen because I am a civil servant and can’t run and my brother is working abroad. Our sister doesn’t have a degree, so it had to be my wife.

The ideal Pakistani political family thus has its members in a range of influential occupations: a civil servant, a policeman, a lawyer, a businessman and, if possible, representatives in several different political parties. As a member of a rival family said admiringly of a great political ‘feudal’ family in Sindh, ‘the Soomros have been everyone else’s teachers at keeping one member of the family in power whatever happens. They have someone in each party, but they are also all loyal to each other.’ The Saifullahs, a leading business family of Peshawar, probably hold the record for this, placing different brothers, sons and nephews in mutually hostile political parties, while retaining an inexorable commitment to family solidarity and family collective advantage.

It would be a mistake, however, to focus too heavily on the top elites when it comes to understanding how Pakistan’s political system works, and how it has proved so remarkably stable. As subsequent chapters on Pakistan’s provinces will explore, different parts of Pakistan vary greatly when it comes to the autocratic power of great landowners – and where they possess quasi-autocratic power, as in Balochistan, Sindh and parts of southern Punjab, this is due above all to their role as tribal chiefs or hereditary pirs. Even in these regions, the chieftains – if they are wise – will pay a great deal of attention to the opinions, the interests and the izzat of the second-tier tribal leadership, and will be careful to show them public respect.

This is partly because, even in Balochistan, when it comes to leadership Pakistani tribalism is closer to ancient Irish tribalism than to Scottish tribalism. The latter, at least in the romanticized version, involved blind loyalty to a hereditary chief, invariably the eldest son. In Irish tribes, the leading men of the tribe elected as chief whichever male member of the royal family they thought most suitable – as in Pakistan, a fecund source of bloody family feuds. In consequence, a majority of Pakistani chieftains know very well that dear old uncle Ahmed over there in the corner, so very nice and respectful, is all too ready to seize the leadership if the chance offers itself.

More important for Pakistan as a whole is the fact that politics in large areas of the Punjab and the NWFP are no longer dominated by great individual landowners. This is partly because of land reform and the subdivision through inheritance of formerly great estates, and partly because of social mobility due to economic change. The key rural politician in these areas is a relatively small landowner (with perhaps 100 acres or so), deeply embedded in a powerful local landowning clan, with influence over the police and administration.

Such landowners are very often local urban politicians too, because they own urban property from which they derive most of their income, even while their prestige and ability to mobilize kinship links continue to come from rural landownership and their leading position in landowning clans. Sometimes, the enormous expansion of the towns means that the lands of local landowning lineages have been swallowed up, greatly increasing their wealth in the process but leaving their approach to politics and kinship unchanged. As Abida Husain told me: ‘Very little of our income actually comes from land any more, but land is our essential link to the people and our voters.’11

The cultures of leading groups in northern Punjab and the NWFP have also always had a more egalitarian and meritocratic tinge, as with the Pathans and the Jats. In these groups, it is often more accurate to talk of ‘big men’, risen through personal wealth and character, rather than hereditary chieftains. Thus back in 1988, I asked a Punjabi Jat member of parliament (for the PPP) to explain how exactly it was you became a Chaudhury like him (the name for a respected and influential figure among the Jats), since I had noticed that in many cases it was not by inheritance. ‘It’s very simple,’ he replied. ‘You become a Chaudhury among the Jats when you can call yourself a Chaudhury without all the other Jats laughing at you!’ Very often, as he and many others told me, the decisive moment in a family’s rise was when they became sufficiently locally powerful to get into a political party as a candidate, and on that basis to get a government job – ‘after that, they can make their fortunes by corruption’.

In Sindh and southern Punjab, most of the important political families are old, with a minority of newcomers. In northern Punjab, it tends to be the other way round. However, in a great many ways these new families tend to merge into established ‘feudal’ patterns of power. Just as with the English aristocracy and gentry of the past, this is partly through intermarriage. Some of the greatest aristocratic families of Punjab turn out on examination to be intermarried with new business dynasties.

As in England, this is partly because of the immense social and cultural prestige attached to owning land – something which has defined the identity and self-image not only of the ‘feudal’ classes, but of the landowning tribes and clans from which they spring. Above all, however, the new families tend to become ‘feudal’ because the system requires them to follow the same kind of political strategies, based on strong kinship groups and the factions built around them, and the gathering and maintenance of support through patronage and protection.

On the other hand, urbanization and economic development have given ordinary people in much of northern and central Punjab greater opportunities to exploit the system for their advantage. The power of the really big landowners and tribal chiefs has been much reduced, and has shifted to lower and much more numerous strata of rival landowners and local bosses. This gives people more chance to extract benefits by switching between them. Urbanization has also reduced the role of kinship, though not as greatly as standard models predict.

A combination of the weakness of the state and the power of kinship is one critical reason why urbanization has had a much smaller impact on political patterns and structures than one might otherwise have expected. For in the cities, albeit not as much as in the countryside, you also need protection from the police, the courts and politically linked urban gangs.

Moreover, rather than a new urban population emerging, what we have seen so far is huge numbers of peasants going to live in the cities while remaining culturally peasants. They remain deeply attached to their kinship groups, and they still need their kinship groups to help them for many of the same reasons they needed them in the countryside. Underlying all this is the fact that so much of the urban population remains semi-employed or informally employed, rather than moving into modern sectors of the economy – because these usually do not exist.

How kinship works politically in the cities was well summed up by a young office worker whom I asked in 1988 how he intended to vote in the forthcoming elections. He was from central Karachi, but of Punjabi origin:

I voted PPP in the last elections because it was the will of my uncle, the head of our family, though actually I think the Muslim League has done a better job in government. In previous elections, sometimes he said to vote PPP, sometimes Muslim League, depending on what they promise him, whether they have fulfilled promises in the past, and which of his friends or relatives is now important in that party. He owns a flour mill. He helps us find jobs, gives us the transport to take us to the polling booths, so it is natural that we give him our vote in return. He is respected because of his wealth and because his mother and aunt are the two eldest ladies in our family. Everyone listens to them on family matters. They arrange marriages and settle quarrels. They are very much respected, so uncle is too. But he decides in political matters. The women can’t do that because they don’t go out of the house. They can’t even remember which candidate is which. If you ask them the next day, they have forgotten which is which. That is why we have symbols for parties. They can’t read or write, so we tell them about politics. But I must obey my mother in all personal things. If she had said I can’t take up this job, then I can’t.

It is also worth noting that, as this passage reflects, while women play no role in the outward political behaviour of the family or clan, they are central and can even be dominant when it comes to its internal politics and the balance of prestige and power between its members. If this appeared in public, it would be a matter of shame and ridicule; but as long as it remains within the extended family, family izzat (honour, or prestige) is not threatened.

Anecdotal evidence (which you would be ill advised to ask about in detail) suggests that this can also sometimes be true of sexual relationships. In common with the traditions of the Jat caste from which many Punjabi Muslims were converted, an affair which, if it took place with an outsider, would be punished with death or mutilation, may be tacitly or even explicitly condoned if it is with a close relative by marriage. Or as a Punjabi saying has it, ‘the honour of the family remains within the family.’

As the above account brings out, kinship remains of immense importance even among educated people in Pakistan’s cities, if only because in the case of fairly recent migrants (i.e. most people), the ties to ancestral villages remain firm. For that matter, as described in the Introduction, these ties stay strong even when the migration was not to a Pakistani city but a British one, and took place fifty years earlier.

Some of the ways in which the political traditions of the countryside continue to pervade the cities, while also having been changed by them, were illustrated for me by a series of interviews with ordinary people and political workers in the chief Potwari city of Rawalpindi in the summer of 2009. In the 1950s, Rawalpindi’s population was still less than 200,000. The building of Islamabad nearby, however, together with the enormous growth of the Pakistani army, whose GHQ is in Rawalpindi, meant that it grew even faster than other cities; according to the census of 2006 its population then was just over 3 million. The overwhelming majority of its inhabitants therefore are migrants from the countryside or their children.

One of these recent migrants with whom I talked was Mudassar, a taxi driver from the nearby area of Gujjar Khan, belonging to the Alpial clan or biradiri of the Rajputs. He was illiterate, and gave his age as ‘about twenty-two, I think’, but he had a humorous thinker’s mouth under his big moustache. In the last elections, he had worked as a driver for the campaign of PPP politician Raja Pervez Ashraf – a small piece of local kinship patronage. Pervez Ashraf is a leading local Rajput landlord, businessman and politician who became Minister for Water and Power in the new government. Because of its role in local patronage, this is one of the most politically important jobs in government. I asked Mudassar why he had supported Pervez Ashraf. ‘Because he paid me,’ he replied (very courteously stifling the obvious temptation to add ‘you idiot’):

And also because he is from the same Rajput biradiri as my family, and my family and most of my village voted for him. We still support Raja Pervez Ashraf, though we are not happy with Zardari and the PPP government in general ... Because after the elections he has brought new roads to our area and laid the first gas pipelines, which we have never had before though we are so close to Islamabad. And he shows us respect. Every week he comes to our village or a neighbouring village to meet us and hear our complaints, and to give us moral support. If someone is facing a court case or has trouble with the police, he helps us.

