As Indian academic and theorist Sudipta Kaviraj once said, the story of Indian politics can be told at two different but mutually reinforcing levels – a structural and a political level. At the structural level, one needs to look at development of Capital, class formation and social complexities. At the political level, one may examine the chronological ordering of successive governments, the rise and fall of political parties and their leaders, and noticeable political trends and movements. Both these approaches complement each other to enable a rigorous analysis of the state of democracy.
In the case of Pakistan, unfortunately, the predominant trend has been to focus on successive governments and documenting the ‘failures and successes’ of individual leaders. The picture that emerges from such an approach is more of a chronology. The only ‘structural’ feature scrutinised is the institutional role of the military, the various policy shifts it has undertaken over the decades to establish its control over strategic and political matters, and the shifts within its own ranks in terms of class background and ethnic outlook.
As is well known, the democratic process in Pakistan has been plagued by covert manipulations carried out by the military establishment. This makes it difficult to analyse changes in the political landscape since much of it is an outcome of direct or indirect influence of the military. An additional problem is the ‘lack of evidence’ faced by analysts to prove the role of the military, especially when it comes to influencing the judiciary and the media. In such cases, one can only allude to past practices for which documented evidence of direct manipulation exists. One example is the formation of Islami Jamhuri Ittehad (IJI) in 1988 at the behest of the then army chief, Mirza Aslam Beg, and director general ISI, Asad Durrani, to consolidate the anti-Bhutto rightwing vote and, thus, fracture the mandate of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). We know this because of the affidavit submitted by Durrani himself in the Supreme Court during the 1990s, which led to the famous Asghar Khan Case where further disclosures were made. A good understanding of the methods adopted in 1988 help an analyst of Pakistani politics trace the imprints of similar manipulations when they are replicated in a different period, against a different set of political forces.
In 2013, the PTI was still in the process of gaining strength, but not yet powerful enough to displace the electoral power of the PML-N. Sharif returned with a heaving majority. For the first year and a half, Sharif took his mandate as an expression of political power and tried to exercise it
The need to understand structural transformations in Pakistan’s political economy, its impact on democratic transition, and vice versa, is more important today than ever before. The elections held on July 25, 2018 and the victory of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) were widely covered by international media. Much of what was written either remained focused on Imran Khan’s personal life (cricket legend-cum-playboy turned new-born Muslim-cum-Taliban supporter) or the role of the military in Pakistani politics. There is little doubt that the current elections, rightly described as the dirtiest in Pakistan’s history, were heavily manipulated to enable a certain outcome. Yet, it is also undeniable that Imran Khan has a massive support base and that this support base is indicative of substantial changes in Pakistan’s economy and society that have largely remained understudied. That this groundswell of support is derived from Pakistan’s new middle class, which has historically been either apolitical or a supporter of the military rule, is the crux of my argument. Khan’s moment of arrival coincides with the crystallisation of this class which has been in the making since the mid-1980s’ and has benefitted from the neo-liberal economic reforms of the 1990s. What is meant by ‘naya’ Pakistan, in my opinion, is the ascendancy of this new middle class, despite the inferiority of its numbers, to play a decisive role through a politically legitimate process in the shaping of Pakistan’s polity and society.
The immediate context
Before turning to the structural level of analysis, it is important to analyse the political contingencies which have resulted in an electoral victory for Imran Khan.
After the restoration of democracy in 2008, a coalition government led by the PPP came to power. Even though the party did not even have simple majority in the parliament, it was able to develop consensus on one of the most significant pieces of legislation in Pakistan’s history – the 18th constitutional amendment which devolved power to the provinces. It took some time before the provincial governments realised the importance of this amendment and the powers that had come their way. Despite such setbacks as the judiciary overstepping its boundaries, rendering governance impossible by regular interference through suo motto notices and the disqualification of prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on contempt charges, there was a certain degree of optimism when elections were held in 2013. It was the first time in Pakistan’s history that an elected government had finished its five-year term (though no prime minister has ever been able to complete a full term) and passed on power to the next elected government. It was felt that if this process continued, it would gradually lessen the influence of the military in shaping Pakistan’s policies in such a way that has been disastrous for the country.
