When Bashar al Assad became the ruler of Syria after his father’s demise, one Western publication dubbed it genetically transmitted presidency. Mixing inheritance and politics is a tricky business and the one which the neo-revolutionaries of the Islamic republic consider the bane of all our woes. In a country dominated by personality cults, political inheritance hardly seems out of place. The common word for it in Urdu is maurusi siyasat. But is it really that bad a thing? Let’s see.
A few months before the 2013 elections, a Western friend asked me if I saw hope in our politics. When I replied in the affirmative, I was further asked to furnish a few names to prove my point. The two names that I gave were of Bilawal Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz. While the answer was good enough for our friend, a fellow Pakistani present on the occasion took strong exception to it. In his view, it was deeply disappointing to see an enlightened person like me (his words, not mine please) supporting such a feudal approach to politics. That the politics of this country was not anyone’s family business. When asked to suggest a few alternatives, he readily came up with Imran Khan’s name.
I would have bought his point of view in a heartbeat had it not been for the inherent inconsistency of the argument. While there is little doubt that the two largest parties namely the PPP and the PML-N rely heavily on family bonds (some of which can easily be avoided), the PTI, the proposed alternative, has seen no chairman other than Imran Khan for over 18 years of its existence. Likewise, the MQM which prides itself on its working class support base, has known no other leader but Altaf Hussain. Tahirul Qadri, who never loses a single opportunity to mock the system, is not only its product, but practically owns his party and religious organisation. Even in Sheikh Rashid’s party, do you see a single name who can replace him? The argument is that when these leaders leave this world, they would leave behind a party free of dynastic politics. Good theory, except since no one has left yet, we do not have a working order in place.
The truth is that except for a few small ideological parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and a few leftist names there is no party which is not a cult of a prominent personality, if not a dynasty. Parties where we have witnessed some manner of succession, albeit within families, are better than any one-man party because evolution and genetic mixing up build up hope that each succeeding generation would be better than the previous one. Take Benazir Bhutto for instance. Jury is still out on her style of administration but you cannot deny that she was a fabulous politician. In fact, I consider her superior to her father because he never had to face challenges a woman has to in a patriarchal society.
The truth, dear reader, is that political dynasties do not affect the quality of democracy and governance in the dramatic fashion you are taught to believe. But if our political culture relies heavily on family ties, doesn’t it mean something somewhere is broken? Of course it does. Our strong emphasis on extended families and biradari system ensures that trust among professional colleagues doesn’t emerge as a social capital. Then we have an innate aversion to capitalism as a system ensures that reform of our family values and emergence of nuclear family remains a distant dream. Only time will change it.
In terms of politics as well, it is fascinating to see that in all this grand talk of electoral reforms, the key issue of campaign finance laws is thoroughly ignored. Without proper laws and oversight mechanism for political fundraising, parties will always remain broke and overtly dependent on individuals. And in order to win elections, they’ll have to rely on selling party tickets, which makes the job of trusting his/her fellow parliamentarians almost impossible for an elected chief executive.
It is time, dear reader, to give up hypocrisy and face the truth. The political culture of a country is as good or bad as its society. In what world, I ask you, is Bilawal more immature than Imran Khan, Sheikh Rashid or Tahirul Qadri? If we let go of our biases for a second we may see that our unjustified hatred is keeping the above-mentioned best hopes away from the parliament.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2014.