I asked him whether Raja Pervez Ashraf being an Alpial Rajput meant that Mudassar’s family and village would always vote for him no matter what. ‘Of course not,’ he replied:

If Raja Pervez Ashraf does not act justly towards us, and take care of the poor people of Gujjar Khan as he promised, and if he doesn’t come to us to show respect and listen to us, then we will vote for someone else ... Yes, we will always vote for a Rajput, but there are other Rajput leaders in Gujjar Khan.12

This reminded me of a famous remark by a Pakistani ‘feudal’ landowner summing up the changes in electoral politics since the 1950s: ‘Once, I used to send my manager to tell my tenants to vote the way I wanted. Then, I had to go myself to tell them to vote how I wanted. Now, I have to go myself to ask them to give me their vote.’13 Or, in the words of Amir Baksh Bhutto, son of Mumtaz Ali Bhutto and cousin of Benazir: ‘We’re the biggest landowning family in Sindh’ (by most accounts it’s actually the Jatois, but still). ‘If the waderos still had absolute power do you think I’d be driving through this bloody desert, begging people to give me their vote? I’d sit at home, wouldn’t I, and wait for people to come and present themselves.’14

It would not necessarily be correct to see this as a wholly new phenomenon, reflecting growing ‘modernity’. To some extent, it may also be a new version of a very old pattern familiar from late-feudal Europe and many other systems, whereby great local families rise or decline according to fortune, the characters of their leaders, their choice of allegiances, and their ability to cement local alliances and retain local loyalties in the face of rival lords seeking to draw their followers away. As the British Gazetteer of 1930 for Attock District records of one great lineage which had failed to do this,

Gradually the great power of the Pindigheb family was frittered away. First the Langrial family was allowed to secede. Then the Khunda, Kamlial and Dandi families broke away ... During this troubled time the ruling family contained no men of power. The chiefs were lazy, licentious and incompetent and from a love of ease let great opportunities slip past. But they are still the nobility of the tehsil.15


As these remarks suggest, Pakistani politicians now have to work very hard for their votes. In many ways, they have to work much harder than their Western equivalents, because ‘here, everything is politics’, as I have often been told. This does not just mean court cases, bank loans, police and civil service appointments, contracts, and so on; but also most of social life – births and funerals are very important events for political deal-making and alliance-maintenance, and, as for the arrangement of marriages, this is of course inherently political. All this is like enough to the existence of lords in the European Middle Ages – with the difference that Pakistani politicians also have to try to master much more complicated matters of administration and business; and usually try unsuccessfully. Those rare ones who have the education to do so may not have the time. The sheer amount of time required to perform the necessary functions of a Pakistani politician – including those in office – may be one factor behind the poor quality of Pakistani government.

Part of this is an even more intensive version of the obligation incumbent on many Pakistanis (and especially Pathans) to attend all the births, marriages and funerals even of distant relatives – all of which have a ‘political’ aspect within the family, and therefore potentially at least in wider politics as well. As numerous friends have complained, this is crushingly exhausting and time-consuming even for people with no political ambitions; but a failure to turn up to the marriages or funerals even of very distant cousins will be taken as an insult which will severely affect future relations.

Then there is the time consumed by the workings of the patronage system. Iqbal Akhund, a bureaucratic observer of the creation of the PPP-led government in 1988, remarked that:

Ministers were besieged in their homes from morning till night by petitioners, job-hunters, favour-seekers and all and sundry. It was the same inside the National Assembly, where every minister’s seat was a little beehive with members and backbenchers hovering around and going back and forth with little chits of paper. How the ministers got any work done is a mystery, but in any case policy took a back seat to attending to the importunities of relatives, friends and constituents.16

Twenty years later, in the summer of 2009, a businessman from Multan described to me a recent dinner given by the Multan Chamber of Commerce in honour of the Foreign Minister, Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who is a member of a leading pir family from Multan:

As soon as the speeches were over and people went to the buffet, Shah Mehmood was besieged by people wanting things:

‘Oh, Qureishi Sahib, my nephew has been arrested on a false murder charge, you are such a great man, it will take one phone call from you only.’

‘Oh, Minister Sahib, you remember that business about a loan, still they are making trouble.’

‘Oh, Makhdoom Sahib, you promised to help my brother with promotion in his department, but he has been passed over. The minister, he is your good friend. Please call him, my family will be so grateful.’

And you know, if these are important local people who have helped him in the past, or close relatives, then he will have to help them – or he will have no political future in Multan. And if it is a difficult case with other influential interests involved, or an important position, then he won’t be able to depute it to his staff. In order to show respect all round and get the result, he will have to make the call himself. And so here we are in the middle of a really dreadful international crisis for Pakistan, and our Foreign Minister will be spending half his time dealing with things which in a properly run country wouldn’t be his business at all, instead of doing his real job for Pakistan.

Being a politician in Pakistan therefore has its particular strains; yet, on the other hand, since every major landowner needs to attract and keep followers, deter rivals and maintain influence over the administration, in many ways every landowner is a politician. To be successful at this requires particular qualities, as described to me by a banker from the great Soomro landowning family in Sindh in 1990:

You need a strong family or tribe behind you, and you also need to play a role in politics, so as to gain influence over the government, the police and the courts. When you grow up, you decide or it is decided for you whether you will go into politics. There is no fixed rule in the great families which son or cousin should go into politics. Junaid is my youngest brother. It depends on who seems best suited to it. But someone always has to.

Me, I’m not suited to it. I like a regular life as a banker, getting up at eight to go to the office, coming back at six. Junaid can be woken up at 1 a.m. any night by one of our tenants or followers: ‘Sir, I have a problem with the police’ – and of course every one wants precedence. You have to be always on call, and you have to judge person by person who to help, and how much to help, and how quickly. Some friends will wait and stay your friends, others not. It’s a disorganized kind of game, and everything depends on circumstances. You also have to be patient and careful. Many are not suited to it. You need to have the right temperament and like the game to succeed at it and if, like me, you give it up, sometimes you miss it, like a drug.

And the power of single lords or landowning families is now fading. You also need to attach yourself to a party, with some kind of ideology. Then even when you are in opposition you will still have friends in the bureaucracy, and your enemies will remember that you may be in government again, and will be more careful with you.

But going into party politics also makes the game even more dangerous, because when the government changes you can be imprisoned, or even killed. The brothers in my family are a surgeon, a banker, a lawyer and a politician, and we’ve all gone to jail. You have to be motivated to do this – standing in chains before a military judge, for fifteen straight days. The people of our class are not usually tortured, but a selected few are. More common is murder, which can be blamed on criminals. And then there is mental torture – fake executions, waking you up repeatedly at night. But there is this to be said for it: it hardens you. And life in this country is difficult whatever you do, so there is no room for weaklings.17

So while Pakistani politicians in general get a pretty bad press, and deservedly so, it is sometimes possible to feel sorry for them. They are often not saints, but they often need the patience of saints, as well as the courage of wolves, the memory of elephants and the digestion of crocodiles. 18This last requirement was brought back to me by my last political journey with a Pakistani politician, in Sindh in the spring of 2009.

My host was one of the Bhuttos – in fact the hereditary chief of the Bhutto tribe, Sardar Mumtaz Ali Bhutto. He is a cousin of the late Benazir, but no love is lost between the two branches of the family. Mumtaz Ali was chief minister of Sindh in the first years of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s administration but, in a familiar pattern, was forced to resign when it seemed that he might become a rival. Since then, he has headed his own small and moderately Sindhi nationalist political party, and was only briefly Chief Minister again in the caretaker government of 1996 – 7.

Yet his lands and wealth, his name, his status, his personal prestige and the faint possibility – even at the age of seventy-six – that he might once again hold senior office mean that he is still a force to be taken into account by other local politicians. Also of importance is the fact that he has an able and energetic eldest son, so that it is clear that the dynasty is not going to fade, and that by helping him people are stockpiling potential reciprocal benefits for the future.

Small though his party is, my travels with him had something of the air of a minor triumphal procession, with delegations coming to meet his convoy in towns and villages, throwing rose petals over his landcruiser, chanting his slogans and bowing to kiss his hand, and children running out for the free tamasha (show). For a while we were accompanied by an escort of young men on motorbikes and scooters waving the party flag. This took me back to the great motorized cavalcades of past election campaigns in Pakistan that I had covered; and, looking even further back, one could almost glimpse through the clouds of dust turbaned and helmeted riders on horseback, with pennants waving from their lances.

