Upstarts chip away at power of Pakistani elite

In Pakistan, where politics has long been a matter of pedigree, Jamshed Dasti is a mongrel. The scrappy son of an amateur wrestler, Dasti has clawed his way into Pakistan’s parliament, beating the wealthy, landed families who have ruled Muzaffargarh.
In elite circles, Dasti is reviled as a thug, a small-time hustler with a fake college degree who represents the worst of Pakistan today. But here, he is hailed as a hero, living proof that in Pakistan, a poor man can get a seat at the rich men’s table.

Dasti’s rise is part of a broad shift in political power in Pakistan. For generations, politics took place in the parlours of a handful of rich families, a westernised elite that owned large tracts of land and sometimes even the people who worked it. But Pakistan is urbanising fast, and powerful forces of change are chipping away at the landed aristocracy, known in Pakistan as the feudal class.

The result is a changing political landscape more representative of Pakistani society, but far less predictable for the United States. Dasti, 32, speaks no English. His legislative record includes opposition to a sexual harassment bill. He has 35 criminal cases to his name and is from the country’s conservative heartland, where dislike of America runs deep.

How this plays out is crucial to Pakistan’s future. The country’s fast-expanding, flood-weary population needs local government as never before, but with political power shifting and institutions stillborn, the state has never been less able to provide it.
In Dasti’s area, one of the hardest hit by the recent flooding, the state has all but disappeared. Not that it was ever very present. In the British colonial era, before Pakistan became a separate country, the state would show up a few times a month in the form of a representative from the Raj dispensing justice.

Later, the local landowner took over. For years, feudal lords reigned supreme, serving as the police, the judge and the political leader. Plantations had jails, and political seats were practically owned by families.

Instead of midwifing democracy, these aristocrats obstructed it, ignoring the needs of rural Pakistanis, half of whom are still landless and desperately poor more than 60 years after Pakistan became a state.

But changes began to erode the aristocrats’ power. Cities sprouted, with jobs in construction and industry. Large-scale farms eclipsed old-fashioned plantations. Vast hereditary lands splintered among generations of sons, and many aristocratic families left the country for cities, living beyond their means off sales of their remaining lands. Mobile labour has also reduced dependence on aristocratic families.

In Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and its most economically advanced, the number of national lawmakers from feudal families shrank to 25 per cent in 2008 from 42 per cent in 1970, according to a count conducted by Mubashir Hassan, a former finance minister, and ‘The New York Times’.

Dasti, a young, impulsive man with a troubled past, is much like the new Pakistan he represents. He is one of seven siblings born to illiterate parents. Despite his claims of finishing college, he never earned a degree, something his political opponents used against him in court this spring. One of the 35 criminal cases against him is for murder, a charge he said was levelled by his political opponents. Detractors accuse him of blackmailing rich people in a job at a newspaper. He said he was writing exposés.

“I have more enemies than numbers of hairs in my head,” he said, bouncing down a road in a borrowed truck. “They don’t like my style, and I don’t like theirs.”

Deeply appealing

Whatever the case, he is deeply appealing to Pakistanis, who have chosen him over feudal lords for political seats several times. Local residents call him Rescue One-Five, a reference to an emergency hot line number and his feverish work habits. Constituents clutching dirty plastic bags of documents flock to his small office for help, and he scribbles out notes for them on his parliament letterhead like a doctor in a field hospital.

He wields his lower-class background like a weapon, exhorting local residents to oppose the rich elite and the mafias of landlords, bureaucrats and other petty power brokers who support them. Graffiti nearby said: “Give us electricity and we’ll give you a vote.”
Lineage alone is no longer a winning strategy. Ahmed Mehmoud, an aristocrat in South Punjab, lost both parliament seats he contested in 2008 and had to settle for a provincial assembly seat. Mehmoud, 48, is a wealthy man of leisure, who spends more time relaxing in his house — a pink replica of a Rajasthani palace with a hand-carved facade — than on his job as a lawmaker. Sometimes he talks to his constituents, but more often he watches them go by from the window of his speedy, white Hummer.

For years, people voted for him anyway, partly out of habit. His ancestors were considered to be distant relatives of the Prophet Muhammad, which inspires awe and respect. But more important, his constituents were tied to him economically. His family owned the land they worked and often their houses. His carpet has a worn patch where generations of peasants sat in supplication.

But now, said Shama Andleep, a local voter: “On election day, people are asking questions. People are calculating: how much has he done for us?”

Private television stations, which exploded onto the scene eight years ago, have also had an effect. Khusro Bakhtyar, a landowner in the area, said the women who were baking bread in his house were so affected by the coverage of the 2007 death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto that they voted for her party, not his.

The changes have steered Pakistan into uncharted territory, and the effect for the US is unclear. Unlike Mehmoud, who is unabashedly pro-American, newcomers like Dasti are more skeptical. Dasti opposes the American drone programme that is used to attack militants in Pakistan, but he is not as virulently anti-American as many in his country.

The changes also leave room for Islamists. In the neighbouring district of Dera Ghazi Khan, a hard-line mullah, Hafiz Abdul Karim, came within a few thousand votes in 2008 of unseating Farooq Leghari, a former president of Pakistan. His weapon? Efficient, Islamist campaign workers and free water pumps.

So far, Islamists have not tapped popular frustration in a systematic way at the ballot box, and the military, the country’s oldest, strongest institution, would probably put down any broader uprising, analysts say.

But the floods and the misery they have brought have raised the stakes.
“If you don’t give the common man justice, there will be more terrorism and even bloody revolution,” Dasti said. “This is the need of the hour.”

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