At this year’s Lahore Literary Festival, I was approached by a group of six or seven college students immediately after I finished moderating a session with the celebrated historian Ayesha Jalal. Interestingly, three of them, though unrelated, asked me a question that was more or less the same as the one I had been asked by another set of young men and women just hours before the session. They all wanted to know why so many ‘liberal-looking’ or ‘liberal-sounding’ folk supported Imran Khan.
This is a simple question, but one which is not asked enough. Khan, as is more-than-apparent now, has quickly evolved into becoming a contemporary right-wing populist who seems to be more comfortable in airing conservative views on various social issues than he is in the art of governance. Not that he ever held views that were any different, but the more he found himself cornered by the demands of running a complex country, the more he blundered in matters of economics and governance – and the more rigid, reactionary and hidebound his rhetoric became.
Much has been written about how this former star cricketer, socialite, ‘playboy’ and darling of the tabloid press took a rightward turn after he retired from cricket in 1992 and ‘rediscovered’ his faith. He also began to reassess the manner in which he understood Pakistani society. In this reassessment, he concluded that Pakistani society was organically conservative, but it was being adulterated by alien Western ideas and trends, and exploited by an ingrained ‘corrupt political mafia’ and ‘US/European imperialism.’
Unlike most Pakistani sportsmen who often come from lower-middle- and working-class backgrounds, Khan came from an upper-middle-class family. And here lies the answer to the question that the students were asking me. Khan’s transformation was very much in line with the manner in which the Pakistani ‘bourgeoisie’ have been evolving from the 1980s onwards. Let me explain.
I was too young to fully remember the movement against the Z.A. Bhutto regime in 1977. However, as I entered my teens in 1980, I noticed that most well-to-do lifestyle liberals were overtly supporting the reactionary military regime led by General Zia-ul-Haq — the man who had toppled the Bhutto regime and then sent the former prime minister to the gallows.
This had confused me. Of course, being very young and only just starting to take interest in politics, I had a rather binary view of the two regimes: Bhutto’s regime was liberal, and the one that overthrew it was conservative. And in Pakistan, conservatism is often paired with Islamism. Indeed, as I grew older and entered college in 1985, I began to understand that what differentiated Bhutto from Zia was something a lot more complex, and had a lot to do with economics.
In his book Middle Class, Media and Modi, the Indian author and journalist Nagesh Prabhu writes that even though multiple governments headed by the country’s founding party the Congress had succeeded in lifting the economic status of many Indians — especially during the post-1984 era of economic liberalisation — those who benefited from these policies largely turned right, instead of becoming a constituency of the Congress party.
Imran Khan’s transformation was very much in line with the manner in which the Pakistani ‘bourgeoisie’ have been evolving from the 1980s onwards
This is not an uncommon occurrence. For example, various political scientists and economists who investigated the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991 were of the view that the ‘socialist’ economy in the former Soviet Union and in its allied countries in Eastern Europe succeeded in greatly improving the living standards of their citizens. Yet, the ruling communist parties struggled to gain any measure of genuine support from those it was ruling.
In a 2002 essay, the famous Russian ‘culturologist’ and film critic Maya Turovskaya wrote that many people in the former Soviet Union (and in communist East European countries) had risen to become ‘middle-class’ even though the economy was entirely managed by the state and everyone was supposed to be ‘equal.’
Turovskaya added that instead of luxury goods, “the enjoyment of culture was at the core of communist middle-class identity.” However, it was always impossible for the state to hide the traction of luxury goods that were celebrated and flaunted in non-communist US and Europe. To the ‘middle-classes’ in communist countries, these luxury items and cultural products began to be seen as the result and manifestation of Western democracy.
According to Russian author and economist Grigorii Khanin (in the journal Europe-Asia Studies, December 2003), the Soviet economy “genuinely flourished” in the 1950s and 1960s. The British economist Philip Hanson agreed with Khanin in his book The Rise and Fall of the The Soviet Economy. He wrote that till the early 1970s, the Soviet economy “tended to grow faster than that of the United States.” The same was the case in the Eastern European countries that were following the ‘Soviet model.’