A rather macabre, but absolutely typical aspect of our progress to the Sardar’s ancestral estate was that it was repeatedly interrupted by condolences. Three times we called on local landowning and political families whose patriarchs had just died. In Europe, for an uninvited guest like me to intrude on private grief in this way would seem grossly insensitive, but these events are anything but private. They are in fact a central part not just of social life but also of political life, an occasion to demonstrate political loyalty or at least connections, to see and be seen. Not, however, to talk. It took me a long time during my first stay in Pakistan to get used to gatherings of men sitting in dead silence, broken only by the occasional murmurs of the eldest son and the chief guest. The movement of jaws is not for speech, but for food – and such food! As Mumtaz Ali Bhutto told me:

If you want to keep well fed in the countryside here, just keep going to condole with people; and if you are a politician you have no choice anyway. This is supposed to be a purely private journey not a political one, but you see how it is. If this were an election campaign, we’d have been offered twelve meals a day. The trick is to nibble just a little bit everywhere.

Meanwhile, I studied the decor of the houses we visited, an amazing mixture of exquisite old-style local taste, appalling Western taste and what might best be described as contemporary Bollywood Neo-Moghul stage-set taste. With summer fast approaching, all the curtains were drawn against the heat and glare outside, so that the rooms were lit only by glaring strip-lights. Throughout Pakistan, this gives most homes – even some of the most luxurious ones – the curious impression of third-class cabins in the bowels of a cruise ship.

Some of the decor was not conducive to maintaining gravity. One of my favourite items was an enormous toy tiger sitting on a table in the middle of a drawing-room where we had gathered to condole. Its eyes looked directly into mine – glassily, but not much more so than those of the other guests, who also gave a strong impression of having been stuffed. As the respectful silence wore on and on, I was seized by an almost irresistible desire to offer the creature some kebab and try to strike up a conversation.

Even more impressive was the bedroom of the eldest son and political heir of another mournful house, where the guests of honour were ushered to use his toilet. The room contained only two furnishings: an enormous neo-rococo bed decorated with huge bunches of flowers, fruit and ostrich feathers, all painted in imitation gold leaf; and, hanging over the bed, an equally enormous photograph of the young politician himself. This too was obviously a room for official entertainment, a local version of Louis XIV; but who on earth, I wondered, could possibly be the local version of Madame de Maintenon?

It would be a grave mistake, however, to laugh at the waderos of Sindh. As the chapter on Sindh will demonstrate, they are very much in control of their own society, and look like remaining so for the foreseeable future. The secret of their success is a mixture of wealth and the deference ensured by their status as clan chiefs, local hereditary religious figures, or a mixture of the two. One local landowner we visited seemed barely above the level of the larger peasants in terms of wealth, living in a bleak concrete house with bare concrete walls and floors; yet he turned out to be a pir, and a significant political influence in the local Shia community.


In the twenty years between my stay in Pakistan in the late 1980s and the writing of this book, by far the most important change on the Pakistani political scene (other than the rebellion of the Pakistani Taleban) has been the proliferation of television and radio stations during Musharraf’s period in power. By 2009 there were around eighty Pakistani TV channels, twelve exclusively for news and current affairs. Indeed, several middle-class people said to me that ‘news has become our entertainment’, though they admitted that this was probably the effect of novelty and would sooner or later wear off. Five channels were devoted to religion.

In the 1980s, Pakistani television was completely state-controlled and was of a quite excruciating dullness (as indeed was state TV in India). Newspapers and magazines were the main sources of news and analysis, but, although they had occasional lively discussions and sometimes exposed scandals, their journalists were hopeless at following up and researching stories.

Musharraf had good cause to curse the media he had allowed to form. In the later years of his rule it was above all due to the support of some of these channels – notably Geo, a branch of the Jang media group – that the Lawyers’ Movement gathered public support and even briefly became something like a mass movement. This alliance of journalists and lawyers gave many people the idea that a new middle-class political force that might transform the political system had been forged in Pakistan; or, at the very least, that the media would play a critical role in making and breaking governments, reducing the traditional role of kinship and patronage.

In 2008 – 9, however, liberal intellectuals and their English-language media outlets (like the Friday Times and Daily Times of Lahore) turned against much of the rest of the new media, accusing them of sympathy for the Taleban and bias against the PPP administration of President Zardari. There was much muttering among liberals of my acquaintance about establishment conspiracies to manipulate the media, and about the way in which Musharraf had created a ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’.

The error of the liberals and many Western analysts was to forget that, in the words of Dr Mosharraf Zaidi, ‘Pakistan’s media is guilty of being a microcosm of the society that it reports on, reports for and reports to. It is a reflection and an extension of Pakistan at large.’19 Liberals had assumed that a new media, dominated by educated middle-class people, would inevitably therefore reflect liberal and (by implication) pro-PPP and pro-Western positions.

This ignored the fact that a very considerable portion of the educated middle class is conservative and even Islamist by sympathy; as noted in the chapter on religion, the Jamaat Islami has long had a determined and rather successful strategy of targeting universities, partly precisely in order later to get its students into influential professions like the media. As Imran Aslam, head of Geo, told me:

When in the ’90s I started The News as Pakistan’s first desktop publication, my print media colleagues and I didn’t have a clue about the technology involved. We had Apples sitting on the desks and we didn’t know what to do with them. We had to hire people to help. And you know what? The only people we could find were from the Jamaat Islami. They’d been trained in the ’80s with CIA and ISI help to support the Afghan Mujahidin with propaganda. So the people who the liberals see as Yahoos were explaining to the media elites what hotmail was.20

Even more importantly, the middle classes and the journalists among them are just as suffused with hostility to the US and its presence in Afghanistan as the rest of society. Depressingly, this has also meant that I have heard as many cretinous conspiracy theories about America from journalists as from ordinary Pakistanis – indeed more, because the journalists’ background gives them more raw material with which to weave their fantasies. In fairness, however, I must say that liberal journalists are just as bad, with the difference that their baroque conspiracy theories are directed at the army.

The media are therefore a microcosm of the Pakistani middle classes, and reflect their views. One sign of this is television’s approach to religion. Many liberals are horrified by the number of religious programmes on TV – though as of 2009 this is only five out of around eighty, which is roughly the US proportion. It is equally true that Jamaati supporters with whom I have spoken have been horrified by the content of many of these programmes.

This is partly because of a response to audience wishes and the strong element of popular religion, involving the worship of saints and other ‘Hindu superstitions’. It is also because, owing to privately owned television’s innate need for controversy and excitement, a considerable amount of debate and disagreement about religion appears on TV – once again, accurately reflecting the conflicting views of Pakistani society, but infuriating the orthodox. I was told about (though haven’t been able to trace) one lively exchange on a phone-in programme on religious rules when a Sunni cleric told a woman that it was sinful to paint her nails, and his Shia colleague asked him why, in that case, he himself was dyeing his beard!

It was indeed surprising that middle-class journalists from classes which generally have a traditional reverence for the army (if only because so many of their relatives are officers) should have turned against the Musharraf administration so radically in 2007 – 8 – especially since they had generally begun by supporting him. This can be partly be explained by a genuine middle-class respect for the law and desire to defend the independence of the judiciary; but it can also be explained by the fact that respect for the army is closely connected with nationalism. As in the judiciary itself, Musharraf’s perceived subservience to the US and obedience to ‘US orders to kill his own people’ had already begun to cripple his prestige with the middle classes before the Lawyers’ Movement rose against him. The same perception of being ‘America’s slave’, together with corruption, explains the growing hostility of much of the media to the Zardari administration in 2009 – 10.

This hostility to the US, rather than extremist feeling as such, explains the rather shocking toleration for the Pakistani Taleban shown by much of Pakistani television up to the spring of 2009. This did not take the form of outright propaganda, but rather of playing interviews with Taleban spokesmen, and military or official interviews, on an equal basis and without commentary; and, in the reporting of terrorist acts, of frequent references to conspiracy theories which might excuse the Taleban from responsibility.

This was not a matter of cynical manipulation – as far as I can see, from a great many interviews with journalists, they believed these theories implicitly themselves. There was therefore a reciprocal effect, with the media sucking up public prejudices and playing them back to the public, strengthening them in the process. In the spring of 2009, however, there was a real change. The military did some tough talking to media owners and journalists, and thereafter most of the media have been much more supportive of the campaign against the Pakistani Taleban – while continuing, like the rest of society, to oppose action against the Afghan Taleban.

As to the media’s future role in politics, there are two key issues: mass mobilization, and the righting of wrongs. On the first, television is indeed likely to play an important part in encouraging various kinds of protest and stirring up support for movements against the alleged crimes of unpopular and dictatorial regimes. However, if the past is anything to go by, this may just as well be against civilian as military regimes.

On the exposure of wrongs, the media have indeed played an increased role. When it comes to justice for wrongs, the media’s ability is naturally limited to its capacity to embarrass, since punishment is a matter for the government, the police and the courts. Thus, I heard of a case in northern Sindh where three young ‘feudals’ had raped a nurse in a local clinic. On the insistence of her colleagues, the police arrested the youths concerned. Of course, I was told by a local journalist,

Their political relatives got them released again very quickly, and they will never go to jail for what they did. But in the meantime the media had filmed them handcuffed in the police station. So at least their families were embarrassed, and maybe that meant they gave them a damned good beating when they got home.

