Jamshed Dasti, elected twice in the space of 2 years, I was told, had visited flood-affected areas on numerous occasions. The surprising part was not that the MNA had showed up, which was in itself commendable, but that villagers who we met were so effusive in their praise of a man they had not even voted for in the by-election. His humble background and his near-meteoric rise in the political system (from union councilor to MNA in just under 9 years) has intrigued analysts and researchers, and on the other hand, his use of a fake degree coupled with his thuggish outlook, captured the imagination of the urban middle class for a completely different set of reasons.
As a commoner, he, in one skewed sense, symbolizes the innate middle class desire of having a non-elite parliament. A parliament that would, because of its class proximity to a wider segment of society, be more responsive and accountable.
Despite ticking this particular box, Jamshed Dasti is still a much-derided figure, largely as a consequence of the ‘fraud’ he committed.
Even if urbanites manage to look beyond the degree rhetoric, and that in itself is rare, his popularity is often dismissed as nothing more than the sentiment of a peasant’s imagination. You see, the peasant, no matter what he does, is simply acting on the pulses of a much inferior brain. When he used to vote for Ghulam Mustafa Khar or Nawabzada Iftikhar Ahmed Khan, he was being a pliant serf. When he decided to get rid of him by voting for a commoner, he was being swayed by the vagaries of emotive populism.
It seems that no matter what a village dweller does, he neither has the capacity to think rationally (in the modern urban sense), and neither does he exercise any manner of control over his mind, body, or environment.
There were two examples, from my trip to Muzaffargarh confirming that out of all widely held perceptions in our urban landscape, nothing is as outdated and static as the one just mentioned.
The first was related to a villager’s analysis of the exercise of power, especially in his own context. Right after the floods wreaked havoc in the district, Jamshed Dasti visited nearly every basti in his constituency and promised that he would try his level best to obtain utility bill relief for flood affected areas. MEPCO, on the other hand, was in no mood to agree to Dasti’s demands. I asked the villager if he was unhappy at the false promises the MNA had made, to which he simply answered that Dasti wanted to help us, he even visited the MEPCO office several times, but the hakoomat wouldn’t let him.
‘But isn’t Dasti part of the hakoomat?’
‘Bhai, Dasti is a political worker. The real hakim is the officer. When he wants things done, they get done. When he wants to drag his feet, nothing in the world can move him.’
The difference between state and government is something that requires a degree of awareness that most people I know don’t even possess. The locus of power, especially in areas where social capital is dispersed amongst several groups, will always lie with the bureaucracy and other non-representative authorities. The fact that a villager could quite clearly see that his representative was being blocked by the state apparatus certainly goes a long way in addressing the accusation of illiterate irrationality so often thrown his way.
The second example was related to the response of small-scale farmers across the country in the aftermath of the flood. Sometime in October, when in normal circumstances wheat crop plantation would be in full swing, the Food and Agriculture Organization announced that Pakistan could face severe food scarcity in the summer months. Their assumption was that the government and the humanitarian community would be unable to clear sufficient acreage in time for plantation.
About two weeks ago, the federal government announced that a 25 million ton bumper crop was expected in the next month.
The illiterate, irrational farmer, upon hearing of a higher wheat support price, set about clearing the fields himself. As late as end November, reports were coming in that farmers were still carrying out late rabi cropping using a variety of fertilizer and seed combinations. Beyond simple agriculture practice, the money received from the first tranche of the Watan Cards, as well as the BISP, was utilized to purchase both seed and fertilizer stock as well as pay off agriculture rent (theka).
As a combination of these two factors, wheat area under cultivation saw an increase of nearly 2 percent from last year, despite the fact that water was still standing in many parts of South Punjab and Sindh as late as December.
Simpletons across the country, through nothing less than a complete understanding of markets, agriculture, and their socio-political position in society, both as individuals, and as a member of larger collectives, have ensured that we urbanites have food on our tables in the coming months. The level of self-awareness now found in villages and small towns across the country is neither stuck in the 19th century, nor is it the product of ‘rural irrationality’. It is this dynamic and projected self-awareness that has sent Jamshed Dasti to the National Assembly, and I have little doubt, given the continuation of the democratic process, that it will assert itself even more strongly in the coming years.
Originally published in Pakistan Today on 25/04/2011