Dear elitist, don’t take away my vote

Published: October 19, 2010

Blaming illiterate farmers for voting for the wrong people betrays a hypocritical mindset.

Musharraf’s return to politics and the MQM’s land reform bill has brought the ubiquitous villain, feudalism, to the centre of political debate.

Hand in hand, a view that has been aired vociferously is the notion that “illiterate” and “poor” people waste their votes.

It’s the fault of those “damn illiterate people” who choose the wrong people, some say. Others have argued that it’s a shame that “A PhD and an illiterate farmer both have an equal vote”. In a nutshell, it seems that a strand of the urban English-speaking elite believes that the electorate doesn’t know what’s best for them; that they are responsible for bringing in the current “democratic dispensation” of crooks and incompetent leaders, comprising of the landed elite.

The notion that illiterate voters do not make intelligent choices is flawed. Everyone wants the best for themselves, their children and their families. Voters are victims of circumstances and don’t purposefully create the circumstances that ruin the nation.

Individuals are most concerned with what happens in their immediate surroundings. Those of us who have the good fortune-or misfortune-of access to the internet and multiple media outlets tend to look at the state of Pakistan from a macro, wide-angled perspective. However, for the vast majority, local concerns are paramount. It’s not fair to undervalue, disregard or even worse, call to disenfranchise voters who may not share your preferences.

The Dasti Paradox

We have all had a lot of fun at Jamshed Dasti’s expense. The media, commentators and people like myself have ridiculed him for forging degrees and his expulsion from the National Assembly. We were all shocked when members of his constituency returned him to Parliament in a by-election after his dishonesty had been made evident.

Jamshed Dasti is an illustration of the disconnect between his constituents and the wider polity. Amongst his constituents, he is known affectionately as Rescue 15, and is seen as a credible alternative to the run of the mill feudal lord turned politician.

Should we condemn those people who voted for him based on their needs and the perceptions of their local politicians?

The Easy Way Out

Why is anyone surprised that people vote for their local feudal lord? Is there really any other choice? Is losing your tenancy, livelihood and belongings worth defying the all-powerful land lord? Individuals are making intelligent choices given their circumstances and the information available to them. Why blame them for “wasting their votes”?

If we want to see the end of feudalism and the landed gentry, we must change the system that upholds their continued entitlement. Also, there is a need to change the local narrative where inherited title and privilege is held in such high esteem.

Pouring scorn over individual voter preference is the easy way out. All we need to do is to make these “bloody illiterate” people to vote for the right people! It’s a convenient and overly simplistic excuse to disenfranchise people, by claiming that they don’t know what’s in their best interest.

I can’t claim to understand or comprehend the life of a sharecropper, farmers imprisoned in private jails, those in bonded labour or those committing suicide under debts owed to the local landlord. At the very least, they should be respected for their choices. That they continue to vote for those who exploit them is an indication of how powerful feudalism remains, not of their ignorance.

Questions that Remain Unasked

We all have a right to vote and express our preferences. These preferences are enhanced by access to information and informed alternatives to the status quo.

So for those who rail against feudalism, the recent comments by Talal Bugti offering Rs1 billion and 100 acres of land for Musharraf’s head went surprisingly un-condemned. Where was the outrage? Did anyone ask where the property came from? Was it his to give away? Where did the Rs1 billion come from? Does he pay his taxes? Why not spend it on the people of Balochistan? Will their problems be solved by dishing out a bounty to those who commit murder?

Similar questions could be asked of the many landlords and local powers that terrorise our roads with their motorcades and gun-tooting body guards. Who pays for their palatial houses? Who pays for the 4 wheelers? And then they have the audacity to claim in their declaration of income that they are poor and without a steady income.

Many amongst us are guilty of not questioning and not condemning what happens before us. Indeed, many envy them for the gunmen, the entourage and the izzat attached with being able to do what one pleases. At the same time, we expect the “illiterate and poor farmer” to make the right decisions. Hypocrisy on our part is a convenient way to deflect our complicity in upholding the rampant exploitation of our fellow Pakistanis.

The next elections are due to be held in 2013. We must recognize that those who are exploited are not contributing towards the continued dominance of the landed elite in the national and provincial assemblies. They too are victims, victims of circumstances that we as a nation are yet to confront.