On the other hand, despite extensive media coverage, the criminals in the monstrous case of the rape of Mukhtar Mai and persecution of her family, and the burial of girls alive in Balochistan (described in Chapter 9), have not been brought to justice years after the event, because of the political power of those responsible.

The use of the media to embarrass politicians could also become a weapon of political misinformation and attack between different parties, factions and individuals. This has always been the case on a small scale but the new force of television vastly increases the possibilities. The media as weapon (though, in this case, of legitimate self-defence) was brought home to me by a Christian journalist friend in one of the rougher parts of Pakistan. He had got into a parking dispute with the followers of a notoriously ruthless local chieftain. I asked him whether this wasn’t dangerous, especially given the way in which Christians in the area had been persecuted. No, he replied, because the Sardar and his men knew that he was a journalist and a friend of the other leading journalists of the area. ‘We journalists stick together and defend each other. So if they did anything to me, stories about all the bad things he and his family have done would be all over television, the papers and radio.’

It is still too early to say whether the new media form a really important new force, or whether they will only be a new element of the old scene, and will essentially be ingested by the traditional system – as has happened to so many forces before them. At the very least, though, the media are encouraging a wider range of people to think and talk about public issues than has been the case in the past – which is presumably a good thing, depending on what they think and say.


As you drive towards the Sindhi town of Larkana from the north, a shining white lump appears on the flat face of the plain and gradually grows to enormous dimensions. It is the mausoleum of the local Bhutto family of landowners and tribal chieftains, who in recent decades have made an impact considerably beyond their ancestral territory. Reflecting this impact, the mausoleum is a squatter but possibly even bigger version of the Taj Mahal in gleaming white marble. It is built over the site of the ancient Bhutto family graveyard, and was started under the first government of Benazir Bhutto after 1988 as a monument to her executed father. Now she rests there herself.

The mausoleum is arranged on two levels. When it is finished, the upper one, under the huge dome, is supposed to be for the general public; the lower one, containing the actual tombs, will be for VIP visitors only. But perhaps one should say if it is finished, rather than when; for it has a curious look of having been designed to be a ruin. As of mid-2009, after twenty years of construction repeatedly interrupted by the PPP being ousted from government, both levels were unfinished, with scaffolding everywhere, the floors a patchwork of rough concrete and uneven, badly laid marble slabs, the stairs uneven to the foot, and heaps of unused building materials lying around. The mixture of pomp and shoddiness made a depressing contrast with the beautiful carvings and calligraphy of the older Bhutto tombs.

On the walls of the basement, posters proclaim the allegiance of various PPP politicians and would-be politicians. One, from Pervaiz Menon, head of a PPP chapter in the US, read:

Once Athens bled and mourned death for Socrates, twice the persecution of beloved Bhuttos, for his death transcends the greatest tragedy in Asian history ... The integration of human sufferings begins within a promise to conquer the unknown, the unleashed giant.

Whatever that was supposed to mean. But as so often in South Asia, solemnity is not really the local style. I spoke harshly to my guide about his lighting a cigarette beside the tombs, but my concern for decorum was quite unnecessary. As at some of the shrines described in the chapter on religion, extended families were picnicking among the tombs, their small children running around squeaking, and sometimes competing in jumping over the smaller graves: in the midst of death we were in life.

Outside the mausoleum is a scene which also exactly recalls the shrines of saints (and the Catholic Mediterranean): a small hamlet of stalls selling quasi-religious memorabilia mixed with cheap toys and jewellery, and with the local equivalent of hymns – speeches by the various Bhuttos – booming over loudspeakers. Also familiar from shrines everywhere is another reputed use of the mausoleum – as a discreet meeting-place for lovers.

None of this is specific to the Bhuttos or Pakistan. South Asia is a region of hereditary political dynasties: the Nehrus-Gandhis in India, the Bandaranaikes in Sri Lanka, and the rival families of Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh. The violent nature of South Asian politics means that most of these dynasties have their martyrs: Mrs Gandhi and her son Rajiv in India, the father of Sheikh Hasina and husband of Khaleda Zia, and of course Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir.

These dynasties have proved extraordinarily resilient. They have survived the violent deaths of their leading members, repeated failures in government, repeated failures to deliver on promises to the masses and, in many cases, the abandonment of whatever genuine ideology they ever possessed.

This reflects at a higher level the kinship allegiances which permeate most South Asian political societies; and the fact that, in most cases, these societies have not developed classes and groups that can generate parties based on ideology and mass organization rather than on family allegiance. As a PPP politician, Aftab Shaban Mirani, told me in 1990, ‘It is impossible to destroy the PPP. Individual politicians can be split from it, but the nucleus will always remain the house of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.’21

Most of Pakistan’s parties, large and small, are led by dynasties. None of the others however – not even the Sharifs, described in the next section – approaches the monarchical atmosphere surrounding the Bhuttos. I had a taste of this back in 1988 at a press conference with the new Minister of State for Information, Javed Jabbar. The words ‘grace’ and ‘gracious’ tripped from his lips so often that they came to seem like royal titles – which in a way is exactly what they were:

After eleven years of darkness, a woman leader has come to power who is brave, bright, brilliant, gracious, to overthrow the forces of darkness. I would like to thank the Prime Minister for her most gracious act in appointing me to the ministry ... Thanks to her, every few days there is a moment which will become historic. I am privileged to have sat in the first cabinet meeting led by a woman Prime Minister, which she presided over with her customary grace ...22

This was not personal sycophancy so much as general party style, which tends to be overripe even by the flavourful standards of South Asia. A book by a PPP supporter, The Ideals of Bhutto, reads in part as follows:

What is Bhuttoism? It is a clarion call to establish a welfare democratic state. It is the power of people. It is an enlightened, modern, moderate and egalitarian society. It is the end of religious extremism, sectarianism, parochialism and terrorism ...

Jeeay Bhutto [Long Live Bhutto, or Victory to Bhutto] is a banging slogan raising the dead to life. It awakens the slumbered souls. It has a meaning. Long live Bhutto signifies his unending mission. This mission can never die. It is a permanent principle of paramount importance. It reminds us of democracy. It cuts the roots of fascism. It severs the branches of feudalism, militarism and mullahism ...23

Benazir Bhutto herself described the slogan as follows:

Jeeay Bhutto. It’s a lovely word. It’s warm and wonderful. It lifts the heart. It gives strength under the whip lash ... It means so much to us, it drives us on. It makes us reach for the stars and the moon.24

As described in Chapter 1, the basic elements of the party’s style and image were established by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, with his combination of a populist appeal to the masses in politics with the personal style of a rich Westernized aristocrat. This combination was not originally hypocritical, for Bhutto had a love – hate relationship with his own ‘feudal’ class. However, as far as the landowners were concerned, his initial brief radicalism did not last long and was soon replaced by political alliances with great ‘feudal’ families in Sindh and southern Punjab.

Not merely was it naturally out of the question for members of this class to pursue economically progressive agendas on the part of the PPP, but the nature of their local power also made it impossible for them to support socially progressive agendas (especially in the area of women’s rights), even if they had wanted to – since this would have offended the deeply conservative kinship networks on which they depend for support. In fact, the uttermost limit of the progressivism of many PPP landowner-politicians in this regard is that they keep one younger Westernized wife for public show at their home in Karachi or Lahore – while two or more wives from arranged marriages with first cousins are kept firmly in purdah back on their estates.

A Sindhi PPP leader whom I interviewed in 1990, Dr Ashraf Abbasi (a doctor by profession), was candid about the political realities:

We have no choice but to adopt candidates like U. Khan and A. T. [names disguised for obvious reasons], though of course we know that they are both murderers. Who else can we work with here in the interior of Sindh? Of course we don’t want them, when we have good, loyal party workers on hand. But the voters themselves support them and demand that we take them, because they are the heads of powerful clans and because people here respect men who have danda [armed force; literally a cudgel]. So we have to think which candidates can pull in votes along these lines. All the same, it is only the PPP of all the parties which can mobilize voters at all along any other lines than biradiri, tribes, force and money.25

The PPP still contains middle-class professional party workers like Dr Abbasi – for example, the former president of the Sindh party, Taj Haider, and the president of the Punjab party (as of 2010), Rana Aftab Ahmed. Without men like this to hold together some party organization, the party could not have survived its long years out of power.

However, as far as rural Sindh is concerned, nothing has changed in the PPP over the past twenty years – because, as later chapters will recount, little has changed in the economy, society, culture and politics of the Sindhi countryside, which is the PPP’s most essential base. For example, as of 2010, the PPP Federal Education Minister, Azar Khan Bijrani, a Sindhi tribal chief and landowner, had been charged in the Supreme Court because a tribal jirga over which he presided had handed three minor girls over in marriage to another tribe as part of the settlement of a dispute; but the case against him had been suspended indefinitely.