Furthermore, the military establishment was equally cognisant of the changes that were underway. The country was in the throes of worst violence inflicted by the militants. The military had lost considerable prestige as resentment against Pervez Musharraf swelled during 2006-07. The military, as an institution, was forced to take a strategic step back, but did not give up on its political manoeuvrings. After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the PPP was deprived of its popular and charismatic leader, leaving the field open for Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. As subsequent events have shown, Sharif was able to amass power on his own and challenge the supremacy of the military. This was especially true for the Punjab – the most populous province and the region to which the bulk of Pakistan’s military, top bureaucrats and intelligentsia belong. It was, therefore, important to cut him down to size. No one could have done it better than Imran Khan who already had considerable likeability about him due to his shining career as a sportsman and the charity work carried out by him after his retirement from cricket.
There are multiple reasons to believe that he was handpicked for this job to develop a counter political force. Between 2009-11, a massive image building campaign ran to boost the image of Imran Khan as the only hope for Pakistan as a viable alternative to the prevalent two-party system. That being said, the image building campaign could only have gained traction because of genuine popularity of Imran Khan among the new middle class. They thronged to his revitalised PTI in large numbers, particularly after Khan managed a mammoth gathering in Lahore in October 2011. From that point on, Imran Khan was no longer a lone political maverick. He was established as a viable political alternative, especially in the Punjab, by those seeking to challenge the monopoly of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
By the time elections were held in 2013, the PTI was still in the process of gaining strength, but not yet powerful enough to displace the electoral power of the PML-N. Sharif returned to power with a heaving majority. For the first year and a half, Sharif took his mandate as an expression of political power and tried to exercise it. This included such steps as establishing a special court to try Pervez Musharraf on treason charges and pursuing peace with India, even though Narendra Modi had come to power. As Ayesha Jalal recently commented in interview: just because Sharif had won the election did not mean he could also exercise control. The military establishment gave Sharif heavy drubbing by helping Imran Khan stage a dharna in Islamabad. This was a protest against alleged rigging in the general elections. Later, a judicial inquiry conducted on terms of reference agreed by both parties, gave a clean chit to the elections held in 2013.
The dharna of August 2014 almost brought the government down. The attempt only fizzled out because the PTI’s own president at that time, Javed Hashmi, confessed that the military was behind the agitation. Moreover, Sharif must have realised the limits of his powers as he agreed to surrender to the military’s dictates. This required calling to a halt the on-going trial against Musharraf and toeing the line on security issues. Shortly afterwards, Musharraf left the country on medical grounds. On foreign policy, Sharif gave up the initiative, though he resisted the military’s attempt to adopt a more belligerent approach towards India. Modi was a god-send for the military establishment in whipping up anti-India feelings in Pakistan, yet Sharif did not utter a word against him. Similarly, when Kalbushan Yadev – allegedly a serving officer of Indian spy agency, RAW – was caught in Baluchistan in 2016, the military expected Sharif to take an aggressive stance in international debate. This, too, was avoided by Sharif. Therefore, this task had to be carried out by diplomats stationed abroad but their voice did not carry as much weight. The military establishment did not shy away from encouraging undiplomatic practices; the Pakistani High Commissioner in India, Abdul Basit, acted and spoke in a manner that was highly uncalled for. Shahid Afridi, captaining Pakistan’s cricket team and playing a cricket march in Mohali, thanked ‘supporters from Kashmir’ who had come to cheer for the Pakistani team.
Despite close to two-thirds majority in the parliament, the PML-N ceded more political space to the military than was reclaimed by the minority government under the PPP
Apparently, the Sharif government thought that by acquiescing to the military establishment’s control of Pakistan’s security and foreign policy, a conflict had been avoided. Now all it needed to do was to focus on its agenda of ‘development’ which included mega projects such as building motorways, mass transit projects in Rawalpindi, Multan and Lahore, and setting up power generation plants to eradicate load-shedding. On the basis of this ‘performance’, they thought, they would win the next elections. That, eventually, this process of timely elections and service delivery would strengthen the democratic process. But this has not happened, though elections took place on schedule as did a smooth transfer of power. In fact, despite close to two-thirds majority in the parliament, the PML-N ceded more political space to the military than was reclaimed by the minority government under the PPP. What had happened in the last four years so that the ‘formula’ for ensuring smooth transition to democracy through elections failed?
An important incident overlooked by many analysts today is the assassination attempt, in April 2014, of Hamid Mir – a veteran journalist working for the Geo/Jang group. His media group openly accused the then chief of ISI – General Pasha – of complicity in the attempt to assassinate Mir. News flashed with pictures of the ISI chief accusing him of attempting assassination. This was unthinkable in a country like Pakistan. The military establishment used this as an opportunity to clamp down on the group. Through twisting the arm of the country’s largest media group with such tactics as blocking its transmission across the country and instigating sentiments against it for ‘anti-national’ and subversive activities, a precedent was successfully set for every other media group. They surrendered without a fight. Thus, on the face of it, Pakistan had a ‘free and vibrant’ media, but the reality was that it had easily been brought into submission.
