Dynastic Succession and the Culture of South Asian Politics

By Samia Altaf

An editorial in The News on March 21, 2008 (“Bilawal to the rescue”) got it wrong when it expressed sadness at the “strange dynastic politics that have taken root in the region.” Dynastic politics have been rooted in the region much like they were in most other parts of the world in the past. The distinction of South Asia is that, unlike elsewhere, it has not left dynastic politics behind.

Three centuries ago it was quite normal to have a Dauphin and a regent in France. Today, a French citizen would be completely nonplussed by the thought of such a practice. In South Asia, however, the practice is not only familiar, it is actually demanded by the citizenry. How else would one explain a democratic India feeling the need to transplant Rajiv Gandhi from an airline pilot to a Prime Minister? Examples abound across South Asia and are too well known to bear repetition.

This is important to understand because it has a great bearing on the nature of our politics and our culture. The fact of the matter is that the institution of political modernity has been bequeathed to South Asia by British rule. But it is just another institution that has been incorporated into the tradition of the subcontinent. Rational people have used it for their individual ends much as rational people would use anything else like, say, a telephone network.

At heart, the South Asian tradition has remained steadfastly monarchical – both the rulers and the ruled think of their world in a monarchical perspective. Is it any wonder that a person like Mr Musharraf seems so surprised at the barest hint that the law could apply to him? Is it a surprise that he can violate the Constitution and promise to abide by it at the same time?

In a monarchy there is a set of people who believe they are born to rule. “Do you not know who I am?” is the typical response of a member of the ruling class when asked for an explanation. Then there is a group that believes it can prosper in an arbitrary system only by pleasing the ruling class – hence the obsequiousness and the ji huzoor part of our culture. Amongst the dispossessed there is still the vestige of that hopelessness that gives rise to the maii baap fatalism – the resignation that attributes everything to the Divine Will that elevates some to kingship and reduces others to poverty in accordance with some unknowable cosmic plan.

Without an intellectual revolution like the Enlightenment or a social cleansing like the French revolution, these attitudes are changing very, very slowly. It is the uniqueness of our region that political modernity has preceded social modernity unlike anywhere else in the world. The aristocracy in France was violently replaced by a rising middle class that then instituted democratic rule based on individual equality guaranteed by law. In South Asia, the ancien regime survived intact into the era of modern politics and continued to remain above the law.

Applying the law to a person like Mr Musharraf is a monumental challenge because as King he can easily exile his rivals, dismiss the judges, change the law itself, and get away with it. The really big surprise this time was the unimaginable realization that he couldn’t. It is still difficult for people to believe the outcome. But the tendency of the incoming democrats to assume the airs of monarchs and elevate their own selves above the law has been witnessed many times before.

Is this a re-run or is there a slight movement in the right direction because of the resistance of the rejuvenated lawyers? Will Pakistan become a little less monarchical and a little more constitutional like India? Let us wait for the movie to end before we stand up and start the applause.

Dr. Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC. An abridged version of this article appeared in The News on March 27, 2008.

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