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Pak’s aristocracy losing political control

world Updated: Aug 30, 2010 01:51 IST

In Pakistan, where politics has long been a matter of pedigree, Jamshed Dasti is a mongrel. The son of an amateur wrestler, Dasti has clawed his way into Pakistan’s Parliament, beating wealthy families who have ruled here.

In elite circles, Dasti is reviled as a thug, a small-time hustler with a fake college degree who represents the worst of Pakistan. But here, he is hailed as a hero, living proof that in Pakistan, a poor man can get a seat at the rich men’s table.

Dasti’s rise is part of a broad shift in political power in Pakistan. For generations, politics took place in the parlors of a handful of rich families, a Westernised elite. But Pakistan is urbanising fast, and powerful forces are chipping away at the landed aristocracy.

The result is a changing political landscape more representative of Pakistani society, but far less predictable for the US. Dasti, 32, speaks no English. His legislative record includes opposition to a sexual harassment bill. He has 35 criminal cases to his name and is from the conservative heartland, where dislike of America runs deep.

How this plays out is crucial to Pakistan’s future.

“You have scarcity arising everywhere,” said Ali Cheema, chairman of the economics department at the Lahore University of Management and Science. “Scarcity creates conflict. Conflict needs mediation. But the state is unable to do it.”

In Dasti’s area, one of the hardest hit by the recent flooding, the state has all but disappeared. Not that it was ever present. In the British colonial era, the state would show up a few times a month. Later, the local landowner took over. Instead of midwifing democracy, these aristocrats obstructed it. But changes began to erode the aristocrats’ power. Cities sprouted, with jobs in construction and industry.

In Punjab, the most populous and most economically advanced province, the number of lawmakers from feudal families shrank to 25 percent in 2008 from 42 per cent in 1970, according to a count conducted by Mubashir Hassan, a former finance minister, and The NYT.

“Feudals are a dying breed,” said S. Akbar Zaidi, a Karachi-based fellow with the Carnegie Foundation. NYT