Only a dead nation remembers its heroes when they die. Real nations respect them when they are alive.
―Abdul Ghaffar Khan

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007 sparked outrage and mourning, not least in the Western media. Exhibiting the overstated piety one might expect upon the death of an elder statesman, commentators called her an “exemplary democrat” and condemned the “fascism” of the Muslim extremists presumed responsible for her killing. Footage of emotional demonstrations and angry rioting in her home province of Sindh bolstered an image of Bhutto — one that she herself liked to project — as a tribune of the Pakistani poor.

Benazir Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan for five years in the 1980s and 1990s. Her record on promoting Pakistani development and the rights of the impoverished is mixed at best, and there she was little different than her predecessors and successors, civilian and military alike. The disturbances that roiled Pakistan upon her death were in many ways less outpourings of grief than explosions of the poverty and deep class differences that are venerable traits of Pakistan’s political economy.

Legacies of the Past

Pakistan’s first generation of leaders, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan, died within a few years of the partition of British India and Pakistani independence in 1947. The period of instability that followed ended in 1958 with the head of the army, Ayub Khan, becoming the first of several military dictators to rule Pakistan.

Ayub Khan’s 11-year rule set the tone for much of what was to come. In the first place, Ayub began to codify a set of economic favors for members of the armed forces: transfer of ownership of state land; “perks and privileges” for retirees, including living allowances and memberships at private clubs; state shouldering of the cost of training personnel who then seek employment in the private sector; and a revolving door between private industry and government for these ex-military men. Ayesha Siddiqa, in her already classic study Military, Inc., dubs this system “milbus.” [1]

The result of the system of “milbus,” which would shrink under the next military strongman, Yahya Khan, and then grow to epic proportions under the dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, was to solidify the status of the military as a political and economic class in and of itself. The army is Pakistan’s largest landowner, largest employer and largest contractor, accounting for a staggering 25 percent of the gross domestic product in 2006.

The second of Ayub Khan’s legacies can be seen in his attempts to build friendly relations with the US. Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a companion of Mahatma Gandhi who was also known as the Frontier Gandhi, quotes a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower wherein Ayub expressed a desire on behalf of Pakistani officers to serve the US in much the same way that they had served Britain prior to independence. [2] Though the desire was at that point theoretical, it was not long before relations between the US and Pakistan were such that the Pakistani military could expressly serve US interests. In return, Washington would provide considerable patronage, making Pakistan one of the largest annual recipients of US military aid.

Ayub Khan also cemented the role of the landlords, or zamindars, in the states of Punjab and Sindh. Though the word zamindar has its origins in the time of the Mughals, it was the British who had turned what was theoretically collective landownership into a landlord-serf system throughout the Indian subcontinent. In Pakistan, this feudal situation went largely unchanged after partition and independence, whereas in India significant land reforms were passed (though many would argue that those laws have not been put into practice). [3] Ayub promised to implement land reform soon after coming to power in 1958, but the measures taken did not target the wealthier elites, especially in Sindh. Even when land reform was enacted, the primary beneficiaries were the army or persons associated with the army instead of the landless rural population.

Lastly, Ayub Khan’s reign is often called Pakistan’s “decade of development.” It is certainly true that Pakistan’s growth rates were higher during this period than they have been since, as Pakistan chose an import substitution model of economy to support local industrialization, often with significant government patronage. While every industrialized economy has developed through some state promotion of nascent manufacturing, Ayub saw industrialization as the task of propping up of a certain group of industrialists (largely from the state of Punjab) while keeping wages low and working hours long and neglecting investment in social services such as education. The ultimate effect of this set of policies was to create a privileged stratum of (largely Punjabi) industrialists who make up one of the three faces of the Pakistani upper class, along with zamindars and military leaders.

