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Why bash the elite? By Pervez Hoodbhoy

Courtesy: Dawn News

ELITE-BASHING is Pakistan’s newest sport. As the country stares into the default abyss, the ubiquitous phrase — ‘elite state capture’ — putati­vely explains all that has gone awry. Fat-cats are blamed for stealing public resources, conspicuous consumption, and dollar flight. But this super-sim­p­lified, sophomoric reasoning misses.

Doesn’t every country have its ultra-rich? Are they less greedy, avaricious, exploitative, and degenerate? Wealth and privilege in America, Europe, China, Russia, and India are still more concentrated than here. But mafias and silovikis notwithstanding, their knowledge-based economies keep soaring and their spacecraft are circling the moon and Mars.

Our elite versus theirs — something truly sets us apart. Beaming a spotlight onto this is useful because it reveals actual differences between societies; every elite mirrors what lies below.

Look at Pakistan’s home-grown elite. Like the common man, they spit on the law. Last week, when Britain’s prime minister was hauled up for not wearing a seatbelt, he meekly apologised and paid the fine. Compare: an anti-terrorism court judge reportedly had two patrolling officers suspended for preventing his travel on the thickly fogged-up Sialkot Motorway. Or, when an MPA’s SUV zipped through a red light and crushed a policeman in Quetta, the MPA’s political might ended the matter after the family was paid token compensation.

Pakistan’s plight isn’t solely because its elite are corrupt; their values and worldview have failed.

As in some African countries, Pakistan is home to the world’s richest politicians, real-estate tycoons, and generals. Symbiotically bound together, on Fridays they love being seen in a state of unctuous piety. Donning a prayer cap and dressed in starchy white shalwar-kameez, one by one they step out from their shiny new SUVs and into a DHA mosque.

In cultured societies, elites take delight in scientific and academic matters. They endow universities with chairs and professorships. Institutions bearing their names immortalise the donor. Named after J.R.D. Tata, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research is the proud flagship of Indian science. But you can fruitlessly scour all of Pakistan for someone who will donate for science or the arts. As for music: famed Pakistani ghazal singers like the late Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali received more appreciation in India than Pakistan. Philanthropy in Pakistan means donating to madressahs, mosques, and hospitals.

Instead of blasting away with a shotgun, let’s understand that all rich people are not rich for the same reasons. Some are rich because of brain power and hard work. Others are rich because they are thugs, land grabbers, manipulators, and rent-seekers.

Forbes (2023) identifies the five richest Ameri­cans: Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Elon Musk (Tesla), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Larry Ellison (Oracle), and Mark Zuckerberg (Meta). Their creations have alt­ered your lifestyle and mine. While rich Ind­i­ans are not highly innovative, they too are quite technological. Forbes identifies the five richest as Gau­tam Adani (power generation), Mukesh Amb­ani (pet­rochemicals), Shiv Nadar (IT), Cyrus Poon­awalla (vaccines), and Radhakishan Damani (retail).

No wealthy Pakistani with businesses in the country has made it to the Forbes list but reportedly the five richest are: Mian Mansha, Sadruddin Hashwani, Asif Ali Zardari, Malik Riaz and Habibullah Khan. How they made their billions is not for me to know. But what exportables have they produced? Will Pakistan forever rely on bedlinen, underwear, and footballs to earn dollars?

As forex reserves dwindle, one hears the dictum “import less and export more”. This is a no-brainer that macroeconomic jugglery cannot fix; between PDM and PTI’s approaches, the choice is of Tweedledum versus Tweedledee.

Sociologists from the time of Max Weber have established that wealth production correlates directly with values, culture, and worldview. Clearly, significant change in Pakistan has to be generational — a culture of honest hard work, high-level skills, or a law-abiding citizenry cannot be created with a finger-snap.

What kind of attitudinal, cultural, and ideological changes are needed?

First, stop force-feeding nonsense to our schoolchildren. What goes under “education” is actually religious and propagandistic indoctrination. The result is mass stupidity and Somalia-level learning outcomes. Don’t blame the government alone — all of society is at fault. With a handful of exceptions, our universities are trash; half of fully tenured professors are fit only for driving taxis. In such intellectual deserts, students demand only grades and degrees. Most vice chancellors, deans and chairpersons would, at best, count among the semi-educated elsewhere.

Second, stop blaming the world for Pakistan’s problems. You cannot hate the West and, in the same breath, supplicate it for bailouts or apply for immigration. We are authors of our own misfortune.

Without Pakistan’s help, the Taliban monster and terrorism wouldn’t have existed. It’s true we were misused by Americans in warring with the Soviet Union. But didn’t we milk the American cow until its udders ran dry of dollars?

Who created the vast countrywide network of jihadist organisations aimed at installing fanatical forces in Kabul and liberating Kashmir? But for FATF, Hafiz Saeed would still be strutting around Pakistan instead of cooling his heels in prison.

Climate change, of course, is not our fault. Others spew CO2, but impoverished Sindhi and Baloch peasants pay the price. Pretending to speak for them, our predatory political elite celebrate an anticipated bonanza. Their diplomatic blitzkrieg at COP-27 procured billion-dollar pledges from a guilt-ridden West. But who will benefit from climate reparations?

Before, during, and after the floods, thousands of luxury SUVs were imported. While the UK government has a car pool of 45 for all ministries and departments, Sindh alone has around 25,000 official vehicles with generous petrol quotas.

Third, stop being a security state. Pakistan is chronically unable to live peacefully with its neighbours as well as with itself. This is unsurprising. In the 1990s, the federal national curriculum required sixth class children to know about “India’s evil designs against Pakistan” and “to make speeches on jihad and shahadat”. Why the murderous TTP is so attractive to large swathes of Pakistanis is not hard to see.

Note how quiet the LoC is these days and the unusually low level of vitriol from Indian leaders. From their point of view: why spoil the fun? Just wait and watch as the unforgiving, amoral law of gravity asserts itself. Pakistan doesn’t need an external enemy for collapse; its civil and military elites have hollowed out their own house.

The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer.

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