Similarly, an illusion of judicial freedom had also been created. In the aftermath of Pervez Musharraf’s attempt to dismiss the then chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, a popular movement had been launched to restore him. The Lawyers’ Movement, as it was called, eventually resulted in the restoration of Justice Chaudhry and his colleagues who had either resigned in solidarity or were later deposed by Musharraf’s use of emergency powers. Since then, the illusion has been that the judiciary is free, and it no longer buckles under pressure. The track record of superior courts for the last ten years shows a different picture. The courts have come down hard on civilian government and their elected leaders, but adopted a rather timid approach when it comes to matters dealing with the military, or even those political figures who are suspected of being in cohorts with the military to undermine the democratic process.
This illusion of an ‘independent judiciary’ being its own master and the ‘free media’ played a decisive role in Nawaz Sharif’s political decline and eventual incarceration. Such was the predictability of what was to happen that month before the Supreme Court gave its verdict on the eligibility of prime minister Nawaz Sharif, veteran journalist Sohail Warraich wrote a column in June 2017, titled ‘The Party is Over’, in which he clearly laid down the blueprint of what was going to follow. Sharif was knocked out and disqualified for life on a mere technicality – an interpretation of law based on an online dictionary. Other ‘predictions’ made by Warraich in his column, such as abolition of 18th amendment, have yet to come true.
What followed for Nawaz Sharif was even worse. A trial was carried out by the Accountability Court, under direct supervision of the Supreme Court, on day to day basis. During this period, Sharif and his heir apparent – Maryam Nawaz Sharif – were barely given absence from appearing in the court in person. This was done to limit the extent of their country-wide campaign for ‘the honour of the vote’ (vote ko izzat do). Maryam Nawaz was suspected by the military establishment of pursuing an aggressive stance for civilian supremacy. She had assembled an impressive social media team which critiqued the military and its involvement in politics. With great wit and an intelligent critique, these social media activists were reaching out to the core of the military support base in the Punjab. For some analysts, it was actually because of such ‘activities’ of Maryam Nawaz that her father was ‘punished’ as well.
With Sharif disqualified for life, ‘electables’ from the Punjab were incentivised to shift their loyalty to Khan. A virulent media campaign against Sharif followed in which he was accused of being Modi ka yar (Modi’s buddy) and even a blasphemer. On the issue of khatam-i-nabuwwat (finality of prophethood), a new pressure group-cum-political organisation, Tehrik Labbaik Ya Rasul Allah (TLYR) came into existence. It chipped away the core of conservative-religious vote bank of Sharif in the Punjab. A poll conducted by Gallup revealed that close to 46 per cent of TLYP voters had voted for the PML-N in the elections of 2013. This loyalty shift cost dearly to the PML-N in at least one dozen constituencies in the Punjab during the recent elections where its candidates lost to the PTI with a margin of victory far less than the votes polled by TLYR candidates. Cumulatively, all these machinations gave a heavy blow to whatever prospects Sharif thought he had of winning the election in 2018 based on ‘performance.’ This period of a one-sided media trial and judicial victimisation continued for almost a year in which the party became rudderless. It was clear that the PTI was being favoured. The result of this blatant pre-poll rigging, lasting over a year, dampened the spirits of Pakistani voters. The election campaign for 2018 was, unsurprisingly, the dullest in Pakistan’s history.
Despite all these tactics, the PTI still did not win by a landslide. It barely had enough seats, in coalition with smaller parties, to form a majority government by a margin of a few votes. Again, massive irregularities were reported on election day itself, especially in the transmission of results which suffered dramatic delays as the results transmission system (RTS) established by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) broke down dramatically.
Again, I would repeat that Imran Khan had acquired a genuine support base in the last five years. Even without help from the military establishment and the current wave of anti-incumbency, he could still have been the single largest party in parliament. But the blatant way in which his campaign was run by the media and the judiciary for a year, and the tactics employed to ensure all other political opponents were kept out of the arena, makes this one of the darkest moments of Pakistan’s history. What is worse, even the hope of a smooth democratic transition has been lost. While the military spokesman boasted of second consecutive election and transfer of power as per the schedule and procedure laid down in the parliament, it can hardly obfuscate the dirty tactics that had been employed to rig the electoral process.
Having elaborated upon the rigged part of Imran Khan’s mandate, let’s now turn to his popular support base.