The tribal court of another local sardar and PPP politician, Abid Husain Jatoi, had declared that a Jatoi girl and a Soomro man who eloped together should both be killed. The Sindh High Court intervened to protect them, but the resulting scandal did not prevent Jatoi from becoming Provincial Minister of Fisheries and Livestock. None of this differed in any way from the stories I had heard about PPP ministers and other politicians during my visits to the province more than twenty years earlier.26

As a journalist in the Bhutto stronghold of Larkana said to me, with commendable restraint: ‘It is surprising for the civil society of Pakistan that people like this are inducted into the federal and provincial cabinets.’ This is not to say that the PPP is any worse in this regard than the other parties – but it is also no better. Such behaviour is part of the stuff of local society in Sindh (and most other regions of Pakistan as well) and has continued unchanged under both civilian and military governments.

Despite all this, a certain romance between the Bhuttos and many Pakistanis has continued. As far as the poor are concerned, a journalist friend told me, it is because

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is the only Pakistani leader who has ever spoken to the poor as if they mattered, and made them feel that they mattered. No one else has done that. So though in fact he did little for them, and Benazir nothing at all, they still remember him with respect, and even love, and something of this still sticks to the Bhutto name.

But for many ordinary Pakistanis, the identification between Z. A. Bhutto’s heroic image and that of the Pakistan People’s Party, which he founded, was cemented by his death. His daughter Benazir’s beauty and combination of feminine vulnerability with personal autocracy confirmed the Bhutto image. Meanwhile, the Westernized intelligentsia (who are tiny in proportion to the population, but influential in the elite media, and in their effect on perceptions in the West) largely stick with the party because they have nowhere else to go, politically speaking – and often, because they have family or marital links to leading PPP families. Sherry Rehman, the PPP Information Minister in 2008 – 9, gave me her reasons for supporting the party, which are those of many educated women I have met (excluding the bit about helping the poor, which most no longer bother to claim):

I am with the PPP because it is the only mainstream federal party that has consistently maintained the secular ideals of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. And the PPP addresses first the needs of the oppressed, poor, vulnerable and minorities including women. The party was led by a woman who gave her life for her ideals, and women in the party are regularly involved in top decision-making. This is a major appeal for women. The PPP is the only party which has not been ambiguous about their rights.27

The question facing the party after Benazir’s assassination is whether it can survive the leadership of her distinctly less charismatic widower, Asif Ali Zardari (who is also of course not a Bhutto by blood) – at least long enough for their son or daughter to grow up and inherit the family mantle. Zardari had never held any party position, and inherited the co-leadership of the party (jointly with their underage son Bilawal, born in 1988 and so aged twenty in 2008) in the strictest sense of the word inherited – according to the terms of Ms Bhutto’s will, the original of which neither the party nor the public was allowed to see!

As of 2010, Zardari was widely viewed by PPP politicians and party workers as a potentially disastrous liability, owing to the circumstances of his inheritance, a lack of legitimacy stemming from the fact that he is not a Bhutto, his reputation for kleptocracy, his personal arrogance and his reliance on a coterie of personal friends and advisers rather than on established leading figures in the party. A crushing additional blow was given by his government’s miserable record during the floods of 2010, and especially the fact that at the height of the crisis he visited his family’s chateau in France rather than returning home to take charge of the relief effort. The eclipse of the ‘party stalwarts’ has also undermined the party’s reputation for physical courage – a highly valued quality in Pakistan – in the face of persecution. This had done much to maintain the party’s image.

The unpopularity of Zardari in the PPP is leading to frantic attempts to build up the image of his son Bilawal (who, interestingly, is often described by PPP supporters as if he were Benazir’s son only and not Zardari’s too). Repeatedly from PPP politicians and workers in Sindh I heard extremely improbable stories about his courage, intelligence, openness to ordinary people, and even close resemblance to Z. A. Bhutto.

Who knows, all of this might even come to be true in future. Bashar al-Assad, Rajiv Gandhi and even more improbably Sonia Gandhi all inherited political positions very much against their will, and for which they appeared completely unsuited – and yet proved good at them. However, the PPP may not have the time. As one PPP female politician said: ‘Our problem is that we need Bilawal to grow up ten years in one year, and that isn’t physically possible, unfortunately.’ As of 2010, because of his parents’ exile and his education in the West, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari does not even speak enough Urdu to give public speeches in that language, let alone in Sindhi; and the ability to give speeches in the language of ordinary people is perhaps the one thing a populist party cannot do without.

However, until 2010 at least, outright revolt against Zardari within the PPP had been kept in check partly by the flow of US aid, some of which he was able to distribute as patronage, but more importantly by the fact that with Benazir’s children not yet in a position to succeed, getting rid of him would leave the party with no dynastic leadership at all – at which point it would risk disintegrating altogether as a result of feuds between rival factions.

Zardari aside, the PPP suffers from certain potentially disastrous long-term weaknesses, but also from some enduring strengths. These latter could mean that even if it suffers a crushing defeat at the next elections due in 2013 it may well eventually bounce back again, as it has done several times in the past.

The first PPP weakness is that its socialist policies, on which Z. A. Bhutto founded the party’s appeal, have become a completely empty shell, no longer even seriously veiled by populist rhetoric. The PPP is in fact the most distinctly ‘feudal’ in its composition of any of the major parties. This does not necessarily matter much as long as none of the other parties is offering anything better in terms of economic change, but it does mean that the party has lost a great deal of ground among what used to be a key constituency, the working classes of Punjab. With kinship politics somewhat less important among them, little realistic access to patronage and major cultural differences with the Jamaat Islami, this section of the population does not generally vote for the PPP’s opponents, but rather is less and less likely to vote at all. I found this to be true of the workers I met in the great industrial city of Faisalabad, described in the next chapter.

On the other hand, another major Punjabi urban constituency in terms of numbers, the traditional lower middle classes, does vote heavily – and in general votes heavily anti-PPP. It does so because of the traditional hostility of business to the PPP, but even more importantly because this class is the heartland of Deobandi Islamist culture, which tends to detest the Westernized style of the PPP leadership.

If this class grows continuously, at the expense of the rural classes, as a result of urbanization and social change, then the PPP in Punjab may be doomed to inexorable electoral decline. This has already been the case in Lahore. During my stay in the late 1980s the PPP had a great deal of support there, but in 2008 and 2009 it was hard to find a single would-be PPP voter on the street, even in former PPP strongholds.

This is not at all certain, however. As already stressed, because of links to the countryside and because of the informal nature of much of the economy, the growth of urban populations does not necessarily mean the urbanization of culture, or the extension of traditional lower-middle-class culture to the new lower middle classes. What would terribly damage the PPP among these classes as a whole, and indeed among much of the Pakistani population, is if the perception of the Westernized culture of its top leadership becomes permanently linked to a perception of subservience to the US. This would also mark a complete break from the legacy of Z. A. Bhutto, whose popularity was founded on a mixture of populism and ardent nationalism, with a strong anti-American tinge.

As repeatedly emphasized in this book, while radical Islamism in Pakistan is very limited, hostility to the US is overwhelming, even among PPP politicians who are benefiting from US aid. As a PPP member of the National Assembly from Sindh told me in Hyderabad in April 2009:

We used to be very liberal, pro-Western people, but American behaviour and attitudes are forcing us to develop our own identity, because we cannot simply be your servants. The Taleban are religious fanatics but so is Bush and many Americans. Worst of all, the Americans are forcing us to make mistakes and we are suffering as a result, and yet still they are blaming us for not doing enough. America faced only one 9/11. Due to our helping America, we in Pakistan are now facing 9/11s continuously with so many dead, and American policies are continuously making things worse, killing people, helping the Taleban and spreading disorder ... Many people here think the reason can only be that the Americans are creating all this disorder deliberately because they want to establish military bases here against China and Iran.

President Zardari’s alliance with the US has proved lucrative in terms of aid, but is widely detested by the population. On the other hand, a government of Nawaz Sharif and the PML(N) would probably have little choice but to follow essentially the same policies, so that over time this perception of the PPP might fade.

The PPP also has certain long-term strengths, though they are not those featured in party propaganda. Despite a decline in Punjab, it still remains more of a national party than its chief rival the Muslim League (N), and far more than any other party but the Jamaat – whose limitations have already been described. While the Muslim League in power can always pick up some Sindhi allies by offering patronage to local ‘feudals’, Sindhi feeling as such has nowhere to go but the PPP unless it is to move into outright rebellion against Pakistan – which most Sindhi politicians do not wish to contemplate, for reasons that will be brought out in the chapter on Sindh. As the Sindhi PPP politician quoted above told me after reciting a litany of complaints about Zardari:

But even with all the mistakes and even crimes of Zardari, in the interior of Sindh people love the Bhuttos. And anyway, we have no options. Who else can we Sindhis vote for? ... It is also unfair to compare Zardari to Bibi [Benazir Bhutto]. Nobody can compare to her. All the other leaders are pygmies by comparison.

