The seemingly never-ending political turmoil in Pakistan has taken a turn for the worse. A raging populist is threatening to destroy the nation’s institutions; the judiciary has lost all credibility over scandals of its own making, traditional political parties have turned into spectacles of incompetence, and the military lays helplessly defeated at its own deceitful games. As a consequence, the economic health of the country is ready to implode at any minute owing to crippling inflation, dwindling foreign reserves and the burgeoning fiscal deficit.
Let me make the case that at the core of all these issues lies the insatiable thirst for power within our educated urban middle classes. The urban middle class’s constant war with our socio-political system has pushed the country to the brink. Through consistent and organized efforts, this class has controlled and used our national narrative around religion, morality, and nationalism to subdue the masses. Whenever the masses have dared to challenge its control, the middle class has sought to destabilize the entire system and raze it to the ground. What we are seeing today is just an exaggerated version of the middle classes’ crusade against those who pulled it out of power.
To gain a clearer understanding of the root causes of the current turmoil caused by the urban middle class, we will need to briefly survey the history and origins of this class. The middle class in its current form emerged in the aftermath of the 1857 War of Independence. During this war, Muslim upper-caste landowners of what is now the Uttar Pradesh region, aligned with the mutineering regiments of the East India Company, and consequently suffered a tremendous loss of life and property.
Within a few decades of their colossal defeat at the hands of the British, the village-level upper-caste landowners in Uttar Pradesh and the Punjab reimagined their economics by embracing western education offered at institutions such as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (later, Aligarh Muslim University), University of Allahabad, Government College Lahore, and the University of the Punjab. The reasons for such a swift embrace of the British education system were threefold. First, the introduction of western medicine in India meant that a lot more sons survived adulthood and, therefore, received an ever-shrinking share of the family inheritance. Second, the newly established land records management made it challenging for the upper-caste landowners to confiscate property from vulnerable groups such as widows and orphans, as had been the norm for centuries. Third, the British bureaucracy offered better financial incentives and prestige than to eke out a living off agriculture.
Soon enough, the sons and grandsons of those who had fought the British in 1857, occupied all sorts of government positions from clerks and patwaris to magistrates and deputy commissioners. Collectively, these salaried classes formed what renowned Marxist academic Hamza Alavi calls the salariat, and the renowned poet Jaun Elia calls the reckless lads of Aligarh (Aligarh ke shararti launday).
By the 1920s, the numbers and insecurities of the Muslim urban middle class had grown to the extent that it aligned itself with the Muslim feudal elite of India under the All-India Muslim League. As the foot soldiers of the Muslim League, the young men from the urban salaried class initially fought for quotas in government jobs, and later a separate country in which they could access public employment sans competition from upper-caste Hindu men.
The creation of Pakistan proved to be a boon for employment-seeking Muslim men from all over the subcontinent with any level of education. While young men from the urban middle class came to occupy important positions in the country’s judicial, bureaucratic, and military services; the feudal elite controlled the political landscape. This arrangement between the middle class and the feudal elite, however, did not last long. Within a few years of the country’s independence, the urban middle class decisively defeated the feudal elites and established complete control over the government through General Ayub Khan. During the 1960s, the middle class surgically removed powerful feudal lords such as the Tiwanas, Daultanas, and Khuhros from the game of politics, and the remaining few feudal politicians were easily brought into line.
Ayub Khan’s industrialization policies helped the middle class replace the feudal elite with industrialists as their new allies in power politics. Along the patterns of England’s Industrial Revolution a couple of centuries earlier, the weaving communities in Pakistan set up textile mills, ironsmiths established steel mills, and the traditional business-oriented castes set up consumer good factories, producing everything from candies to laundry detergents and desi ghee to mosquito repellants. The middle class reaped the benefits of this substantial growth in the industrial sector as new jobs opened up for accountants, managers, and engineers. Furthermore, the new urban-oriented industrialist class espoused values around religion, morality, and family that were broadly similar to the middle class.
While the middle class and the industrialists were busy enjoying the perks of unchecked power during the Ayub era, the rural and urban poor greatly suffered from the government’s policies. Industries such as sugar, tobacco, and textiles exploited farmers and small growers by forming powerful cartels. Similarly, factory workers and laborers toiled under poor working conditions and meagre compensation. In the late 1960s, the low-income rural and urban masses mobilized under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s leadership to rally against the oppression of the education urban middle classes and the industrialists. The low-income masses were joined in this struggle by a small but potent leftist movement within the urban middle class, as well as some of the remnants of the feudal elites.
Upon gaining power in the early 70s, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s coalition hit back at the industrial and the urban middle class by nationalizing all major industries and firing around 1,700 top bureaucrats from their jobs. Bhutto also combined the separate specialized bureaucracy groups into one generalist common-selection cadre so he could transfer and post loyal officers at will in any desired position, from revenue collection to the police service. To benefit his low-income voter base, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto also instituted pro-agriculture policies, distributed land to farm workers, and paved the way for laborers to gain employment in the Middle East.
