The business of politics

Every country owns an elite class but Pakistan is unique in the sense that it is owned by its own elite class

In Pakistan money has always played a major role in influencing the outcome of elections, no matter for which house. And those who spend millions to win seats in any of the houses would spend most part of their elected tenure in making the investment yield many more millions in return. Even the thought manipulators of ours who make up a critical component of the so-called permanent establishment in the country are known to have used money to obtain the desired results in successive general elections. Of course, there is no clear-cut evidence of money having been used in the 1988 elections. But the then ISI Chief General Hamid Gul according to his own public admission did put together the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (or IJI) in September 1988 to stop the Benazir Bhutto-led PPP from winning the forthcoming November elections. The IJI had comprised nine parties, of which the major components were the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), National Peoples Party (NPP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), with PML accounting for 80 percent of the IJI’s electoral candidates. All of them along with General Zia’s Junta were involved in what later famously became known as the judicial murder of Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto. Naturally they were all afraid of PPP victory because of their apprehensions that once in the saddle Bhutto’s daughter would seek revenge from them.

The feudal aristocracy was the first to snatch a compartment on the gravy train of our ruling elite. They bought the elections with their income-tax free millions. They were joined immediately by the top cats of civil and military bureaucracy, including some from the judiciary, police, media and business community

Hamid Gul, it is safe to assume, must have used this fear to goad these nine parties to join the IJI, if not the money. That some of these IJI candidates had used their own money to buy their seats is not beyond probability. However, the IJI still failed to stop the PPP from winning the 1988 elections. But in the next elections called in October 1990the establishment did not take any chances and according to another former ISI chief Asad Durrani’s admission he had distributed millions of rupees among Pakistani politicians including many of those belonging to the PMLN and Jamat-i-Islami in 1990 ‘on the instructions of the then army chief Gen Mirza Aslam Beg and late President Ghulam Ishaq Khan’. Indeed, the entire electoral history of Pakistan is marred by money playing a very important role. Whether conducted by generals or by civilians, all general elections appear to have been engineered, using power and pelf. The biggest problem with the electoral system in the country is the limitless expenditure that the candidates are allowed to make. Even under the new law a candidate for the National Assembly is allowed an expenditure of Rs3 million for a National Assembly seat and Rs two million for a Provincial Assembly seat. So it is only millionaires who can contest elections in Pakistan. The feudal aristocracy was the first to snatch a cozy compartment on the gravy train of our ruling elite. They bought the elections with their income-tax free millions. They were joined immediately by the top cats of civil and military bureaucracy, including some from the judiciary and the police, followed by big business and the media tycoons. They did continuously differ on the issue of captaincy (a running dispute which was won more often than not by the military bureaucracy) but religiously respected each other’s vested economic interests. And the political parties served as the handmaiden of the captain of the day. During the first 10 years of independence, except for the early couple of years, it was the civil service which ruled Pakistan. Next, it was the military bureaucracy. Then the feudal aristocracy and big business alternated. Currently, it is the big business which appears to be in the saddle. Since each one on the gravy train, in its own self-interest, is obliged not to infringe on the vested economic interests of the other passengers, no matter who rules the country, the economic policies of the government of the day remain the same. Even the ultraconservative regime of Ziaul Haq, or that of the pseudo-enlightened Musharraf, followed almost the same economic policies. That is why there has never been any change in the lot of the country’s downtrodden, no matter who was ruling. The rich continued to become richer and the poor poorer, thanks to self-made legislative powers and privileges of the legislators. The narrative of the ruling elite would remain unchanged: The Tax-to-GDP ratio needs to be improved from the current low level to, at least, 15-16 per cent of GDP. But while proposing budgetary measures, they would all try their best to promote their own respective fiscal and monetary benefits and leave it to the masses to tighten their belts so as to, at least, maintain the tax-to-GDP ratio at the current level. They would all express their desire to improve investment-to-GDP ratio from the current low levels to at least 24-25 per cent of GDP. But while framing the budget, they would leave the gaps to be filled by dole rather than contribute a part of their unearned incomes for the purpose. They would insist that they would break the begging bowl but gladly accept all kinds of conditional handouts when offered. The declared motto of all of them is ever higher allocation for education and health. But they would let these allocations slip through as they would try to pocket for themselves as much budgetary income as they could while stretching the residual shrinking resources to cover, for obvious reasons, non-targeted subsidies. When confronted with debt repayment problems, they would sell the family silver for a song to friends and family. They would park their loot in offshore companies and claim all kinds of tax breaks in Pakistan. They would talk of good governance but would only rule — not govern. They would promise to establish a welfare society in Pakistan but would bend backwards to sustain and nurture Pakistan as a security state. Every country owns an elite class but Pakistan is one unique country that is owned by its own elite class. These elite live a sheltered existence protected by high walls around their palatial adobes surrounded on all sides by guards armed to the teeth. The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. He served as the Executive Editor of Express Tribune until 2014 Published in Daily Times, March 8th 2018.