It remains to be seen if anger in Sindh at the PPP government’s failure during the floods of 2010 has been enough to shatter this dynastic loyalty.

Finally, the PPP can appeal to members of religious traditions that have reason to fear Sunni Islamist ascendancy, and which see the Muslim League as increasingly associated with Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith culture: followers of the Barelvi tradition, devotees of the shrines and of course the Shia. The Bhuttos and Zardaris are both Shia, and many of the leading figures of the party come from pir families with strong Shia leanings.

In the past, this has not marked a clear Sunni – Shia split between the main parties. Kinship, personal and factional rivalries divide all Pakistan’s religious traditions. The PML(N) contains many Shia and Barelvis, and the Sharifs have been careful to show great respect and support to the leading shrines. However, the savage attacks by the Pakistani Taleban and their Punjabi sectarian allies on shrines in 2010, and the apparent closeness to the sectarians of some of the Sharifs’ leading allies, mean that Shia and Barelvis may begin to desert the PML(N), possibly dealing it a heavy blow in certain areas.

The PPP leadership for its part knows very well that it would be crazy to make an openly Shia appeal in an overwhelmingly Sunni country, in which outright, declared Shia (as opposed to devotees of shrines which bridge the Shia – Sunni gap) may be as few as 10 per cent. The Bhuttos, Zardaris and other families therefore follow Sunni rituals in public – in accordance with the old Shia tradition of taqiyya, which permits Shia to disguise their real beliefs if threatened with persecution. Nonetheless, the PPP does seem to have a degree of permanent residual support in some minority religious groups – a point to which I will return in the next chapter, on Punjab.


On the whole, however, and for many years now, Pakistani vote swings have been powered less by enthusiasm for the party in opposition than exasperation with the party in power. In other words, the future of the PPP will depend heavily on how its main rivals, the Muslim League of the Sharifs, perform when they are next in government. If the PML(N)’s past record is anything to go by, the PPP will have plenty of opportunities to exploit public discontent. Indeed, anger at the PPP-led national government in Punjab over failures of the flood relief effort in 2010 was to some extent balanced by anger at the PML(N)’s provincial government for the same reason.

When trying to define the identity of the Muslim League, I quoted Benazir Bhutto on the slogan Jeeay Bhutto to a Pakistani friend, and asked him what the PML(N)’s equivalent would be. ‘Parathas,’ he replied like a shot, referring to the fried flat-bread much loved in Punjab. ‘Just listen and you’ll hear how right it sounds for them: “Long live parathas.” It’s a lovely word. They’re warm and wonderful. They lift the heart ...’

This is of course a shockingly frivolous comment, and I sincerely hope that no Pakistani reader is so utterly lost to political seriousness as to laugh at it. This joke was, however, also intended to make a serious point concerning one of the greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses of the PML(N), namely their strongly Punjabi character.

It is the party’s base in Punjab and in Punjabi sentiment that allowed it to liberate itself from its original military masters and to survive eight years in the political wilderness after Musharraf’s coup in 1999. On the other hand, this means that its vote in other provinces has been very limited, and it has never been able to rule in Sindh except through local alliances of opportunist ‘feudals’. In the NWFP, however, Sharif’s criticism of the US and distancing from the struggle with the Taleban may pay permanent electoral dividends.

Punjabi culture largely explains the particular charismatic appeal of Nawaz Sharif to many ordinary Punjabis, so absolutely incomprehensible to most Western observers and indeed to Pakistani liberal intellectuals. His rough but jovial personal style goes with this, as does the fact that, while frequently wooden and tongue-tied in English, he apparently speaks very effectively in Punjabi.

Leaders of the party like to stress that it had its beginnings in the mass opposition movement to Z. A. Bhutto in 1976, and especially in the outrage of the conservative Punjabi middle classes at Bhutto’s socialism, Westernization and autocracy. The self-image of the core PML(N) is therefore of a ‘moderate conservative and Muslim, but also modern middle-class party’, as the PML(N) Information Secretary, Ehsan Iqbal, put it to me.28 The key role in putting the Muslim League together in the mid-1980s, and in choosing Nawaz Sharif to run it, was however played by the military administration of Zia-ul-Haq, and the ISI.

Nawaz Sharif (born 1949) and his younger brother Shahbaz are the sons of an industrialist of Kashmiri-Punjabi origin who moved to Pakistan in 1947 (there will be more on the family in the next chapter), and who moved to Saudi Arabia when his industries were nationalized under Z. A. Bhutto. The family’s Punjabi middle-class origins, Pakistani nationalism, hatred of the Bhuttos, links to Saudi Arabia and (in the father’s case) personal piety all endeared them to Zia. In 1985 Nawaz Sharif was made Chief Minister of Punjab (a position held as of 2010 by Shahbaz), and in 1991 became Prime Minister of Pakistan for the first time.

The Sharifs’ business origins and pro-business policies mean that businessmen favour their party. Indeed, every single one I have met has done so, irrespective of whether they have been secular or conservative in their personal culture. This link to business has given the PML(N) a clear edge over the PPP when it comes to economic policy and efficient government in general. As a leading industrialist in Lahore (one of the most cultivated and cosmopolitan figures I have met in Pakistan) told me:

The PPP have repeatedly chosen very weak economic teams, because they are feudals and populists, while the Sharifs are businessmen by upbringing and have carefully cultivated the business elites. The PPP have not had one good period in government as far as economic policy is concerned; whereas Nawaz Sharif’s team has always been good – it was crafted by that old sage Sartaj Aziz. So businessmen certainly trust the Muslim League more. The genesis of this difference is [Zulfikar Ali] Bhutto’s brutal nationalization, which left a legacy of distrust for the PPP among businessmen that has never gone away ...

But we certainly don’t have full confidence in the Muslim League. Unfortunately, Nawaz is not the most stable of characters, as his past record in government shows, and his brother is a good number two, a good administrator, but not a leader or visionary. Shahbaz is willing to stay on his feet for sixteen hours straight kicking ass and giving orders, but ask him about an export-led growth strategy and he won’t have a clue. Whereas Nawaz does have a kind of vision for Pakistan, but he is impetuous, careless and can be cruel ...

On the other hand, another reason why businessmen trust Nawaz is that if you cross him as a businessman, he gets annoyed but he does not retaliate against you or your business – against journalists who criticize him on the other hand he can be very harsh. When I publicly criticized his budget in ’99 he was very angry but did not loose the police or the income tax authorities on me – there was no case of an out of order tax inspection or the police flagging down my car and so on; the typical pressure tactics here. And I have never heard that he has done this to any other businessmen.

I asked a former minister in Nawaz Sharif’s governments of the 1990s to sum up his character. ‘Not at all educated but very shrewd, intelligent, determined and courageous. But unfortunately also autocratic, impulsive, reckless and hot-tempered, which has often been his downfall’, was the response.

Shahbaz Sharif for his part has had a good personal reputation for efficiency, hard work and personal honesty as Chief Minister of Punjab (while of course employing just the same patronage incentives as everyone else in his political strategy). He also seems to be good at picking and listening to good advisers. He exemplifies something that I have often heard said about the PML(N), in different forms, that ‘their real ideology is managerialism’. As with his brother, this goes with a considerable reputation for autocracy and ruthlessness.

The number of ‘encounter killings’ of criminals by police in Punjab soared after Shahbaz Sharif became Chief Minister in 2008, though I was told that he also gave strict orders that care be taken that only genuinely violent criminals were to be killed. When I interviewed him in Lahore in January 2009, he was impressively briefed on a great many policy issues compared with the PPP ministers I met, some of whom seemed to be wandering through government in a kind of dream, interspersed with purely ritualistic statements about their policies and ideals.

Party representatives like to stress the middle-class nature of the PML(N) as against the ‘feudal’ Bhuttos. ‘Mian Sharif [Nawaz’s father] was often called Mistri [blacksmith] either as a term of affection or an insult,’ I was told. ‘But he didn’t mind. He used to say, “I am a small man, but God gave me these big hands so that I can work iron.”’

Dr Saeed Elahi, a PML(N) member of the Punjab assembly, told me, echoing the Sindhi PPP leader quoted above:

The middle classes in Punjab see us as their party culturally and in every way; and the poor, well, they think that we have at least brought about some good development for them, more than anything the PPP have ever done. But while the cities have solid PML(N) support and we can choose good middle-class candidates, the countryside is still dominated by biradiris , and by feudals, tribal chieftains and pirs, so we have no choice but to choose feudals with their own followings.29

In most of rural Punjab the party’s leaders are therefore close to those of the PPP in terms of social origin, and the PML(N)’s strategy for gaining and keeping support through patronage does not differ significantly from that of the PPP.

