Who constitutes the Pakistani political elite? Why are they so entrenched in our state structure?

Pakistan's National Assembly

Pakistan was born into extremely difficult conditions, and having to start from scratch. There was the immediate external security threat from India, the internal division amongst peoples who had little or nothing in common, and a lack of funds, infrastructure, industry, bureaucrats, etc. Survival of the state was the primary focus for the rulers of the country, and they had neither the time nor the ability to focus on much besides. This led to the development of the political elite, with the main players being wealthy landlords, industrial giants, top military officials and to an extent, the ulema, or religious clergy.

State survival was equated with “an assertive federal government, strong defense posture, high defense expenditure, and an emphasis on monolithic nationalism”. (Rizvi, 2003) This approach greatly empowered the military, as commanders played key-roles in the decision-making apparatus of the government, and came to identify itself as “a bulwark against internal turmoil and collapse”. (Rizvi, 2003) Feuding political leaders have always turned to the military for a quick fix to kick their enemies out of power.

The extreme income disparity in Pakistan led to early-on accumulation of wealth amongst certain families, especially during Ayub Khan’s West-centered industrial development programs. The aggressive capitalist development in the Golden Years caused “serious economic, social and political tensions… [Punjab and Karachi] were allowed to grow at the expense of the rest of the country… a great deal of economic concentration amongst individuals and numerous business empires were created.” (Zaidi, 2004) This socio-economic gap left the poor too poor to campaign for political posts, too poor even to think about anything besides their next meal, too poor to worry about foreign policy affairs, corruption, etc. They would vote of whoever gave them some money, some rice, some land. The wealthy became wealthier. Since there was effectively no competition for them in the political arena, they secured high posts, and the perks that come with them, and used these positions for further invest and subsequently add to their wealth and prestige, and solidify their hold on power. Thus, class distinctions were formed, and barriers were made even harder to break.

The ulema became prominent in relation to various political leaders, such as the opposition to Bhutto or the pro-Zia, pro-Islam Shariah court officials, Islamic Advisory Council members, and destructive sectarian, extremist and fundamentalist groups that arose after the Afghan jihad. Though no religious party has ever managed to gain a majority in Parliament and effectively establish a theocracy in the country, they do hold major sway with the populace, and have the considerable influence to lobby and play their part in politics. Because of this, those few who are at prominent positions within the state structure and have links to government may be classified as political elite.

Thus it is a combination of wealth, and subsequent solidification of power that has led to the establishment of these groups as Pakistan’s practically irrefutable political elite.