Syed Nadir El Edroos

Nadir teaches Economics at Bellerbys College, London and is interested in Pakistani politics and current affairs. He tweets @needroos (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Mahvesh

    YES!! THANK YOU! It’s so patronizing how people blame the ‘illiterate’ and ‘uneducated’ for ‘voting wrongly’ while sitting in their drawing rooms drinking juices on election days. I’ve always held that those who vote aren’t morons and imbeciles and they DO know who and what they’re voting for… thank you for putting it out there!Recommend

  • faraz

    Very well said. And what has the educated class contributed to the politics of pakistan. Majority of the educated middle class supported military operation against Bengals after they had won a majority in the elections. They supported the illegitimate and hypocritical Zia regime. They supported the Afghan jihad and strategic depth policy as thousands of poor children became cannon fodder to fullfil our ridiclous dreams; everything was fine as long as bombs didnt explode in major cities. Even today, the most tolerant people reside in villages and they are more optimistic about future than the non voting laptop warriors like us. Recommend

  • SadafFayyaz

    v well analysed piece………..Recommend

  • parvez

    Nice write up. Our people are politically aware, their choices are limited.
    Today at voting time the people have to chose from – bad, very bad and really terrible.
    The idea is to somehow change this to – not bad, bad and very bad.
    This would be an achievement. Recommend

  • Fazeel

    You raised some good points. This is educated class fault they don’t come forward as the leader or as the voter. Some time ago one author from this space proudly claimed she didn’t vote last time because she didn’t trust any one in the political sphere in Pakistan. Still there arguemenet is still valid some how. 60% of Pakistan is subarban population( correct me if I am wrong) and because of lack of education and poverty they under the influence of their landlords and every time they have voted for their landlord eventhough they know there lives will always be miserable.Recommend

  • Majid

    This is my favorite subject. I hold that we should have 100% turn out of registered voters/ CNIC holders. Vote is no doubt a “amanat” but not to cast vote is worse than casting vote to a less bad person.Recommend

  • Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    @Fazeel – Completely agree, viable choices are always a concern. But I think its a very simplistic way of looking at things, by blaming those with the least information, influence or power for their voting behaviour, while not recognizing that given their vulnerability in relation to the local land holder doesn’t allow to make a decision in their best interest. They dont have any other option. Rather than complaining and questioning their decision making ability we should get rid of the structures that reinforce this bleakness for many many people. Recommend

  • Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    @Majid: Why not! Compulsory voting, if you dont want to vote for any one, deface the ballot paper as a form of protest, atleast you will be part of the process. Recommend

  • S. Ali Raza

    Thats why the Land Reforms are the only way forward for this country… This will produce many Jamshed Dasti’s, and it should be welcoming for all :) Example is there, will is required. Recommend

  • Usama Zafar

    Ok Nadir and Fazeel I have one question. You say that the poor and illiterate vote for their landlords who keep exploiting them and the reason you state is that they have no other option and they don’t make their decision based on their best interest right?? At the same time you want to change the system as well so that these people can vote for the right person. So how do you expect the system to change when these feudals will keep coming into power through exploitation of the masses?? Can you please explain to me how acting against your interest is better than not acting at all?? Wouldn’t it be better if these people don’t vote at all so that we can have a sensible leader who can ‘change the system’ and bring an end to the power of the feudals and educate the people so that they can learn to vote for the right person??

    Please keep in mind that I do not believe that the poor and uneducated people should be given the right to vote. It’s just a question which I often think about when this debate is going on somewhere.Recommend