After Ayub Khan, this political-economic picture would more or less remain in place, with the occasional fluctuation. The 1971 war, which saw the separation of Pakistan into Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) and Pakistan (formerly West Pakistan), also saw the US tilting toward Pakistan, while India (much to Washington’s disappointment) joined the war on the Bangladeshi side, thus ensuring a Bangladeshi victory. Though Bangladeshi separatist forces were ultimately successful, the Pakistani army’s aggression was described as “the most massive calculated savagery that has been visited on a population in recent times.” [4]

The Rich Patron

But it was not until the regime of Zia ul Haq that the Pakistani-US militaries became firmly intermeshed. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, designed a plan to overextend the Soviet Union in Afghanistan that relied on the use of Pakistan as a base for shipments of arms and money to the anti-Soviet mujahideen (elements of whom would later found the Taliban). Since much of this strategy would be considered illegal or at least unpopular in the US, a back-door method had to be devised to carry it out. The answer was Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. Throughout the 1980s, the US channeled its military assistance to the mujahideen (the biggest annual package with the exception of Israel’s and Egypt’s) through the ISI.

As the military economy was reaching new heights, Pakistan’s productive economy was being exposed to the ravages of structural adjustment. Zia ul Haq borrowed freely from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, increasing Pakistan’s debt burden to $15.5 billion by 1990, but he was under little pressure to repay the debts. Only with the advent of civilian rule in 1990 was Pakistan, like the rest of the developing world, forced to swallow the bitter pill of privatization, fiscal liberalization, trade liberalization and budget austerity. (Even then, the military was exempt from the cuts.) IMF and World Bank free market fundamentalism has been only partly implemented in Pakistan, in part because of the large role of the army in the economy. But the lack of a coherent industrial strategy since the time of Ayub Khan and the steps that have been taken toward the liberalization of the agricultural sector are both policies for which the IMF and the World Bank can take some blame.

On one side of the two-party system that produced civilian governments after Zia was Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which relied on a base of the rural poor to come to power, though it was seen by most to represent the interests of the zamindars. (The Bhuttos themselves, along with the family of Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir’s widower, are among the largest landlords in Sindh.) On the other was the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) led by Nawaz Sharif, with a base in Punjab and representing some of the industrial elite in that state. Both the PPP and PML-N governments were seen as corrupt by foreign powers and by international NGOs such as Transparency International, which consistently ranked Pakistan among the top three most corrupt countries in the world during the 1990s. Furthermore, both the parties and their leaders seemed wholly unconcerned with the day-to-day business of development, and almost obsessed with courting the favor of the West, especially the US. The high point was the 1995 visit of the Clinton family to Pakistan, such an over-hyped media event that many still remember the buildup though few remember what, if anything, was accomplished when the Clintons were there.

The period of alternation between the PML-N and the PPP ended in 1999 when the current president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, came to power in a coup. Though Musharraf initially vowed to step down in 2002, all such promises were forgotten after the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent US-led war in Afghanistan. Once again needing Pakistan as a base, Washington lifted sanctions that had been enforced on Pakistan after its detonation of a nuclear device in 1998 (by Sharif’s PML-N). Musharraf was more than willing to play the US soldier.

Enduring Inequality

While there has been progress toward development in Pakistan in the last ten years, and the economy has shown signs of life after September 11, economic growth is still very much tied to a small manufacturing sector and a fairly steady agricultural sector that specializes in the export of cotton. It is not clear that the growth is sustainable. Growth is linked both to the renewal of military aid — to the tune of at least $10 billion since September 11 — and to an increased flow of remittances from migrant workers, many of whom work in the Middle East. While Pakistan is neither one of the largest receivers of remittances in real terms (India tops that list with $17.4 billion per year) nor one of the most remittance-dependent economies (among large countries, the Philippines has that honor, with remittances equal to 8.9 percent of GDP), the role of remittances is still significant. In 2003, money sent through formal and informal channels to Pakistan is estimated at $4.2 billion, or 6.15 percent of GDP.

