Many writers have been commenting incredulously to President Zardari’s visit to Europe while his nation faces one of the worst floods in its history; but I don’t share their shock. My ambivalence is tied to recognizing that feudalism not only pervades the lives of thousands of poor uneducated farmers across Pakistan, but also dominates the mentality of the nation’s leadership. Thus, Zardari acted just as a feudal lord would; he did not concern himself with rebuilding ravaged land or caring for the millions affected. Because, after all, when the ruling elite perpetuate a feudalist mentality, the people are not to be protected and represented, but rather manipulated and exploited just as sharecroppers in the feudal lord’s field.
When I discussed this issue with one of my friends, he exclaimed “Wait, feudalism still exists in the modern world?!” I, sadly, had to explain to him that the basic structure exists across Pakistan, as large land-owners rent small plots of land to poor farmers in exchange for half of their crops. This unelected jagirdar controls all the social services of the inhabitants of his land (like water, food, and education) and is the only link to the government.
Perhaps more alarming, is that the jagirdar forces his subjects to vote blindly for a candidate of his choosing in elections. He often will receive bribes and favors with the government from his indebted candidate now in office. Even those politicians who come from middle-class urban neighborhoods are surrounded by this ruling attitude and it pervades in their sense of self-serving entitlement as well.
This becomes a toxic mixture when democratic institutions are used to legitimize feudal domination. As such, the people’s trust in democratic or modern ideals has been under attack not from militant religious groups, but by the elites themselves who have separated the nation into two exclusive spheres: the rulers and the ruled. However, this lack of connection to the country’s leadership has been integral for the recruiting success of insurgent groups like the Taliban.
Thus, while the current circumstances surrounding the rise of religious extremism and anti-state violence present a seemingly insurmountable threat, it also presents a unique opportunity. For the first time in the nation’s history, there is a finite reason for the elites to eliminate feudalism and create a more responsible governing mentatlity- survival.
To return to the flood example- it has been said that Zardari’s exit from the country and the civilian government’s incapability in responding to the flood will be utilized by anti-state militant groups as a propaganda tactic. Further, these groups are actively dispensing aid to those affected by the flood, and are gaining traction with some of the public. Both of these incidents show the dire effect of the ruling class’s ignorance towards any responsibility owed to constituents. The more examples of this feudal mentality that surface, the more people will feel alienated from the state and join hands with extremist groups.
The issue of land reform is far more expansive than just an economic policy or talks of liaise faire systems; this structure has created a seemingly insurmountable ideological block between the populace and its elected leadership. This is evidenced by the requirement that Washington do backdoor deals with the PPP, or else the PPP will face a political backlash by an anti-American public. This enmity to the U.S. could be due to the Afghan War or drone attacks, but also has to do with the public’s rejection of their own ruling elite who they view as “compromised” to foreign interests due to their greed.
For the U.S.’s role, it looked to these landed elites as educated, friendly to the West, and a smaller more cohesive group that would be easier to share goals and create relationships with. However, the closeness of this relationship created a behavioral blank check for the elite to disregard the problems of their constituents and to maintain the status quo while surviving off U.S. aid money. However, the increasing distrust forming between the populace, its government, and the U.S. creates an ideological vacuum that is being filled by violent religious gangs.
In an era where the state is being perennially challenged by a militant religious ideology, the need for participation and belief in the state apparatus is essential. Both Washington and Islamabad must realize that they face an ideological struggle in the form of violent religious ideology, and must create an acceptable form of democracy to battle the growth of these anti-state principles. This means having elected officials who feel a responsibility to the public they represent and to the principles of equality underlying democracy, rather than pursuing individualistic interests.