The Muslim League, however, have stressed both their moderate Islamist and their nationalist credentials, seeking thereby to contrast themselves with the ‘Westernized’ Bhuttos. In 2007 – 10, the Sharifs also distanced themselves from the alliance with the US and the campaign against the Pakistani Taleban, without categorically opposing them. Thus in July 2010, following a Pakistani Taleban attack on the great shrine of Data Ganj Baksh in Lahore which killed forty-five worshippers, Nawaz Sharif echoed Imran Khan in calling for peace talks between the government and the Pakistani Taleban:

If Washington says it is prepared to talk to the Taliban who are willing to listen, then a similar initiative should also come from Islamabad. We should not only see what decision they [the Western countries] will make about our fate. We should decide our own fate ... Peace is the priority and for that, ways can be found.30

In March 2010 his brother Shahbaz stated publicly:

General Musharraf planned a bloodbath of innocent Muslims at the behest of others only to prolong his rule, but we in the PML-N opposed his policies and rejected dictation from abroad and if the Taliban are also fighting for the same cause then they should not carry out acts of terror in Punjab [where the PML-N is ruling].31

These statements are an obvious attempt to get the Pakistani Taleban and their allies to stop attacking Punjab and concentrate on other provinces instead. This may not do much for the Sharifs’ standing in those provinces, and as of 2010 also does not seem to be working. The PML(N) government’s failure to prevent massive terrorist attacks in Punjab may well undermine its prestige as a ‘party of law and order’, and while many Punjabis with whom I have spoken continued to support talks with the Pakistani Taleban even after they began to attack Punjab, it is not certain that this will continue if they kill more and more innocent people and target such beloved sites as Data Ganj Baksh.

The PML(N)’s support for talks and distancing from the US form part of a strategy, emphasized to me by the PML(N)’s Information Secretary, Ehsan Iqbal, of seeking to undermine both the Pakistani Taleban and the Jamaat Islami by drawing away their supporters into mainstream politics. PML(N) leaders estimate that in the February 2008 elections, which the Jamaat boycotted, 40 per cent of Jamaat voters nonetheless turned up to vote PML(N).

The party is making no visible headway in winning over the violent radicals, who have long since moved beyond the reach of Pakistani mainstream politics. As regards the Jamaat, however, this strategy does seem to have had considerable success; and to judge by my interviews, the soaring popularity of the PML(N) in opinion polls in 2008 – 9 owed a good deal to the perception that the Sharifs ‘would defend Pakistani interests against America, not sell them like Musharraf and Zardari’, as a Lahori shopkeeper told me. This perception was also boosting PML(N) popularity in the NWFP, increasing the party’s chances of permanently expanding beyond its Punjabi base.

All this has led to fears among Western observers and Pakistani liberals alike that in government the PML(N) will turn Pakistan away from the alliance with the US, and towards a much more Islamist system at home, akin to that introduced by General Zia. There are nevertheless limits to how far the party can go in either of these directions. More perhaps than any other group in Pakistan, the industrialists who support the Sharifs know the disastrous economic costs of a radical break with the US.

Businessmen also know how dependent Pakistan will be on US aid, and, although they will undoubtedly try for greater distance, in the end their policies towards the Afghan Taleban are likely to be much the same mixture as those of Musharraf and Zardari. The Sharifs’ business and ‘feudal’ support also means that unlike the Jamaat and the Taleban they cannot even flirt with ideas of Islamist social and economic revolution.

When they come to power, the Sharifs will also probably continue a tough line against the Pakistani Taleban, along the same lines as their past toughness with sectarian extremists in Punjab (as described in the next chapter). This is not so much a matter of ideology as of a passionate commitment to being in charge and suppressing revolts against their government. When I asked a senior PML(N) figure about whether the party would show any toleration to the spread of Islamist extremism in Punjab, he barked at me:

This is our province, and we mean to keep it that way. We are responsible for government and development here. Apart from anything else, our whole image is built on order and good administration. Of course we are not going to allow any terrorism and disorder by miscreants here, no matter if they say they are doing this in the name of Islam and against America.

Finally, in terms of their personal culture, while the Sharifs are quite far from the Bhuttos, they are also very far from the buttoned-up, puritanical Jamaat, described in Chapter 4 on religion. Close associates have described them as not personally bigoted, and generally relaxed about religion. They like good food, ostentatious luxury and above all women, for whom both brothers have a considerable appetite which they hardly trouble to disguise. They are, however, strict about not drinking alcohol.

This may well seem a hypocritical mixture, but unlike the open Westernization displayed by some of the PPP leadership, and the strict Islamism displayed by the Jamaat, it may be rather close to the basic attitudes of a majority of male Punjabis – who, as described in the next chapter, are also far from puritanical in their basic attitudes to life, while regarding themselves of course as good Muslims and insisting on strict behaviour by their own women. Imran Aslam of Geo described what he called ‘the Sharifs’ Pakistan’ as

Conservative with a small ‘c’. It is a form of religion that gives stability and comfort but is not fanatical, and is at peace with itself – unlike our psychologically and culturally tortured liberals, and equally tortured Islamists.32

The Punjabi conservative attitude to the Sharifs may therefore be compared to the conservative attitude of the American South to the youthful George Bush’s escapades with drugs, alcohol and women (except that the Sharifs are no longer youthful). The fact that they are nonetheless seen as part of the same conservative culture (unlike the democratic ‘liberal elites’) somehow absolves them from blame. Even Nawaz Sharif’s wellpublicized affairs with Indian (Muslim) actresses will not do him much harm among most men in a province where so much of the male population watches Bollywood movies and – unless Punjabis are differently constructed from men anywhere else in the world – dream of sleeping with their female stars.

On the other hand, because of this luxurious lifestyle, the elite composition of most of its top leadership, and the basic realities of kinship and patronage politics, the PML(N) stands no chance either of crafting a social and economically reformist agenda for Pakistan, or of transforming itself into a modern mass party. The Sharifs lack the openly monarchical style of the Bhutto-Zardaris, but both brothers are natural autocrats whose autocratic tendencies helped destroy their government and bring about the military coup of 1999.

As in the PPP, there are no internal elections in the PML(N), and everything comes down in the end to choices and decisions by the Sharifs and their advisers. The PML(N) is therefore yet another dynastic party, with the usual problem that the next generation of Sharifs (Shahbaz’s son is the heir apparent to the party leadership) are rather unknown quantities in terms of ability – though they are better placed in this regard than the Bhutto-Zardaris.


The fossilized nature of the PPP and PML is shown up especially starkly by the contrast with Pakistan’s only truly modern mass political party, the MQM, which will be further described in Chapter 8. I have included the MQM in this chapter as a counter-example to the other main parties, and because the MQM itself has aspirations to be a national party.

The MQM’s character as a middle-class party stems from its ethnic background in the Mohajir population of Karachi and Hyderabad. It has sought to transcend this identity and capitalize on its modern middle-class character to become a progressive party across the whole of Pakistan. It has appealed to the middle classes in the name of progressive (but not anti-capitalist) anti-‘feudal’ and anti-Islamist (though not of course anti-Islamic) values, against the PPP, the Muslim League and the Jamaat Islami alike.

To this end, in 1997 the MQM dropped its original name of Mohajir Qaumi Mahaz (Mohajir People’s Movement) and renamed itself the Muttahida (‘United’) Qaumi Mahaz, ‘in order to further national development and a nationwide campaign against feudal domination’.

This MQM strategy has, however, failed, partly because the social and cultural conditions which produced the MQM in Karachi do not exist in the rest of the country. The other urban middle classes have not been shaken free of traditional kinship allegiances and rural links, as the Mohajirs were shaken free by their exodus from India; and, indeed, with the very partial exceptions of Lahore and Faisalabad, there is no other modern urban centre to support modern urban politics. Equally, the MQM has not been able or willing to transcend its ethnic nature and loyalty, for which it was founded and which has brought it into ferocious conflict with other Pakistani ethnicities.

The MQM’s appeal to the mass of Pakistanis may be restricted still further by its strong stand against the Taleban, which reflects a mixture of genuine hostility to Taleban ideology, ethnic hostility to the – allegedly pro-Taleban – Pathans of Karachi, and a strong play for American and British support. The MQM has identified Karachi as an essential route for US and NATO supplies to Afghanistan and is determined to exploit this strategic opportunity to the best of its ability.

The MQM has been in and out of coalition governments, both in Islamabad and in Sindh. Having initially boycotted elections under President Musharraf (himself a Mohajir) as a protest against his military coup (leading to a brief period of renewed Jamaat Islami rule of the city of Karachi), the party later made a deal with him and took control once again of the municipality. At the time of writing, the MQM is in coalition with the PPP and ANP in Sindh, but given its past record there can be no doubt that it will also be willing to enter into coalition with Nawaz Sharif, or indeed anyone else. This in turn means that with the help of the MQM and a sufficient number of opportunist Sindhi ‘feudal’ politicians, a new government in Islamabad can usually succeed through patronage in putting together a provincial government in Sindh as well.