The extent to which Pakistan’s growth has actually benefited the majority of Pakistanis is unclear. The UN Development Program, in its yearly Human Development Report, ranks Pakistan 136 among 171 countries. That measure, which is relative to other countries, has been stagnant, while absolute poverty rates (measured in terms of income) have been going down. In order to understand the full impact of these policies on the Pakistani population, much more and better-informed research is needed. [5]

Although it is difficult to generalize in the absence of such research, a few points are relatively clear. First, there are huge sections of the Pakistani population that have been all but overlooked in terms of development. The rural population — which comprises some 60 percent of the overall population — falls into this category. The persistence and pervasiveness of rural poverty 60 years after Pakistan’s independence is perhaps the most striking feature of the country’s economic history.

Second, to the extent that development has been taking place in Pakistan, it has been rather haphazard and corrupt. Ayub Khan’s attempts at building up a Pakistani industrial class in Punjab may have been part of a larger long-term industrial strategy, but if so, that strategy was never implemented. Instead, a nexus of corruption and patronage has emerged with the army at its center, and with industrial owners and zamindar landlords playing supporting roles. Making matters worse, industrial owners tend to come primarily from one region — Punjab — and zamindars are most prevalent and powerful in Sindh. People from these same provinces tend to staff most of the senior positions in the Pakistani army. Balochistan, the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the tribal areas are completely left out of the picture, increasing resentment and calls for more autonomy in those regions. It is perhaps unsurprising, in light of these circumstances, that every state in Pakistan with the exception of Punjab — that is, Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP — is home to separatist movements of one kind or another.

The gender dimensions of development economics in Pakistan are possibly even more significant than the regionalization of development. Despite the fact that Pakistan (unlike the US) has had a woman head of government, patriarchal systems among industrialists, landowners and, of course, the army, ensure that it is really only half of the population that sees most of the benefits of the economic and political power that these classes accrue. While it is “crimes of honor” that tend to be in the headlines, male hegemonic control over the major economic institutions is no less troubling as an indicator of enduring patriarchy in Pakistan.

In light of this history, the legacy of Benazir Bhutto is far murkier — and far more disappointing — than a follower of the Western media may perceive. While her PPP has consistently promised significant policy shifts on land reform, women’s human rights and other important issues, it has delivered on nearly none of these promises. On the one occasion that the PPP looked poised to take a stand on worker’s rights and land reform, the person putting forward the proposals — Benazir’s brother Murtaza Bhutto — was assassinated. Though Benazir was prime minister during this time, she did not order a full inquiry and many Pakistanis believe that her husband Zardari was personally involved.

After Benazir’s death, the PPP had an opportunity to unite the country behind a more democratic party. Instead, Benazir’s will served to cement the feudal tradition of the PPP by appointing Zardari and her son Bilawal Zardari (who has since had his name changed to Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari) as the new heads of the party. Though an election is usually a time for hope, every indication is that the status quo will continue in Pakistan. The army, zamindars and industrialists will maintain political power and each group will in turn sweet-talk the US into continuing to be Pakistan’s patron, in return for using violence to attempt to quell the very problems that are caused by the country’s various forms of inequality. Whether Gen. Musharraf or someone else is the face of the Pakistani elite makes little difference to those who are not on top.


[1] Ayesha Siddiqa, Military, Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 4-8.
[2] Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, My Life and Struggle: Autobiography of Badshah Khan (As Narrated to K .B. Narang) (trans. Helen Bouman) (New Delhi: Hind Pocket Books, 1969), p. 134.
[3] The Indian states that have actually managed to implement land reform (in addition to having land reform legislation on the books) include Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala and West Bengal.
[4] John P. Lewis, former USAID official in Pakistan, quoted in Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (Boston: South End Press, 1979), p. 106.
[5] Many studies on poverty rates in Pakistan and elsewhere perpetuate the flaw of relying on purchasing power as an indicator of absolute poverty. This does not take into account urban/rural divisions or non-economic activities, such as subsistence agriculture or informal barter systems. Utsa Patnaik, drawing on the work of Amartya Sen, has developed a much more meaningful way of measuring poverty in Madhya Pradesh, India, using caloric intake (or the amount of food eaten in a day) as the primary indicator of poverty.

How to cite this article:

Sameer Dossani "Power and Patronage," Middle East Report 246 (Spring 2008).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This