The new middle class
Imran Khan’s actual strength and popularity lies among Pakistan’s new middle class. But what is new about this middle class and what are their general characteristics? I turn to Adnan Rafiq and Ammara Maqsood for an answer.
In an op-ed for a local English daily, Adnan Rafiq has pointed out that there has been an exponential boom in Pakistan’s services industry which now accounts for about 60 percent of the GDP. In particular, he refers to the new services sectors of banking, insurance, IT, media, health and even education. Previously, Rafiq reminds us, Pakistan’s salaried class was limited to the public sector or the small scale industrial sector. This means that there are plenty of job opportunities in the private sector, hence moving away from dependence on state or politics of patronage for provision of employment. The old style of politics, therefore, is fast becoming irrelevant.
In her latest book, The New Pakistani Middle Class, Ammara Maqsood traces the origins of a Muslim middle class during British India. In that period, there was, to use Margrit Pernau’s phrase, a transformation from Ashraf to middle class. New educational opportunities, limited to the few, led to the emergence of a new professional class of doctors, bureaucrats, engineers and, most importantly, lawyers during the British period. This provided the bedrock for a ‘national bourgeoisie’ with a modernising mission.
The greater expansion in the middle class took place after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The movement was gradual and faced many hiccups. The ‘decade of growth’ under Ayub Khan witnessed almost double digit industrial growth, but it tapered off because of ensuing political crisis, the economic blow of East Pakistan’s secession and, finally, the nationalisation policy pursued by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Nonetheless, the opportunities afforded through public education continued to provide avenues of social mobility. Up until the 1990s when, under pressure from international monetary regulations, educational subsidies were gradually removed, the quality of public schools was decent. Many of those who later became top bureaucrats in Pakistan were educated in public schools, and went on to government colleges. Few of them came from such elite institutions as Aitchison College.
Therefore, in Maqsood’s understanding, there was a difference between the old and new middle class. The old middle class’ habitus emphasised khandani (implying historical prestige) connections, accented English and cultivation of a certain taste in art and music. Drawing upon the Turkish example, Maqsood refers to the ‘nostalgic modernity’ of this class, often harkening for the ‘progressive’ Pakistan of the 1960s when cabaret dances were performed in Karachi and alcohol was served by Pakistan International Airlines. In contrast, Maqsood argues, is the religiosity of the new middle class which articulates its modernity through the affirmation of faith.
Maqsood’s work, complemented by similar works on the Indian middle classes, helps one understand the worldview of this class, their aspirations and value systems. As Leela Fernandes’ work on India suggests, it is erroneous to ascribe singularity to the idea of a middle class. Depending on their ‘pre-history’, individuals bring with them inherited ideas and social-cultural capital which, in turn, determine their relative positioning within the middle class. Ethnicity and caste differential play additional roles. In its quest to project itself as one class, the middle class aspires for a consistency it does not have and a political power to shape the state which it lacks because of its numerical inferiority. A similar aspirational character can be ascribed to their modes of consumption. As Fernandes points out, to be middle class is expressed through consumption, but the limits to pleasure derived out of consumption are created by relative class positioning and inequality within the middle class.
The consumption boom of the Pakistani middle class made international headlines last year. It can be measured in such statistics as the number of air conditioners and TVs sold in a year, lawn prints introduced or the amount spent on Eid shopping. While the middle classes are at the heart of this spending spree, not all of them have the same financial resources to consume. This is where aspiration for consumption, for being the modern and middle class of the newly urbanised or upwardly mobile classes in Pakistan, acquires an increasingly frustrated, almost vitriolic tone against the political ‘status-quo’ identified as responsible for their misery. This also feeds into a pathological hatred of corruption – promoting an idea that those with more money who can spend more are inevitably able to do so because of wealth acquired through corrupt practices.
Unlike their economic status or spending capacity, the world view of this new middle class, in my opinion, has more elements of unanimity. As Christiane Brosius has said in the context of the Indian middle classes, in the new subjectivity of taking care of and cultivating the self, modernity becomes an enchantment and one works towards it, acquires it or fulfils it in different ways. There is no better way of understanding this phenomenon than to look at the ‘acts’ of being modern and middle class. Brosius talks about visit to a shopping mall. The mall is the hallmark of the new, modern state. That Lahore or Karachi have ‘world class’ malls with brands and products that are available anywhere else in the world, suggests that ‘we’ are now connected with the rest of the world, in fact as good as ‘them’, if not better. The claustrophobic universality of the mall architecture – branded outlets, food courts and play areas – provide spatial homogeneity required for imagining a connection with the global. It is in this space with its temptations for consumption that the acts of the middle classes are performed. A mall requires a certain degree of decorum to visit, a degree of comfort in using escalators and so on. In the Pakistani context, one can recall the example of Centauras shopping mall in Islamabad which levied entry fee to discourage ‘Pindi boys’ – a synonym for young visitors from the neighbouring Rawalpindi who are supposed to be uncouth, lacking in class and demeanour, to visit places meant for ‘families’. So, even if all the visitors to a shopping mall can’t afford to buy or spend as much as others, they can still aspire to be part of a class that can afford to consume and are enchanted by it.
