Feudal fallacy

Imran Khan cannot bring a change in rural Sindh surrounded by landlords

Feudal fallacy
On November 21, Imran Khan held a big rally in Larkana, the native town of the Bhuttos and the bastion of the PPP. The symbolic value of the public meeting cannot be overestimated, as its avowed purpose was to bring home the message of change to the people of interior Sindh on the one hand and lay bare the ineffectiveness of the successive governments in improving their lot on the other. Imran Khan rightly spoke of the various ills afflicting governance in the province in his speech, including the politicization of the civil service, the absence of meritocracy, and a lack of will of the political leadership. But the million dollar question is, will the PTI be able to build up enough momentum to translate the apparent support for its message into electoral gains in rural Sindh?

The answer to the question lies partly in the study of social structure of Sindh coupled with the ‘inherent’ limitations of Imran Khan’s message. Middle class in any society is regarded as a harbinger of change. This notion is substantiated by the fact that across the rest of the country, the PTI’s message has been able to gain traction with the working middle class and educated youth. According to a report published by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics in 2011, the rural areas in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have the largest bourgeoisie population at 24 percent and 22 percent respectively. The situation is in stark contrast to that in Sindh where the size of the middle class is smaller than that in Punjab. Moreover, the Sindh province displays more disproportionate presence of the middle class in urban areas than both Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The corollary is that the feudal political elite dominate the rural landscape in Sindh, with the haris or tenants living in physical and mental servitude to this day. Both classes harbor no aspirations for change and prefer the status quo to protect their vested interests or out of ignorance.
72 percent of the population in Sindh is food insecure

The attempts for change in interior Sindh by NGOs and activists over the past decade have been fought back and thwarted by the real power wielders who see mass awareness a threat to their privileged status. The stronghold of the feudal class over the state apparatus through control over bureaucracy ensures their perpetual dominance. The role of local media channels that are watched in a majority of the households has not been progressive. Efforts at improving the literacy rate or bringing about rural industrialization in Sindh have met with little success, resulting into low human resource development and waste of natural resource potential of the province.
The abolition of feudalism is indispensable for the empowerment of the common man in Sindh. Imran Khan has vowed to distribute ‘state land’ among tenants but such a step will not serve the purpose unless the unproductive big landholdings of the existing landed elite are taken away. Last month, on the eve of the World Food Day, a statement issued by the Society for Environmental Actions, Reconstruction & Humanitarian Response (SEARCH) stated that almost 72 percent of the population in Sindh is food insecure, despite its rich agricultural potential. The miseries of small agriculturists are aggravated, inter alia, by the agriculture input pricing policies that favour big farmers. But the PTI leader keeps mum in this regard as politicians who owe their status in their respective constituencies to feudalism surround him in his party. Despite all its flaws, currently the MQM is the only political party whose leaders speak against feudalism in unequivocal terms.

Imran Khan has promised to implement a local bodies system in its true spirit in the province. Without introducing land reforms in line with the previous two attempts in the country’s history (that imposed a ceiling on land ownership), the real devolution of power will remain elusive, as the same landed gentry will occupy the local bodies. Most of the incumbent legislators were elected to the slots of District and Tehsil Nazim in the local government polls of the previous decade, but the failure on the front of social service delivery is conspicuous. The floods of 2010 made it clear that basic municipal services had been absolutely ignored by the local representatives.

Given the PTI’s unimaginative strategy combined with the absence of a vibrant middle class, it is not far-fetched to conclude that the chances of electoral victory of the PTI in interior parts of Sindh are slim. The lackluster performance of Sindhi nationalist parties raising the anti-PPP banner in Sindh has lessons for the PTI. The Sindhi nationalists failed to drum up support because they were not deemed by the masses to provide a viable alternative. Instead of adhering to their own agenda, they remained content with criticism of the ruling party. Further, if Imran Khan tries to rope in feudal landlords because they are ‘electable’, his fate will not be different to that of the Sindhi nationalist parties.

The writer was the Rhodes Scholar for Pakistan in 2011. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Law from University of Oxford, and works in the Civil Service of Pakistan