  • Wasio Ali Khan Abbasi

    Thank you for such a good post Syed Nadir. This is a point I have been trying to make to many of my Urban friends in Karachi, but they fail to understand. Once, while arguing with a fellow, I said that in the larger picture it is not a viable option to have graduation requirement in place because already our literacy rate is 40% and graduation percent is even less. Due to graduation, we won’t have anyone legitimately standing from their constituency and ultimately resort to fake degree.
    The fella replied “Then why not send someone from here who has degree to that place?”.
    I really felt like crying over his common sense (or the absence of it).
    It is a general perception that due to illiteracy and poverty, villagers vote for the wrong people. The educated elite really don’t go out of their way to experience and understand what’s really going on in the countryside. I took my 3 university friends to tour my village last year. They managed to hold out for 4 days after which they were desperate to get back to city life.
    What I learned from that experience was that the city English speaking elite have difficulty in comprehending “simple” lifestyle. Maybe simple to them translate into listening to classical music, no facebooking and text messaging, sipping coffee in the evening and practically staying at home most of the time …. something which older folk would do when they find they have lived enough and need some peace before death.
    They are unable to comprehend that village folks follow traditions and lifestyle which their ancestors followed for centuries and they have integrated technology in limited quantity in the lives. Facilities such as TV, fridge, mobile phone, motor bike etc are to be found in far flung areas but they are still not common enough and computers are even scarcer. To them their preservation of life is enough and if their local landlord is capable enough to do that, their vote will go for them and the rest be damned.
    Just to inform and give an insight, a villager was not born with silver spoon like most of city elite and neither he has friends with cool gadgets and gazillion accounts on the internet. A villager has played in mud, his favorite sport was “Gulli Danda” and “Kanchay”, he knows everyone in his village by name, used to steal fruits from nearby “Chacha’s” farm, wears dhoti/shalwar kameez proudly, has heavy mustache as a sign of manhood and his greatest achievement is continuing the work his father used to do.
    He doesn’t go to clubs, he never had extra-curricular activities, he never spent nights talking to his girlfriend on phone, his school was Quranic madrassa where he spent 2 hours daily and he doesn’t spent 400 rupees on a single movie ticket. There is a whole world apart when you compare his life with the city life. He has always lived a simple life and for him preserving it is enough.
    If Bhutto’s Roti, Kapra aur Makan got hit, there was a VERY big philosophy behind and it should be clear from this post what that is. A villager really needs only roti, kapra aur makaan to spent his entire life in relative peace because that’s where his thinking ends. Unless at grass root level education policy is not revolutionized, there won’t be any significant change to the way they live.Recommend

  • Areebah Shahid

    very well said and spot on! If we truly wish to identify a culprit for electing the incompetent ladies and gentlemen who walk the length and width of our power corridors, surely we need only take a peek in the mirror!Recommend

  • Haris Masood Zuberi

    Very well put Nadir! Recommend

  • Ovais Tariq

    Its more than just being a victim of circumstances,. ppl are seen casting votes based on language and ethnicity not on merit and until this situation prevails, nothing is gonna change,. besides about that saying about “illiterate wasting their votes”,. its not completely wrong., a case in point are the literate nations where ppl know whats wrong and whats rite and cast their vote accordingly,.Recommend

  • Khalid Aziz

    Truthful description of the reality- very well written @ Syed Nadir

    I would like to add that our so called educated urban masses are not very mature in their poltical thought as comapred to our “uneducated” illiterate people in the rural settings. Well, merely obtaining a degree doesn’t make one “well awared” but its the social interaction and folk wisdom that prevails. Unfortunately, our educational system may be awarding degrees but these degrees don’t bring wisdom and awareness to the graduates. I think, so far, majority of poor Pakistanis have always used their right to vote in a wise manner- as a result we can see Liberal political parties winning a free and fair election. Religious/extreme right alliances like MMA or IJI only managed to win with the help of “establishment” becuase poors of Pakistan never supported them. Recommend

  • Murtaza Ali Jafri

    Very well written Nadir, you’ve raised some very valid points. I do however have a problem with the victims tag that you’ve placed on majority of the Pakistani people. You seem to be making the same inferences that they are incapable on voting for anything other than fuedal lords because those lords have all the power. Who gives them that power? They do. It’s a choice, not a compulsion. If they feel that these individuals are the best available candidate to represent them, then that’s fine. But then they don’t have a right to complain when these same individuals commit the same heinous crimes that indentured them in the first place. They have also forgone the right to expect those same electoral issues to be resolved, because they won’t be.

    By this same logic, one can always subvert democracy by being the biggest baddest wolf in the pack. Power through fear; that sounds more line a nuanced dictatorship. Unfortunately one in a state of stagnation.

