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The almighty state and politicians

Nawaz Sharif’s and the establishment

The almighty state and politicians

Nawaz Sharif’s political dénouement has given space of expression to several competing narratives. We are concerned here with one of them which sees it as a conspiracy hatched by the establishment to derail the democratic process in Pakistan. The impression that the ‘Establishment’ has yet again not allowed an elected prime minister to complete his term is being presented vigorously by some quarters. No one mentions that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1971-1977), who called for elections of his own volition in 1977, was not ousted in his first tenure as a prime minister.

We must not get distracted by the argument about the former prime minister’s incomplete tenure. Nawaz Sharif’s tenuous relationship with the establishment as a constant irritant is the real issue here. It is the third time that he has been ousted because of this ‘constant irritant’, which I argue here emanates from a sheer lack of understanding on the part of Nawaz Sharif and his acolytes about the nitty gritty of the modern state system.

The complexity of the situation is compounded if the state exists in the post-colonial situation, because it is extremely robust, ruthless and invisible. Since Nawaz Sharif’s locking horns with the establishment figures almost permanently in his political career, it is pertinent to shed some light on the connotation that the expression ‘establishment’ carries.

The establishment generally denotes a dominant group or elite that holds power or authority in a nation or organisation. The establishment may be a closed social group which selects its own members or specific entrenched elite structures, either in government or in specific institutions. The term is most often used in the United Kingdom, in which context it includes leading politicians, senior civil servants, senior barristers and judges, aristocrats, Oxbridge academics, senior clergy in the established Church of England, the most important financiers and industrialists, governors of the BBC, and the members of and top aides to the royal family. British journalist Henry Fairlie, who in September 1955 in the London magazine The Spectator defined this network of prominent, well-connected people as ‘the Establishment’, explains:

“By the Establishment, I do not only mean the centres of official power — though they are certainly part of it — but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised. The exercise of power in the United Kingdom (more specifically, in England) cannot be understood unless it is recognized that it is exercised socially.”

Nawaz Sharif being a protégée of generals and bureaucrats lacked the requisite acumen to match the apolitical forces at work. He personalised power and corrupted politics.

Now we must turn our gaze to the colonial baggage that our states could not shed even when the colonial state gave way to the post-colonial governing structure. The predominance of Army and bureaucracy has always been an established and incontrovertible fact. The colonial state came into existence as a result of military conquest; therefore, the positions of the generals always held undisputed salience in the colonial system.

That pattern continued even after decolonisation had taken effect in the wake of the Second World War. Most history students would be aware of the Curzon-Kitchener row. Lord Curzon was an extremely powerful Viceroy who even fancied himself for the slot of UK’s Prime Minister in the 1920s. Despite his elitist position and charisma, he had to bow out with Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916) having the proverbial last laugh. Thus, the British administration made sure not to fiddle with the army and particularly its top brass.

Importantly, the colonial army was mostly drawn from a handful of Punjabi districts in the North West, a territory that became part of Pakistan in 1947.

Despite the importance that the army held in the whole edifice of the state, the centrality of the office of the Deputy Commissioner was well-established. In the Punjab for instance, officers such as Charles Rivaz and S. S. Thornburn held absolute influence. As compared to the army and these bureaucratic officers, most of the local politicians slowly learnt the art of politics as the collaborators of the British colonial state after Lord Ripon’s reform in 1883. Politicians therefore acted as second fiddle to the British administrators even while introducing new legislation.

The Indian National Congress’s much trumpeted nationalism too was mediated by its British benefactors. Whenever the local politicians flexed their muscles, they were always mindful of the power and resources of the colonial state. Sir Fazl-i-Hussain, despite being a minister, could do very little when he picked a fight with Malcolm Hailey.

This legacy of imbalance in power was carried forward, with one change, when Pakistan attained its independence. After independence, the state structure in Pakistan was far more beholden to bureaucrats than any other administrative wing of the state. Who can deny the power that Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, Malik Ghulam Muhammad and Iskander Mirza enjoyed in the 1950s? Subsequently, the army also joined the bureaucracy to form the oligarchic structure which became more entrenched with the passage of time.

Politicians had to face the ignominy of punitive regulations like PRODA, and EBDO etc. Many of them were forced to abandon politics. Among the politicians, only Z.A. Bhutto was able to enjoy some autonomous space to manoeuvre and that too because the state had just received a crumbling jolt in 1971 when East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh.

With the onset of the Zia ul Haq era, the post-colonial state structure re-asserted itself and politicians were squeezed out of the equation altogether. In the post-Zia era, politicians could not come up with any well-thought-out plan to retrieve the lost space in the state structure. No less than a political genius was needed to carve out a niche for politicians to be counted in the whole process of governance. Pakistan, however, was not fortunate enough to have such a breed of sagacious politicians.

Nawaz Sharif being a protégée of generals and bureaucrats lacked the requisite acumen to match the apolitical forces at work. He personalised power and corrupted politics. He only concentrated on expanding his own business and had no strategy or plan to secure a space for political action. Outright confrontation without any strategy can never be the way forward. Unfortunately, in his 30-odd years in power politics, Nawaz Sharif has managed to concede space to what we generally call the establishment.

He could have asserted himself by concentrating on the education and health sectors. By investing in energy and monitory resources, he could have made an impact in the social sphere, instead of squandering tax payers’ money on frivolous (mega) projects.

Now when his career has been prorogued by the Supreme Court’s ruling, the verdict of history will hardly be in his favour. 

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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