The emergence of a new middle class is not just limited to Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. As Arif Hasan puts it, an unplanned revolution has taken place in Pakistan since the 1980s whereby urbanization or ‘urban-mindedness’ has reached numerous places in Pakistan. Citing Mohammad Qadeer’s work, Akbar Zaidi talks about a process of spatial reorganization whereby rural areas are losing their traditional form and becoming ‘ruralapolises’ i.e. urban level population densities but in an agrarian economy. The infiltration of mobile phones, motorbikes, snooker clubs, tea shops and so on – “namely the cultural artefacts forged in urban areas” – has ensured that the nature of the agrarian economy itself and the everyday life in these ‘ruralapolises’ has changed dramatically. Ali Jan’s case study of Okara, with a focus on the emergence of new, intermediary classes, is useful in helping to understand these changes.
Generally speaking, one can trace these changes to the expansion of educational facilities, green revolution and industrial development since 1947. As previously noted, in the absence of the prohibitively high fees of private colleges and universities, individuals from small towns and different backgrounds could improve their social and economic standing. Unlike India, Pakistan – for the greater period of its history – has been an open economy. It did not have the kind of strict license regime of Nehru’s planned economy which continued well into the late 1980s. It was only under Manmohan Singh as finance minister and Narasimha Rao as the prime minister that India started the liberalization of the economy, relaxed the flow of capital and allowed foreign companies to make direct investments. In Pakistan, the momentum generated under Ayub Khan was lost because of political instability, war and nationalization, and could only be revived to a limited extent in the 1980s. But it was during Nawaz Sharif’s first tenure as the prime minister that Pakistan adopted a neo-liberal mode of economic policy which, in fact, served as a model for Indian reforms under Manmohan Singh. What is remarkable about the 1980s and the 1990s in Pakistan is not just the inflow of capital and the growth of private enterprise, but the growth of a specific kind of corporate culture as well.
The opening of McDonald’s in Lahore heralded the arrival of a certain corporate culture, an acknowledgement of the fact that years of training and education in management sciences was finally producing enough of a managerial class with the requisite training to work for a multinational food chain
The Institute of Business Administration (IBA) had been setup in Karachi in the 1950s as part of Harvard advisory group’s economic plan for Pakistan to raise a corps of corporate managers for the new state ambitiously seeking capital for industrial growth. By the 1980s, the size of private capital, despite setbacks, had increased but the operation of private economy, especially outside of Karachi, was still run and administered in more traditional ways. The setting up of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) was meant to address this deficiency. By the 1990s, with the end of cold war and the ‘triumph’ of neo-liberal world order, the scale of private capital assumed unprecedented proportions. There needs to be a documentation of the manifold increase in the managerial class in Pakistan, its training and the ‘lived experience’ of administering private organizations, especially during the transitionary period from a semi-professional to more professional modes during the 1990s. This will further help understand the changes in individual work ethic and weltanschauung in everyday life and its connection with the social, political and religious views of the new middle class.
As a non-specialist, I can only fall back on anecdotal evidence – mostly based on secondary sources or personal observations – from the 1990s. It was a time when private schools had become a booming industry. The emergence of such ‘school systems’ as Beaconhouse, City school and Lahore Grammar Schools – all owned and run by women from Lahore’s elite families – would make a fascinating study. These schools usually arranged training workshops for teachers, especially for pedagogical skills. The British Council’s role during this period was also extremely important in helping with teacher training programs for English and the provision of textbooks for this purpose. Similarly, the newly emerging fashion industry and mushroom growth of beauty parlours also needs to be studied to gain insight into the emergence of a services sector for the modern middleclass subject taking care of the self.
The 1990s was a period when capital inflow and private enterprise became a norm, resulting in the emergence of a new middle class associated with the services sector in an unprecedented manner. But it was in the early 2000s that these new trends came to fruition. During the 1990s, there was an urge on the part of this newly emerging middle class to seek avenues for self-expression, held back or kept in check by a sense of stale morality of the 1980s and its artificially imposed dictates of shariat. So, while there was a boom of pop music in Pakistan during the 1990s, there was only one state television (and one private channel with limited hours of transmission) with a strict censorship policy. At one point, it was forbidden for state television to show men with long hair or pierced ears. With the coming of General Pervez Musharraf, however, the lid was lifted. From an elitist point of view, this was the time when they were ‘living it up’ as a young man described it at a private beach party in Karachi in Sabiha Sumar’s documentary on General Pervez Musharraf, Dinner with the President. After 9/11, there was a considerable cash inflow of American aid money as Pakistan became a frontline ally of the US in the war against terrorism. More importantly, many expatriates started investing in real estate and other enterprises in Pakistan as a fearful environment was brewing for them in the west. As jobs dried up for professionals abroad, many returned to Pakistan.