Arguably the greatest of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s achievements was the 1973 Constitution, which ordains a perpetual dominance of politics over the state apparatus. For the middle class, this Constitution has always been unacceptable since it enshrines power to the politicians, who primarily belong to the elite class, and the low-income masses, who have the majority of votes. The middle class, on the other hand, forms only a small minority of the voting populace, even in the urban spaces, and thus considers itself a loser in this game of constituency-based political representation.
At the onset of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s regime, the middle class saw him as an enemy that needed to be dealt with. Bhutto, for all his qualities, gave too many weaknesses away to his enemies to exploit. An authoritarian at heart, he mercilessly bombed Balochistan and threw dissenting voices in jail. Political leaders like Wali Khan and countless left-leaning political workers across the country suffered a great deal under his rule. While he was harsh on leftists, he was too quick to surrender to right-wing religious zealots. The more political space he gave away to the mullahs in the form of alcohol bans and anti-Ahmadi laws, the more brazen his opponents became.
Finally in 1977, the middle class retook control over the country under General Zia-ul-Haq’s leadership. General Zia propped up a strange form of religious exhibitionism to counter Bhutto’s popularity in the masses, and later used the same blueprint to wage a proxy war against the “evil God-less communists” with the help of the God-fearing Saudis and Americans. The middle class quickly adorned the new religiosity and took full advantage of the stream of American dollars that were being pumped into the economy. Along with military and social aid, the Americans facilitated an expansion of multinational corporations in Pakistan, which further added to the employment prospects and quality of life for the urban middle class. The ever-growing urban middle class needed new settlements, and the military happily volunteered to serve its patrons by establishing Defense Housing Authorities in all major urban centers.
General Zia’s government also reconstructed the industrial elite from the ashes by returning their nationalized assets and offering easy low-interest loans to rekindle their kilns. The industrial elite, led by Nawaz Sharif, repaid the favor by aggressively attacking Benazir Bhutto’s popular politics during the 1990s. Twice the low-income masses elected Benazir into power, and twice her government was dislodged by the military-judiciary-bureaucracy-media nexus led by the urban middle class.
In a stroke of political brilliance, Nawaz Sharif succeeded in setting himself up as a leader for the entire business community of central Punjab, from the smallest of shopkeepers to the wealthiest of industrial magnates. By the late 1990s, Mr. Sharif had enough support from the markets that he did not need the military’s patronage or the urban middle class’s approval to gain power. He thereby sought to mend relations with India to facilitate trade that would benefit his business constituency and sacked General Jahangir Karamat to exert his control over foreign and economic policy.
Nawaz Sharif’s second attempt to sack the army chief failed and the middle class yet again took direct control of the government through General Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf’s rule proved to be a golden era for the urban middle class. Limitless American War on Terror dollars financed a boom in the urban property market throughout the 2000s. Recent university graduates were welcomed with lucrative jobs in banks, telecommunication companies, and media houses. Thousands of fortunate engineers, doctors, and finance professionals found even more lucrative employment opportunities in the Middle East. Young men and women bought residential plots, cars, and trips to international tourist destinations with their corporate jobs.
By the late 2000s, the urban middle class with its growing wealth was no longer dependent on the bureaucracy and industrialists for jobs. By now it also had large enough numbers to establish its own political party. Imran Khan, who had been a fringe political figure until that point, became a viable option as young men and women from the urban middle class flocked toward his charisma. The country’s military took notice of this change and the generals started incubating a narrative and engineering coalition to propel Mr. Khan into power.
On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif retained his support among the flourishing business class, who were also indirectly benefiting from American reconstruction money in Afghanistan. Wholesale markets in Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and Lahore were finding it difficult to keep up with the demands from their Afghan patrons for all sorts of goods ranging from car wipers to cotton-filled blankets. This growth in wealth strengthened the political ambitions of traders that were politically aligned with Mr. Sharif. After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the low-income masses also saw Nawaz Sharif as the next best feasible option and directed their votes to his party’s candidates in the 2008 and 2013 general elections.
Through consistent business-friendly policies and reasonably good governance, Nawaz Sharif’s government was able to rescue the country out of the economic quagmire left by Pervez Musharraf. The business community further expanded and bolstered its fortunes, and so did the masses and the urban middle class. The country’s steady yet fragile progress however, required political stability, rule of law, and good governance to keep the economy’s engines running. There was no room for error as the government walked a tight rope to maintain the dicey balance that kept the ship afloat.
The urban middle class, however, did not appreciate the precarity of the situation. It complained about not being in control of the government and believed that it could do even better under Imran Khan’s premiership. The age-old engine of conspiracies and scheming was ignited by the middle class with the usual suspects performing their usual roles. The media carefully crafted a frenzied corruption narrative against the Sharifs, the intelligence agencies stirred up political agitation and forced electable politicians to change their party allegiances, and the courts passed one controversial judgement after another to entangle Nawaz Sharif and other members of his party in cases.
The middle class had now turned against its former allies in the industrial elite, just the way it had once turned against the feudal elite in the 1960s. This fresh wave of middle-class offensive against the voting masses and the industrial elite was funded by the newly-minted property magnates, mostly comprising of individuals who had benefited from the booming markets of the 2000s and 2010s. These uber-wealthy individuals also included those who had used their connections in the Musharraf government to gain lucrative contracts and favors, or a few who had made their money in blue collar businesses in the United States and England. Filthy rich tycoons such as Aleem Khan, Jahangir Tareen, and Azam Swati all found a welcoming political home in Imran Khan’s political party.