    Accountability: I still believe that these ‘illiterates’ are part of the problem and will never be away from the clutches of the feudal lords until they themselves decide that they want something better and hold them accountable. Without those populaces holding their political leaders accountable, nothing will change. They’ll continuously voted in by fear.

    Media: Media reach needs to expand, and it needs to expand across Pakistan, bring rural Pakistani’s into the National debates as opposed to letting their zamindars speak for them. Making them part of the national dialogue also increases a sense of civilized democracy.

    Education. We need more of it. Full stop.

    Until they decide that they want to be educated, to vote for national interests as well as local interests, for justice, equality, access to finance and Most of all, A Better Future.

    Until they are ready, all we misinformed culturally insensitive urbanites can continue to do is expand the economy at an urban level, which although no less corrupt, has progressed. Even with our numerous set backs. Urban Pakistanis are trying to change, Rural Pakistani’s have the responsibility to do the same, unless of course they are happy with the status quo. In which case, we’ll always have great material for our blogs. Recommend

  • Amna

    I agree with some of what you said. But also, a lot of these illiterate masses, worship personalilties. For example, people still support PPP because of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The man has been dead for decades now. The party obviously does not care for roti karpa and makan, and PPP is really just a circus now. But some people think they are showing some amazing loyalty to ZAB by voting for the PPP. That is something that is very frustrating.Recommend

  • Amna

    @Ovais Tariq:
    I agree with you that people cast votes on language and ethnicity. That is the most ridiculous thing ever. It is why PPP can always play the sindh card. MQM can always act like all their problems are because they are urdu-speaking. Balochistan can act like other provinces especially Punjab are the root cause of their issues( and not their leaders like Nawab Raisani or Bugti) And politicians using this agenda to gain votes is a cause for so much ethnicity based hatred and violence in our country. We need to be Pakistani. not sindhi balochi punjabi or pushtoonRecommend

  • Usama Zafar

    Well yeah I quite agree with Amna people in general vote on the basis ethnicity and even religion for that matter. I belong to Multan and I know so many people who support Gilani just because he belongs to Multan and his forefathers were quite popular there. Now how do you make these people realize that they shouldn’t vote for a person based on how famous his forefathers were but rather they should see whether the person has the leadership qualities to deliver or not. Whether he is sincere and can be trusted or not? How do we make the people realize that they shouldn’t vote on the basis of local interest rather they should look at the bigger picture. I believe education is the only solution to that problem. So why not we keep a minimum education requirement for the voters? Once we get the right leaders who can set the right priorities more and more people would become eligible for voting and this system which you are talking about would change itself.Recommend

  • Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    @Usama: Everyone votes for personalities. Whether educated or not. Thats the whole point of politics. You can have a charismatic individual say the “right things” or you could have someone dull say exactly the same, however it will be the one seen as personable who gets the vote. Thats also to say that there is no gurantee that just because some is educated they would make rational choices. There is no conclusive research to suggest that voting patterns are altered to favour what people percieve as rational choices to begin with. Actually, the opposite may happen, especially in developing nations where the highly educated elite, vote or support politicans or indeed dictators to protect their own interests, rather than the greater good.

    The problem here is that individuals such as landlords or people who weild power because there greatgrandfather was given a massive tract of public land by the British colonial masters to keep the local people in check, excercise influence beyond the political realm. People will continue to vote for such people because, i have dicussed above, there is no viable alternative, other candidates cannot effectively campaign in such areas, and for the people in such areas, the rational choice is too vote for the person who has greatest influence to serve their interests.

    This is also an example of the single dimension of our politics which revolves around elections only. Canvassing support, gaining members and outreach must constantly take place not something that happens a month or so before elections.

    Rather than taking their vote away, why dont people who are against feudalism canvass support in rural areas and begin building a consensus today, to influence elections in 2013?