Since the mid-2000s, Pakistan has had a thriving café culture. In addition, a liberal import policy meant that all sorts of consumer goods – from iPhone to avocado – were now easily available in a local supermarket. The ‘modern lifestyle’ which lured many towards the US and Europe, could be replicated, if at a superficial level, in Pakistan. Under Shaukat Aziz as finance minister and later prime minister, and Ishrat Husaain as the governor of the State Bank, a policy was adopted to encourage consumerist spending. In this way, the 2000s was the coming of age of Pakistan’s new middle class. There was a thriving fashion industry, new clothing lines, professional photography, sleek new beauty salons, jewellery makers, lawn prints and a dazzling film and media industry. All of which have only grown in scope and professionalism since then.
As I have pointed out, this new professionalism and consumption is not limited to Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. Other major urban centres as Sialkot, Faisalabad, Peshawar, Hyderabad and Multan have also experienced this growth; the level of private capital and the professional corporate culture required to run it has reached many parts of Pakistan. Even Dera Ghazi Khan – one of the poorest districts of Pakistan on the borders of Punjab and Baluchistan – has a McDonald’s!
When McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Pakistan in 1998, it was a huge hit. There were long queues outside the venue, not dissimilar to ones witnessed at the opening of a McDonald’s in the Soviet Union! But the political significance of this opening in Lahore was different from that of Moscow. In the case of Lahore, as I see it, it heralded the arrival of a certain corporate culture, an acknowledgement of the fact that years of training and education in management sciences was finally producing enough of a managerial class with the requisite training to work for a multinational food chain. It was not just about capital or purchasing power – which were always there – but an efficient managerial corps, marketing firms, legal protection and supply chains for running and sustaining it. It demonstrated that a new kind of consumer had emerged in Pakistan who was willing to spend and responded to marketing strategies – a prerequisite for a consumption culture required for the sustenance of global food and clothing outlets.
That this efficiency has reached even Dera Ghazi Khan is simply an example of the extent of the emergence of the professional new class all over Pakistan; which is not simply limited to McDonald’s.
Another example would be the Daewoo bus service which initially started on the route along the Lahore-Islamabad motorway. Traditional bus services were hardly ever punctual and were of a poor standard. They were usually named after the owner, such as Niazi bus services or Waaraich tayyara (Warraich’s Jet). Daewoo offered a ‘modern’ transport solution. It was a private enterprise with all the requisites of an efficient organization. Daewoo buses had trained drivers wearing uniforms. The bus had a female hostess who served the passengers snacks and drinks. This was a new model in the 1990s which has since become a norm, copied even by the likes of Niazi bus services. It signalled the entry of women in new sectors of the economy, especially from the lower-income groups living in the cities. Regardless of social conservativeness and religious concerns, women in big and small cities from low-income groups increasingly joined the services sector, working as sales representatives, beauticians and so on. An additional monthly contribution of Rs15,000, or even less, was important for lower income groups struggling to keep their heads above the poverty line. This has not emerged without some social anxieties, which can be seen in the heap of new pulp fiction being written in Urdu digests and dramatized for TV channels.
My point is not to simply connect MacDonald and fried chicken with the process of change in Pakistani politics. My point is that the process whereby the services sector has emerged since the 1980s will help us understand the lived experience of being a member of this class and its everyday life, religious views, political outlook, aspirations, ideas and frustrations. It is not just that a professional class with different income groups working for the services sector has emerged, but also the homogeneous empty time of the capital that shapes their lives. Rather than constraining myself to the vocabulary of corporate culture with its self-pride in ‘efficiency’, I look at it as a culture which orders a different work routine from more ‘relaxed’ sarkari naukri (government job) with even less fringe benefits, particularly a lack of health benefits and pension. Although, as Rafiq points out, it has nonetheless meant a lack of reliance on public sector or acts of patronage, and a self-belief in the idea of professionalism and meritocracy. Though, given the internal differentiation of the middle class because of cultural-social capital resulting in income differential, the assertion of these qualities is an expression of one’s frustration for pervasive inequality and the mirage of personal gain and growth offered by the new economy.
The writer teaches history at Lahore University of Management Sciences