The MQM demonstrates one of the ‘Indo-Pakistani’ political trends mentioned in the Introduction: an ethnic political movement which emerged through violence and still intermittently uses great violence against its enemies, and which has had violent clashes with the state, but which also over time has been co-opted by the state through repeated deals and grants of patronage, and which has abandoned its most radical demands. Thus the MQM now never raises its original demand of a separate province of Karachi, knowing that this would make it impossible for even moderate and opportunist Sindhi politicians to form coalitions with the MQM.

It would be quite wrong to see the MQM as just another bunch of corrupt, opportunist and brutal ethnic politicians. They are a remarkable party by any standards, and a very remarkable party indeed for Pakistan. The loyalty of their activists is especially impressive. One of them, Nasir Jamal, a greying, rather intense thirty-four-year-old who joined the party when he was sixteen, described to me how his family had fled first from India to East Pakistan in 1948, and then to Pakistan from the new Bangladesh, and then from the new Bangladesh to Karachi in 1974. ‘We felt that we had lost everything twice over and no longer had any country of our own at all.’

When the MQM was created, there was a crisis of identity for all those like us who had migrated from India. We felt that we had no identity because we had no land of our own, unlike the Sindhis, Punjabis or Pathans. But the MQM gave us our identity, and if I could describe it in one sentence, the MQM is a passion for us. Identity is self-respect, freedom, honour. I now feel that I am also something, that there are some things that are in my hands, that I am helping my community to solve their problems, if only in a small way.33

Iftikhar Malik sums up the MQM’s leading features as follows:

[A] comparatively recent, totally urban, predominantly middle-class party with a specific ethnic consciousness, characterized by wider literacy, meticulous organization, effective propaganda campaigns and an impressive level of youth organization.34

He lists their ‘inherent weaknesses’ as ‘personality-centred politicking, factionalism, intolerance towards other ethnic communities, and coercive tactics against the media’ (if the latter can be described as a ‘weakness’ rather than an ugly but effective manifestation of strength). I can confirm much of this from my own observations. Certainly the fear of the MQM on the part of journalists is very striking. Even at the height of the killings in Karachi during my stay in April 2009, it was very difficult to find any explicit criticism of the party in the mainstream media; and time and again, when I interviewed local journalists or analysts, they said that all their words could be ‘on the record’ – except the bits criticizing the MQM. They were full of stories about how closely the MQM monitored their movements, including supposedly my own during my visit to the city. Some of these stories sounded to me highly paranoid, but they were certainly widespread and believed.

Dr Malik’s essay was written in 1995, and fifteen years on a couple more things need to be added. The first is that despite the factionalism of which he speaks, and which has been very evident in the MQM in the past, the party has retained an impressive public unity compared to any other party in Pakistan. One reason for this may be precisely the extraordinary cult of personality that has been created round the figure of Altaf Hussain – while at the same time his absence in London, following an assassination attempt, allows a reasonable degree of autonomy to the second-rank leadership.

The other thing about the MQM that has become more apparent since the 1980s is their capacity for effective and progressive government. Although Karachi has more than doubled in size over the past twenty years, the city has not lapsed into the shambolic misery that many predicted. It is in fact not merely the best-run city in Pakistan (with the possible exception of Faisalabad) but one of the best-run larger cities of South Asia, without the appalling mass poverty that characterizes most Indian and Bangladeshi cities.

Communications and public services have considerably improved under the MQM’s municipal government – once again, something to set against the growing violence and misery of the Pathan areas of northern Pakistan. Finally, businessmen in the city confirm that while the MQM is not without corruption, its leaders’ corruption is both on a smaller scale and more orderly than that of the leaders of other parties, and sometimes at least is for the party rather than the individual concerned. ‘They take, but they deliver,’ as one banker put it to me.

The MQM built on its highly disciplined and ruthless student organization – both derived from and modelled on that of the Jamaat – to extend its organization throughout Mohajir society, with the partial exception of the richest and most cosmopolitan elements, which had dominated Karachi politics in the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike any other party – except yet again the Jamaat – women are critical to the MQM’s organization, and have indeed kept the party going when its male leadership was in jail or on the run.

Women are especially important in the MQM’s social welfare wing, the Khidmat-e-Khalq Foundation, which helps people with everything from repairs to their homes to the education of their children and dowries for their daughters. The party’s organization thus permeates Mohajir society. Social work and social organization, at least as much as violence and intimidation, are central to the power and resilience of the party, and its enduring grip on the support of most of the Mohajir population, which has survived all the vicissitudes of the past twenty years and many years out of office. The MQM’s professionalism and modernity are reflected in its website, MQM.org, which lists its branches and achievements, as well as providing party videos and songs to actual or potential supporters. The websites of the PPP (ppp.org.pk) and the Muslim League (pmln.org.pk) do not begin to compare. Once again, the MQM and Jamaat (itself largely of Mohajir origin) are the only parties in Pakistan that do this in any systematic way.

Crucial to the nature and success of the MQM’s social and political organizations is that they are staffed and led by people of the same origins as those whom they are helping. I visited their local headquarters in north Karachi’s sector 11B, responsible for 12,000 MQM members out of a population of around 1.3 million. A small, scrupulously tidy place, well equipped with computers, printers and photocopiers, its walls were lined with ordered files of information on local issues and letters from the population – and with pictures of Altaf Hussain, of which there were no fewer than twelve in one room alone.

The local mayors (nazims) who had been invited to meet me seemed a good cross-section of the Mohajir middle classes: an electrical engineer, a salesman for Philips, a software manager and a couple of shopkeepers. Basharat Hasnia, a middle-aged man with a dark, deeply lined, thoughtful face, said:

The MQM is a party for lower-middle-class people, in a country where most parties are run by feudals. Their representatives are not really elected but selected according to their land, money and clan. The MQM gives us a voice against these people, as well as helping us solve the problems of our own city and neighbourhoods.35

MQM leader Altaf Hussain himself is of humble origin, and was once a lower-middle-class student and part-time taxi driver. Apart from his brilliant qualities as an organizer, Altaf Hussain possesses an immense charisma among his followers. This is reflected in the name they have given him: ‘Pir Sahib’, intended to recall the blind devotion of murids to their saint. Oskar Verkaaik quotes the sincere words of a Karachi worker:

We are like robots. Pir Sahib holds the remote control in his hands. When he tells us, Stand up, we stand. When he says, Sit down, we sit down. We don’t use our brain. If we would, we would be divided.36

Some of the mystique which surrounds Altaf Hussain – including his public image of austerity and asexuality – recalls Mahatma Gandhi and other Hindu religious-political figures, though he certainly has not practised non-violence. The MQM sometimes refer to themselves as ‘the Altafians’. Since he went into exile in 1992 after an assassination attempt on his life, his image has been maintained from London via videos, DVDs and recordings – and may indeed have been maintained all the better by his physical absence.

His charisma has puzzled many non-Mohajir observers, given his dumpy appearance, undistinguished face and high-pitched though oddly compelling voice; but his mass appeal seems to lie precisely in the fact that his is the charisma of the ordinary. Looking at Benazir Bhutto, ordinary Pakistanis felt that they were looking at a great princess who had descended from a great height to lead them. Looking at Altaf Hussain, lower-middle-class Mohajirs feel that they are looking at an exalted version of themselves.

The key to the nature and success of the MQM lies not just in their middle-class composition – for a considerable part of the support of the PML(N) is made up of the Punjabi middle classes. Equally important is the fact that migration from India shattered the two fundamental and tightly connected building-blocks of the other Pakistani parties: kinship, and domination by local urban and rural magnates, whose power and prestige are derived not just from wealth but equally importantly from their positions of leadership within particular kinship groups – or from a combination of land and religious status, as in the pir families. Members of formerly great Muslim families from India do still play an important part in Pakistani social and cultural life, but their political power was naturally destroyed by migration and their loss of property.

Meanwhile traditional kinship and religious links were violently disrupted by a process which took Muslims from all over India, separated them, and threw them down at random in what in effect were completely new cities of Karachi and Hyderabad. As Chapter 8 on Sindh will explore further, this experience, together with the mostly urban tradition of most Mohajirs before 1947, has allowed this community to break out of the web of elite domination and patronage politics which continues to enmesh every other Pakistani party but the Jamaat.

There are two sad and frightening things about this: that to bring this political possibility about took an immense upheaval, a divided country, the displacement of millions of people, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands; and that the party created as a result, though undeniably ‘modern’ compared to the other Pakistani parties, has about it more than a touch of the ‘modernity’ of some notorious lower-middle-class European nationalist parties before 1945 – also famous for their successful social work and strong organizations. Compared to this kind of modernity, there may be something to be said for ‘feudalism’ after all.

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