    I find the illetrate people voting poorly argument an excuse. Suggesting that an educated set of people should have the right to vote will lead to more problems, as its consequences cannot be predicted, and what happens if those people who are eleigible to vote, dont vote or dont make the choices we expect?Recommend

  • Usama Zafar

    @ Nadir
    Yes ur right even though a well-educated person who has leadership qualities may say the same things which any dull incompetent person would say but the problem is that a lot of people don’t even bother to care what he is saying. They will simply cast their vote because their favourite personality is a punjabi or sindhi or balochi etc and not because he’s charismatic (as I gave you the example of Gilani and Amna has pointed out the case of Bhutto). Similarly a sunni might now vote for someone just because he is a Shia and vice versa. People are willing to sell their votes for just a few hundred rupees for that matter. How do we change this kind of mind set??

    You also say that:
    People will continue to vote for such people because, i have dicussed above, there is no viable alternative, other candidates cannot effectively campaign in such areas, and for the people in such areas, the rational choice is too vote for the person who has greatest influence to serve their interests.

    And that brings me to my question in the first post which im still confused about… if the same kind of people keep coming into power by influencing the common man then how do we change the system?? And you also u say that these feudals are influencia enoughl that noone else can campaign in their areas then how can we get the peoples’ support against feudalism??Recommend

  • Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    The problem is that change is in our grasp. What was the election turnout last time? 32%? People dont get out in vote. Islamabad, the capital city had one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country. Its shameful that Pakistan’s net savy elite campaigned through blogs and facebook, calling on their “American” friends to vote for Obama. Where are the same people when elections are held in Pakistan? Ok, so you dont like any of the choices, then go and deface the ballot paper, it will pull the rug of legitimacy from below the eventual winner. Its the limitations of our polity that we have little or no democratic practice. Apart from the main parties they were so many doctors, engineers, human rights activists etc who stood up for the elections, who fit the bill of new and fresh faces. But we have no idea how to garner support, canvas and get people excited about elections.

    If 32% of the people vote in an average election, and the remaining 68% do not like who they select, then why does the solution have to be to get rid of the rights of the 32% who do vote. Why doesnt the remaining 68% get up and do something?Recommend

  • Hasna Sami

    It is true that one cannot hold the lower classes circumstances against them, but it is also true that because of the given circumstances they do not have the ability to pick and choose who they would vote for, as has been correctly pointed out. There is a certain degree of animosity towards ‘ the drawing room class’ which I feel must not be there as there shouldn’t be any towards the lower classes. The problem is that each man votes on the basis of what would be advantageous in his ‘area’ and not necessarily the country as a whole.
    The ordinary worker will vote for the candidate who promises him a better life and starts ‘demonstrating’ this before he is elected. Of course what becomes of those promises later on, is a different story. The true power of the vote will only be realized when the masses are better educated and do not suffer from abject poverty.
    As a nation we suffer from a short term memory loss,whether it is our fetish for military dictators or new found love for democracy, Pakistanis must take a risk and place their trust in those who have not been tested yet. It is time to stop running over the same old ground, and this will take place gradually InshAllah with a more progressive and effective education system.Recommend

  • hu

    This is actually a great article and my only criticism is that sadly, it is far removed from reality. While I agree 110% with everything you’ve said, it doesn’t change the fact that the masses are illiterate, that they still vote for their feudal lord, and I would rather they didn’t have that opportunity. While you may call me a hypocrite or an elitist, I’m also a realist and AM more informed about making political choices than they are. Sad reality…Recommend

  • saher

    i soo agree.. i went into a shock a few dez back wen i heard a relatively literate person saying that the ratio should be 100:1 … lol… no offence but that would mean our next PM is altaf husaain :D.. i know graduates and ppl having done their masters even polling in fake votes last elections :D,, ppl who werent even in Pakistan had their votes put… :D

    voting has nothing to do with the schooling that we have in pakistan, education yes there might be a relation but are we educated?? i dun think even phDs in Pakistan are educated.. just trained generally speaking. voting has a direct relation with the requirements of the ppl. and ppl dont need to be educated to know that thy need roti to survive.Recommend

  • Manzoor Chandio

    Allama Iqbal was wrong about democracy, i am glad you understand. Common people should be allowed to vote, they know whats best for Pakistan. We have democracy now and our govt is one the best in recent times. Jiey Bhutto! Jiey Awam! Recommend

  • Manzoor Chandio

    Inshallah Awam will vote for Sain Bilawal, the next President of Pakistan.Recommend