Clients and patrons



Karachi’s outskirts smelled of perfume and my father was outraged. It was 1959, I was just over eight years old, and president Dwight D. Eisenhower had stopped briefly in Karachi at the invitation of president-general Mohammed Ayub Khan. No city dweller then alive and aware could ever forget this visit. But few of them saw it for it was, a sign of things to come for the next 60 years.

Public and private buildings across the city had been spruced up weeks earlier. Decorative lights installed, roads re-carpeted, welcoming rehearsals performed in schools, and a massive musical fountain (later demolished) was especially constructed. Businesses, shops, and schools were ordered shut that day thus enabling three quarters of a million people — one of every three city residents — to line the roads holding banners “We like Ike” and to cheer the motorcade.

Eisenhower’s plane was scheduled to land at Mauripur air force base. In those days, the road to the city centre had a three- to four-kilometre stretch passing by the poverty-stricken Machar Colony. Carried by the sea breeze, the stench from its leather tanneries and of sewers filled with rotting fish forced you to hold your nose. Lest the American president’s olfactory sensibilities be offended, drums of perfume were flown in from Paris and sprayed along the roadsides.

Here’s how a weak state can survive in today’s cruel world without a protector and patron.

The payoff was generous for Pakistan’s government, and its powerful and its rich. US military and economic aid nearly doubled two to three years later and an entire air force was gifted to Pakistan. In the words of secretary of state John Foster Dulles, Pakistan was now “America’s most allied ally”. But high expectations were to sour soon. In 1965, Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar in Kashmir and India counter attacked. There was high national indignation when the US abruptly stopped military supplies in the middle of the war.

The feeling of betrayal was still greater in 1971 after the American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and Naval Task Force 94 steamed out of the Bay of Bengal to signal their retreat. Nixon and Kissinger had promised to help Pakistan’s embattled army but the Soviets calmly persuaded them otherwise. Then came the nuclear sanctions, followed by a spurt in aid in exchange for support for America’s Afghan war. But when it was over there were more sanctions.

There’s a long, tortured history. After 9/11 came more aid for supporting yet another war in Afghanistan. Remember when the entire Council of Foreign Relations stood upon its feet to applaud Gen Musharraf? As he proudly acknowledges in In The Line of Fire, his government had filled Guantanamo prison with captured Al Qaeda members in a flat exchange for US dollars. But finally the US dumped Pakistan and chose India instead. The divorce is now total.

Rather than kick its dependency habits, Pakistan has sought and found new patrons. But, warned by earlier experiences, it’s surely time for us to reflect on the very nature of the patron-client relationship and its enduring costs. Three lessons will suffice for now.

First, in a fundamentally asymmetric strong-weak relationship the weak are anxious to appear weak because they hope deference will pay. Now the prime minister chauffeurs around visiting Arab princes, or dishes out the highest national civil awards to Gulf emirs with the deepest pockets, or relaxes hunting laws for houbara bustards, or doles out land and contracts to Chinese companies without accountability. Self-respect, it seems, is a small price to pay for a patron’s protection and largesse.

Dawn for more

Comments are closed.