Another related example is that of multiplexes. Ali Ahmad Nobil writes about the architecture of the new Cineplex that came to Pakistan in the last decade. The older, single screen cinema houses are no longer visited by ‘middle class families.’ They are mostly frequented by the working classes who watch films catering to their taste. Again, drawing a parallel from India, a similar phenomenon occurred in the 1970s. A study carried out by Adrian Athique and Douglas Hill on multiplex in India as the cultural economy of urban leisure refers to the anxieties of the middle class “to enter into social situations where they could be confronted with the caste-, class- and the gender-inflicted presence of the ‘lumpen class of men who lived and still live on the streets of the cities’.” Amidst political unrest and the economic downturn of the 1970s, the Indian film industry responded by producing films on the themes of labour unrest, oppressive capitalism and social justice. Following neo-liberal economic trends of the 1990s, new multiplexes emerged and films were produced that were more in line with the tastes of the middle classes.
A similar trend can be seen in the case of Pakistan where the term ‘revival of cinema’ has gained currency, implying as if film production had ceased to exist in Pakistan prior to the 2000s. Not only has the genre of film been transformed, but the experience of watching it as well. As Nobil points out, the ticket costs an average Rs500 with an additional amount to be spent on perhaps popcorn and cola. Watching new Pakistani films in a Cineplex, too, is an act of producing a middle class. A lot more could be said about the content of these films in how they relate to specific class sentiments.
Similar comments can be made about a range of themes from gated communities as model urban housing to a booming industry for domestic, regional and international tourism to understand the ways in which everyday life, and its attendant values and worldviews, have changed for the new middle class.
Having said that, one must remember Afiya Zia’s cautionary note who argues against the tendency of studying the middle class exclusively through the lens of consumption – whether of commodities or religion, or commodification of religion. Though central to the expression of its class, consumption alone does not exhaust the ontological enumerates of a class that is diverse, with various discursive modes of thoughts and practices.
The writer teaches history at Lahore University of Management Sciences
How we can read Suhail Waraich column which he wrote in 2017.
Interesting essay. Kudos to TFT for publishing an academic essay, which should enable a deeper understanding of the current political events unfolding in Pakistan. Overall, this essay does a good job of using theory and political discourse to interpret the popularity of PTI and its ascent to power. However, perhaps the author could have woven the political events in the first half of the essay in a more coherent narrative using more theory to interpret them. The first half of the essay is all about the political events of the last decade or so, whilst the latter half is all theory, making the essay a bit fragmented and incoherent. The second shortcoming – and this is a big one – is author’s disengagement with more relevant political economy literature about the class structure of Pakistan. The research works of Adnan Rafiq and Ammara Maqsood are very important, but what is more relevant is Dr Aasim Sajjad Akhtar’s book “The Politics of Common Sense” (2018), which lays out the political economy underpinning the status quo in Pakistan. One will have to move beyond the middle class narrative to understand the class nuances of Pakistani society and for that it is important to look at the intermediary class, the political brokers and enterpreneurs who lie between the subordinate class and the political elites. These intermediaries also faciliate the interaction of working classes with the state. Even leaving aside Dr Akhtar’s work, there is quite a lot of literature now on the subject. Look at S Akbar Zaidi’s Issues in Political Economy of Pakistan. He shares some insights on land distribution, urbanization and economy by using data. Anyways, I understand the author could not have cited all the literature in the essay, but engagement with all the relevant literature, however fleeting, might have been helpful.
Well organized story writing based on imagination with no link to the ground reality of MISSING MONEY TRAIL AND CORRUPTION
A well written article. I do agree that the new middle class has played a part in IKs
ascend. However it is not a homogeneous group. I am an IK supporter yet I am liberal in my social and cultural views yet many of my friends that also support IK are hard conservatives.
Hard to believe an Oxford educated cricket superstar partnering a
being, completely shrouded from top to toe, in this day and age.
Even the most conservative Saudi princesses no longer conceal their faces.
Is Pakistan headed back to the dark ages!