A Unique Ruling Class

By Anjum Altaf

Do you remember the time when the necklace donated by the Turkish first lady for flood victims disappeared? After much search it was discovered in the possession of the prime minister of Pakistan. The explanation he offered was that he had close ties with the first family and first lady was like a sister to him – “The necklace belongs to my sister and is with me.”

Now the former chief executive and president has disclosed that the Saudi monarch gave him millions of American dollars to buy apartments in Dubai and London because he “was like a brother to me” and “I was the only one with whom he used to smoke.”

Why are only Pakistani leaders fortunate enough to find such generous brothers and sisters and does this phenomenon, beyond its surreal aspects, merit some serious deliberation? We know of rulers patronized for being the ‘running dogs of imperialism’ as the Chinese used to call them, but is there any other country whose leaders get tips worth millions of dollars just for being nice guys loitering around swimming pools?

Just in our neighborhood, can you imagine, say, Manmohan Singh or Vajpayee pocketing a cool few million to buy apartments in fancy places? If not, what does it signify about our leadership and is there cause for concern?

What deserves attention is that unlike the leaders of, say, India or China or Vietnam, almost all our leaders have arranged safe havens abroad where they can recuperate when out of power or seek refuge when things get hot – apartments in Dubai, palaces in Jeddah, flats in London, estates in Surrey, villas in France, ranches in Texas and Australia, and who knows what else where. Some leaders are permanently overseas directing affairs from abroad; others move back and forth as the situation demands; some just fly in and fly out.

The reason this matters is because there can be a world of difference between the attitudes of political leaders who know they have to live among their people when out of power and those that know they can flee abroad to the protection of patrons who can engineer their return at suitable moments in the future under some kind of ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ deal.

Besides, leaders anchored abroad needn’t just stop at furnishing their foreign abodes for the occasional sojourn. They can go all the way and park the bulk of their assets in safe havens while retaining just enough running expenses in local currency to suffice for the odd buying and selling that may be necessary to keep the gig afloat.

This is how one can end up with an extractive economy in which the game plan of the leaders becomes impervious to the risk of accountability or citizen pushback. They can extract resources till the very last moment at which time they can take flight, literally with the clothes on their backs, and be safe abroad until some patron or the other engineers their return after a decent interval.

Think of a country as a ship at sea with citizens as passengers and the leader as captain. The fate of ships in which the captain knows he will sink or swim with the passengers is different from that of one in which the captain believes he can bail out at the first wave of a storm. For the latter there is little need to pay attention to the welfare of citizens. Projects and schemes, billed to serve people, are initiated more as a source of funds to be added to the capital abroad – think of where the proceeds of a game-changer like Reko-diq went. And thus the strip-mining cycle continues before our eyes.

These extract-and-escape cycles undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process. In India, political contestation is still between political parties (except in the Naxalite belt where the extractive economy is at its most rapacious). Pakistan, however, is spawning groups that reject electoral politics and aim to destroy the entire rotten system associated with rapacious elites beholden to outsiders. The virulence of this rejection also removes from their consciousness any compunctions about the destructive consequences of their actions. Unlike the despised leaders, these groups consider themselves locally anchored. They can survive on a bare minimum without luxury apartments and believe everyone else should too till the transformation from which the nation would rise purer and stronger.

The contrasting imperatives, incentives and strategies of their respective rulers have led to divergent sociopolitical trajectories in Pakistan and India and thereby to the different prospects for their citizens. While democracy slowly evolves and delivers in India, Pakistan has descended into a civil war without end.

At another level, the real question is the following: Why do our leaders, who make so much of national honor, not comprehend there is another option when offered a gift? It is possible to say NO. It really is.

This opinion was published in Express-Tribune on March 28, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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