Monday, August 3, 2009

Lords and Vassals in Modern Pakistan

Nicholas Kristof has one of the best, and shortest, summaries of one of the major problems facing Pakistan today: feudal lords. I recommend reading it in its entirety, and even some of the comments (especially those from Pakistanis) if you have time. Of the three power centers in the country--the government, the military, and feudal lords--the government has the least influence. Both major political parties, the PPP and the PML-N, are linked to feudal lords and families. Pakistan's leadership has mostly been alternating between members of the Bhutto clan (Zulfikar Ali, Benazir, and now her husband Zardari holding the position until the chosen one, their son Bilawal, is ready) alternating with military dictators, with a few other random leaders thrown in just to shake things up.
I've met some of these feudal lords at various events around the world. Some are truly Falstafian characters, quaffing whole bottles of Johnny Walker Black (for some reason South Asians tend to prefer blended whisky to single malt), devouring large quantities of meat, telling loud and crazy stories, and enjoying literally and figuratively throwing their weight around. They are great people to know and have as your friends, but I would hate to have one as a boss or landlord. We in the West are used to a strong central government, but in places like Pakistan the politics of any given region are much more complicated, with each area also belonging to a lord or tribe.
Kristof wonders if land reform is the solution. In an ideal world yes; India had fairly successful land reforms in the 1950s and '60s that created much of the middle class today (though of course poverty is still rampant). I have a hard time envisioning a process that would get us to land reform from the current situation, especially given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and the need to avoid even more chaos. Care should be taken to prevent aid from further enriching these feudal lords and making sure it actually gets to the population, but confronting the feudal system directly would be doomed to failure.

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