Patronage, present and past

So this last weekend, I found myself amidst fairly auspicious company at the Karachi Literature Festival. Contrary to what I’d initially feared, my experience was thoroughly enjoyable, and despite its relative insulation, I’ve realized that the KLF remains a fairly useful platform for cultural and intellectual engagement in an otherwise sterile public realm.
Purists argue, with good reason, that having sessions on terrorism, militancy, politics, and economic development in a ‘literature’ festival is a condemnable aberration. The merits of this argument aside, in a country where the best-selling public intellectual remains a man who starts his ‘talk-show’ with make-belief stories about kings and queens in a parallel universe, any form of intellectual jousting is a welcome change. And, lucky for me, there was plenty of that over these past two days.
In one of the sessions, Dr Anatol Lieven, Maleeha Lodhi, Dr Asad Sayeed, and Ishrat Hussain talked about our existing economic and political condition, and the various challenges that Pakistan faces in working out a shared understanding of progress. Dr Lieven, who some of you will know as the author of Pakistan: A Hard Country, made a case for several projects that should supersede the political domain for the greater ‘national’ interest. Chief amongst them was Kalabagh Dam, closely followed by everybody’s new favourite, Thar coal reserves. On both instances, Lieven was quick to point out that a fractured and self-serving political elite has incapacitated the Pakistani economy to an extent that it cannot even take advantage of its own natural resources. That corruption has reached anarchic levels, hence reducing commercial confidence to dangerously low levels. That the spoils system on which our electoral system runs has pretty much ended the space for concrete policy-making.
On the face of it, such assertions resonate quite strongly with a small segment of people who share an idealised notion of a ‘developed’ Pakistan. This idealisation, in turn, is an outcome of an entire generation of educated, middle class people bearing witness to the entrenchment of patronage politics, and, consequently, associating most of their ills with politicians (as opposed to the political structure). What Lieven and, to a lesser extent, Maleeha Lodhi were saying is what you could hear from many people, albeit in less eloquent terms.
The problem, however, with narratives about the national interest (beyond the very obvious problem of who the hell defines ‘national interest’) is that they are fairly ahistorical in nature. At one stage, Maleeha Lodhi stated with great conviction that ‘Pakistan is a patronage-ridden country and we need to make sure that people get their due rights as citizens and not as clients’. Like many other rhetorical, vacuous statements, this one has absolutely no value towards informing the actual problem solving process. Patronage, (i.e. politicians informally favouring a portion of the citizenry in return for monetary, electoral, and social support), and corruption, (i.e. re-appropriating public funds for patronage purposes), are, for all intents and purposes, phenomena that have evolved over at least 2 centuries (if not more), and have become institutionalised in the process through which political relationships are executed. Over this period, there have been several factors contributing to this institutionalisation:
1) Colonialism, and specifically colonial law: By introducing laws based on their reading of tribal custom, and religion, the British codified what had previously been informal/traditional differences. This codification was backed by a coercive apparatus (policing and courts), and helped set in stone hierarchical relationships from the village level upwards. By making laws related to who can hold land, and the exact relationship a tenant, artisan, and craftsman would have with the landlord, the British set the legal premise for vertical patronage systems to emerge. These were further entrenched by the British policy of granting political office to large landlords and the traditional aristocracy in Punjab and Sindh.
2) Military interventions: Contrary to what Dr Lieven believes, the military, while adhering to some form of internal coherence, has played an immense part in developing patronage-based systems. For starters, their policy of centralising fiscal resources, and monopolising policy space (economic, foreign, defense) has made federating units, and sub-national political actors heavily dependent on dole-outs, central government approved infrastructure funding, and maintaining good ties with the army. Ayub’s Basic Democracies system, Zia’s ’79 LG system, and Musharraf’s ‘01 devolution, all played their part in cultivating patronage politics at the municipal level. Clearly the irony inherent in praising the army for steering clear of patronage politics is lost on many amongst the educated lot.
3) Regionalism, rights, and identity: Patronage systems thrive in polities that have a range of existing fractures and fault lines. Since patronage in Pakistan is as much a socio-cultural relationship (through biraderi, tribe, sect) as it is an economistic one, its prevalence can be put down to the failure of our state in developing a shared sense of progress that could supersede such fractures.
All of these factors emerge from distinct historical experiences, and have reproduced themselves in various ways over the last 64 years. Yet, almost unflinchingly, our mainstream, policy-developing intelligentsia is completely immune to the lessons that could be learnt from a critical reading of our history. They would still prefer to wish away patronage and corruption, which are political phenomena, through apolitical polemic, ahistorical rhetoric, and a nauseating preference for military-style order as opposed to consensual processes. Such failures have led us to where we are right now, and from what I witnessed at one KLF session today, I have little hope that this thinking will change in the near future.

The writer blogs at Email him at [email protected], or send a tweet @umairjav


  1. Almas Zakiuddin said:

    Nicely put! your analysis is nuanced and pertinent.

  2. Usama said:

    good analysis, umair!

    P.S. Although most people (except few SS majors from LUMS) won't get it, keep on writing

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