Yet, in 1956 and 1968 respectively, there were serious uprisings in Hungry and the erstwhile Czechoslovakia against the ruling communist parties. Much of the opposition in this regard was made up of lapsed communists, and those who were at the core of what Turovskaya later described as the “middle-class in communist countries.” They also received support from ‘Church groups’ who had been strictly regulated by the state. The anti-communist uprisings in Poland in the early 1980s were largely led by Roman Catholic groups. Such groups were supported by Turovskaya’s middle-classes, despite the fact that many were entirely secular in their views (but anti-communist).
In China, after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, and the demise of his iconoclastic variations of Marxism-Leninism, the ruling Communist Party of China introduced a number of unprecedented policies that saw the gradual opening up of the Chinese economy, and the subsequent emergence of a Chinese middle-class. However, by 1989, young people from this class, who had greatly benefited from the new economic policies, took to the streets in a bid to topple the government. They did not become supporters of the system, regime and party that had elevated their economic status. Instead, they turned against these, and demanded democracy,
freedom of speech and the freedom of practicing religion. They were ruthlessly crushed.
The middle-classes are an important segment which make vital contributions to the economy through taxes and entrepreneurial projects. They are also a skilled and educated white-collar workforce, especially in the service industries. But as they succeed in gaining economic influence, they then want to bolster this influence with political influence. But political influence and power are largely in the hands of ruling elites that are a class apart. In former communist countries, these elites were often found sitting at the top of the ruling communist parties, whereas in non-communist set-ups, they are placed high in the organs of autocracy, and in established democracies, they are seen as deeply embedded in ‘pro-status quo’ institutions and parties.
When the middle-classes rebel against forces that actually facilitated their economic growth, this can be understood as defensive behaviour. In most countries, this class expanded during the rule of established parties. Most of these parties were on the left or leaning left. They were caught between serving their core constituencies such as the classes bellow the middle on the one hand, and an expanding middle-class on the other.
As the middle-classes gradually swelled, they increasingly became suspicious of the rhetoric, policies and programmes of the parties that still largely aimed to draw traction from the working-classes. The middle-classes felt they are being ignored and that the fruits of their ‘honest hard work’ and taxes were being spent on others.
As a result, from the 1990s onwards, left-leaning parities in Europe and the US refigured their orientation by pulling back various welfarist programmes. This eventually saw their working-class constituencies become tempted by right-wing populists. The claim by the populists is that established parties were entirely elitist and therefore unwilling to address the issues faced by the working-classes. And so, the ‘common folk’ (mostly white) segments of the polity rally behind the populists. Donald Trump is an excellent example.
Indian historian Meera Nanda writes that in South Asia, exhibitions of excessive religiosity are more common in upper- and middle-class segments. This challenges a long-held ‘modernist’ theory, according to which education and economic prosperity mitigates religiosity and relegates it to the private sphere
In developing countries such as India, the economic liberalisation introduced by the left-leaning Congress in the 1980s initiated the rapid expansion of the middle-classes. But the party failed to find any traction from among these classes because the Congress was still claiming to be working towards ‘removing poverty.’
According to the French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, who has written extensively on the rise of Hindu nationalism, the Indian middle-classes became suspicious of the ‘Nehruian socialism’ of Congress. They saw themselves as the main engines of the post-1990s economic growth in India. The issues faced by the classes below them are of no concern to them. To the Indian middle-classes, they ‘deserve’ a larger share of power to determine the country’s economy, politics and culture.
According to Jaffrelot, “[in India] economic liberalisation has given rise to a middle class of a different kind. In a way, it is more politicised, partly because salaried people are more sensitive to corruption. But the middle class is very much after growth and the means to get that growth may not matter much to them … the middle class has little problem with rising inequalities. The social democratic Nehruvian project was intended to contain inequality. But that is not the regime the middle class would now favour. They now support economically liberal policies. This new middle class supports the BJP more than the Congress. First, because it wants to grow in status by being recognised as Hindu through a kind of sanskritisation process, and balance its growing materialism by some religiosity […]” (Business Standard, 14 April 2014).