Even after the phenomenal efforts from the courts and the media, and free flowing cash from the real estate elite, the military had to intervene in the vote count on election day and manipulate the results to usher Imran Khan into power with a narrow majority in the 2018 general elections. The supposed ten-year plan to keep Imran in power, however, crumbled within a couple of years due to the unfathomable incompetence of Mr. Khan’s government. While the generals slowly tried to back out from the plan, the urban middle classes stood solidly with Imran. To the urban middle class, Imran was one of their own, and a much better option than thieves-and-dacoits such as Nawaz and Zardari.
When the generals finally decided to part ways with Imran and allowed his government to fall in April 2022, they could not have imagined the fallout that this decision would cause with the urban middle class. Even the most insightful of political commentators would have predicted that the urban middle would choose to stay loyal to the military, with which it has remained closely allied since General Ayub Khan’s coup in the 1950s. In the topsy turvy world of Pakistani politics, the symbiotic relationship between the military and the middle class was the only constant.
Yet, the unthinkable happened. The urban middle class ditched the generals with a vengeance reserved only for forlorn lovers. General Bajwa and his family were pelted with all sorts of abuse by middle class keyboard warriors on social media, and Imran and his supporters openly accused the general of treason.
Nawaz Sharif would have been the happiest of men, seeing the generals who orchestrated his ouster now being pummeled by the same people on whose behalf the military had acted against him. Mr. Sharif’s moment of joy, however, was cut short by a crisis of his own making. In arguably the biggest blunder of his political career, Nawaz Sharif did not call for general elections and allowed his government to oversee perhaps the sharpest inflation in the country’s history.
The inflation crisis might have been caused by Mr. Khan’s incompetence, but the fact that Nawaz’s government was in charge during the crippling price hike shifted the public’s ire from Imran toward Nawaz. For the first time in history, the low-income masses joined the urban middle class to rally against the military establishment and the traditional industrial-feudal elite. For the masses, Imran Khan’s incendiary rhetoric against Nawaz’s government and the generals now reflects the economic pain and fury that they experience every day. Imran Khan’s recent back-to-back electoral wins in Karachi, Punjab, and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa are a testament to his present popularity.
The recent alliance between the urban middle class and the low-income masses, and the concurrent fallout between the middle class and the military signal a major transition away from an exploitative-yet-stable political alliance between the urban middle class and the feudal, industrial and real estate property elites. For the first time in our history, the middle class’s ability to build and set the national narrative is now combined with the voting power of the low-income masses, and the consequences of this reshuffling of class alliances will have a cosmic impact on the country’s established order and future.
Looking ahead, I can think of three scenarios that could play out because of this new alliance reshuffle.
Scenario One. Even without the categorical support from the middle class, the military establishment can still get Imran Khan disqualified from contesting the elections or rig the elections against him. Any such interference is as easy for the military as it is difficult to manage its unintended consequences and fallout. Rising inflation, burgeoning foreign debt, and growing budget and trade deficits on the back of sharp rupee devaluation against the dollar will all continue to haunt the country for the next few years. A weak and unpopular government like that of Shahbaz Sharif, or whoever is the military’s next puppet, will not be able to make the key decisions that are necessary to resuscitate the economy. Steps such as curtailing military spending, getting rid of loss-making public enterprises, and cracking down on property robber-barons would be impossible for a weak government to take, and without these fundamental corrections, the economy will continue its current nosedive toward a fate not dissimilar to that of Sri Lanka and Argentina.
Scenario Two. It is reasonable to assume that popular and middle-class support could lead Mr. Khan to a victory against the military establishment. We know from Mr. Khan’s three and a half years in power that he is a true Trumpian populist with no regard for the rule of law and democratic institutions. He expects nothing short of all state institutions to serve at his will and all of his political opponents to be impaled or exiled. In the pursuit of his narcissistic authoritarian desires, he will destroy whatever is left of our feeble state institutions. The judiciary, bureaucracy, military, and media will all be annihilated to serve his ego, and the consequences of such an erosion will not be too different from other crumbling and fragile states such as Belarus and Iran that are stifled by authoritarian governments.
Scenario Three. A crumbling economy and political chaos resulting from the above two scenarios could set the stage for a military coup. Without support from any significant section of the society, the next adventuring military dictator will find it exceedingly difficult to govern. He will thus need to rely on brute force to hold on to power unlike the dictators that we are used to. A military dictator acting like a true despot to rule over a hostile population will lead us into the hell hole where Myanmar and Egypt already are.
Unfortunately, all three of these scenarios lead to the same dark outcome with no solution in sight. The dominance of the urban middle class over the state and its obstinacy in maintaining that control by subverting popular politics has led us to inevitable political, social, and economic chaos. The question is no longer of whether we will fall into anarchy or disarray, or not. The question is, how long will we allow ourselves to stay in that state for, and what will our society and government look like on the other side of the abyss.