As Pakistanis go to the polls on Feb 18, 2008, the role of the feudal class in Pakistan as power brokers is getting scrutiny from the world media. Some Pakistani feudals and politicians, including Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi of PPP, Syed Fakhr Imam of PPP, Imran Khan (Tehreek Insaf), and others argue that the feudal influence is overrated. They say the feudal power is declining and represents more of a mindset than reality. However, the media men traveling through rural Sind and rural Punjab are finding that most, if no all, of the candidates of the major parties are big landowners. And the people living on their lands must choose from them. When asked by the BBC correspondent Shoaib Hasan why none of the farmers or other poor people consider standing as candidates, a group of village people burst out laughing.
Here are some of the foreign media reports that caught my attention:
William Dalrymple, writing for the Guardian in London says: "There is a fundamental flaw in Pakistan's political system. Democracy has never thrived here, at least in part because landowning remains almost the only social base from which politicians can emerge. In general, the educated middle class - which in India seized control in 1947, emasculating the power of its landowners - is in Pakistan still largely excluded from the political process. As a result, in many of the more backward parts of Pakistan the local feudal zamindar can expect his people to vote for his chosen candidate. Such loyalty can be enforced. Many of the biggest zamindars have private prisons and most have private armies."
Writing about Mumtaz Bhutto, whose son is a candidate for parliamentary seat, the Time Magazine reports: As one of Pakistan's largest landowners, Bhutto is both a victim and a perpetrator of the corrosive feudal system that has shaped Pakistani society for most of its 60-year history, and still dictates how politics are done today. Bhutto's family has owned this patch of fertile land alongside the Indus River for nearly half a millennium, and on the wall of his stately home is the family tree to prove it. (He is a cousin of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto.) Sharecroppers till the lands, exchanging half they produce — rice, wheat and sugarcane — for a place to live, seeds and fertilizer. And patronage. "If my tenants are happy with me, they work more efficiently on the lands," says Bhutto. "You help the people and they will help you." That exchange extends into the political realm. Bhutto isn't running in this year's parliamentary elections — he's retired — but his son is. With some 10,000 acres of land being cultivated by a vast network of thousands of sharecroppers dependent on feudal largesse, the Bhutto family can count on a large turnout of supporters at the polls.
BBC South Asia service talks about the power and influence of the feudal lords near Multan in Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi's district as follows: The term "feudal or "feudal lord" refers to the large-scale landholding families in Pakistan.By dint of their landholdings, which they rent to tenant farmers, the feudal lords are able to exercise immense financial and political influence. In many cases they are also able to claim the loyalty of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of "murids" (devotees) who believe they are directly descended from local saints. On top of this, they usually control the "station and katchery" (the police and the courts) which ensures the compliance, willing or not, of the local populace.
Regardless of which party or parties emerge as the winners on February 18, one thing is certain: The power and the influence of the feudals will be very well represented in the corridors of power. And the ordinary people of Pakistan will continue to be at their mercy in the name of democracy, unless the military refuses to cede power to the elected feudals.