From the late 1970s, religion – rather, politicised religion – has played a major role in the articulation of middle-class rebellions. One of the main centres of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was the bazaar dominated by middle and lower middle ranks. The 1977 movement against the Bhutto regime was largely led by forces posing to represent the country’s middle-and-lower-middle-class segments. Their grudge with the regime was economic in nature because they felt threatened by Bhutto’s policies of nationalisation.
These segments were supported by the industrial class which, till the 1960s, was supporting the ‘modernist’ dictatorship of Ayub Khan. But they pragmatically embraced displays of piety and Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ project which he linked to his policies of economic liberalisation.
By the late 1980s, this pragmatism had become an established behaviour when the sacred became increasingly public and the secular or the profane was pushed into the private sphere. The middle-class was okay with this and brushed away any notion of hypocrisy in this behaviour. The link between religion and modern material benefits was further smoothed and rationalised by various Islamic evangelical outfits that began to emerge. These were funded by traders, industrialists, shopkeepers, etc.
In her book The God Market, the Indian historian Meera Nanda writes that in South Asia, exhibitions of excessive religiosity are more common in upper- and middle-class segments. This challenges a long-held ‘modernist’ theory, according to which education and economic prosperity mitigates religiosity and relegates it to the private sphere. There is now increasing evidence (at least in South Asia) that lower-middle-, middle- and upper-income groups are more active in exhibiting religiosity than the classes below. According to Nanda, the reasons are economic.
A desperate and failing Imran Khan is manifesting this with a lot more urgency. And his middle-class constituents are responding to this with utter confusion
She writes that the 1980s’ economic liberalisation in countries whose economies had previously been heavily regulated and centralised, produced a curious phenomenon: as economic regulations by the state and governments loosened, deregulated economic activities merged with religious activities. This may be because economic regulation, and even so-called mixed economies, were perceived as being ‘socialist.’ This did not sit well with high- and middle-income groups in India and Pakistan, nor with the religious outfits who denounced them as being secular and anti-religion.
Consequently, many beneficiaries of a deregulated economy became overtly exhibitionistic about their faith. Even lifestyle liberals among them did not hide their sympathy for political conservatism and Islamist points of view. In India, the right-wing BJP got an overwhelming mandate in the elections from the country’s middle-income groups. The party also has burgeoning relations with some of India’s wealthiest entrepreneurs.
The same was the case with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in Pakistan. PTI signalled neoliberal economic policies, but peddled them as corruption-free economics that would erase the ‘elites.’ The party also usurped the rhetoric of the religious parties. The party became the embodiment of the economic marriage between the higher/middle-income groups and religiosity.
According to the seminal modernisation theories, the upper and middle classes were expected to adopt and proliferate progressive currents in politics and the polity. But these classes, in South Asia, may now have become uncanny patrons of religious radicalisation.
A desperate and failing Imran Khan is manifesting this with a lot more urgency. And his middle-class constituents are responding to this with utter confusion: from throwing around the now entirely worn-out anti-corruption rhetoric, to calling anyone opposed to Khan as treacherous crooks and sell-outs, to indulging in bizarre behaviour such as releasing videos of badly choreographed training sessions of ‘fighters’ who will battle anti-Khan forces on the streets, or sharing fake quotes of philosophers, or wrapping Khan’s entirely Islamist and reactionary tirades with the New Age gibberish associated with pop-Sufism that the ‘moderates’ and lifestyle liberals are so fond of.
Recently, I shared photos of a few posters with a good friend who is an enthusiastic lifestyle liberal and a huge Imran Khan fan. The posters claimed that it was one’s ‘divine duty’ to come out and save Khan from being ousted by corrupt forces. Moreover, the posters more-than-alluded that those forces were against all what Khan was doing for Islam and the ‘ummah.’
My friend simply responded by sharing with me a link to an article on corruption. I asked him as how this answered my question. He replied that he wasn’t sure what the question was. So, I spelled it out for him: what does a ‘liberal’ man like him think of the apparently divinely-ordained obligation set for the supporters of a leader who now quite unabashedly wants to be treated as a messiah of the Muslim world? I asked my friend if he will be fulfilling this divine obligation.
His reply: “Yes, if it helps get rid of the corrupt mafias.”
He was texting me this while enjoying a beer in a lavish hut on a private plot of land in Karachi that is aptly called the “French Beach.”