‘Common man’ rising

December 15, 2013

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SOON after the scale of the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) success in the Delhi state elections became apparent, Shah Mahmood Qureshi keenly likened the Indian anti-corruption party to his own.

Rare are the moments when a feudal dynast discovers common cause with ‘the common man’. But the comparison between South Asia’s new middle class parties, which vaulted from zero seats to the status of a third force, is worthy of some consideration.

In 2011, just as Imran Khan was gathering vast crowds at national monuments in Lahore and Karachi, similar-sized rallies were taking place, across the border, at the Jantar Mantar landmark in New Delhi. Both gatherings were full of people, mostly new to politics, who wanted to haul down a venal order.

Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP grew out of Anna Hazare’s anti-graft movement. Like Khan’s campaign, it relied on social media and direct action, and was supported by the youth, celebrities and the assertive middle classes.

Even the rhetoric on both sides of the border forms a near-perfect echo. On Sunday, Kejriwal was asked if he would sit in the opposition.

“We’re the only ones who have been offering opposition,” he replied to anchor Barkha Dutt. “BJP aur Congress dono milay hue hain.” Now, where have we heard that line before?

Kejriwal is no Khan, of course. The former civil servant prides himself on his aam aadmi image. Though partial to bouts of rage, he often slips into a soft, self-effacing tone.

During the May elections, Khan leveraged his cricket fame. Angrily brandishing a bat, he vowed to thrash his opponents with it. Kejriwal chose the gentler symbolism of a jhaaru, or broom. One wanted to break the system; the other, humbly, sweep it away.

The changes in India and Pakistan are part of a broader global upheaval among the middle classes. Just this year, crowds in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil and now Ukraine have taken to city squares to revolt against what they see as inept, grasping and distant political elites.

The South Asian examples stand out for embracing democracy. The Taksim Square protesters of Istanbul have no political vehicle to transport their ambitions. And the Cairene, famously of Tahrir Square, toppled two governments only to back a military coup this July.

At the start of this century, as economist Ruchir Sharma has noted, there was near-universal economic growth across the developing world. The chief beneficiaries of that growth have usually been the urban middle classes, as was the case in Pakistan during the Musharraf boom.

In more recent years, growth has faltered as outrage at corruption and poor governance has soared. The now larger middle classes, with twin assets of education and wealth, have developed a new political voice.

Not all of the middle classes support these movements. Many vote for alternatives, like the PML-N or the Bharatiya Janata Party. But the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and AAP represent the first time that parties with national ambitions have put the middle classes’ concerns at the centre of their platform.

It isn’t just the economy that animates these movements. As the Economist Intelligence Unit wrote this year, a recurring feature of the protests has been demands for dignity and respect — themes that Khan stresses in his anti-drones protests.

True to their 21st-century roots, these movements are generally light on ideology. Their nebulous promises of change can unite disparate and even rival elements.

After an election, the divisions become clearer. Khan’s more liberal supporters now feel uneasy with his position on the Taliban. And many conservatives in PTI aren’t thrilled by his enthusiasm for peace with India.

Both Khan and Kejriwal cast themselves as the tribunes of the entire awam or janata. And yet, for all the populism, their voters tend to be more well-heeled than most.

Khan’s party clinched the wealthiest seats in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, where house prices can exceed $1 million. It also had a strong showing in other outposts of prosperity, like the Sialkot and Lahore cantonments.

But outside the cities, the votes fall. Kejriwal’s success has thus far been limited to Delhi, home of the Hazare movement. He hasn’t thrown himself into other state elections.

Unlike the poor majority, the middle classes have diminished their reliance on the state. They use private education, private energy, private security and private transport.

One of Khan’s poorly directed assaults during the May elections was on the Lahore metro bus, a flawed but rare expansion of public transport. The project won PML-N support from the Lahori poor, who easily outnumber Khan’s usually car-owning supporters.

In South Asia, driving your own car is a mark of being middle class. The poor can’t afford them, and the rich have drivers. But car owners form merely 2pc of the population. Even with five passengers to every vehicle, the segment amounts to fewer than one in 10 people.

Even smaller numbers travel abroad, own land, or use social media. When Khan mentions the faded esteem of a green passport, the villainies of patwaris, or the potential of tech-savvy youth, he is speaking to the concerns of a small minority.

In poor countries, the middle classes can resemble a rival elite. It would seem odd, then, that the most successful slice of society also happens to be the most disillusioned one.

But rather than looking at fellow South Asians, the comparisons they draw are with the middle classes of the West and the Gulf — where many have travelled, lived, studied or have relatives.

This is why Khan constantly invokes Sweden, California and even Singapore. Yet none of those countries currently represents a plausible future for Khyber Pakthunkhwa.

Kejriwal was probably wise to say he won’t try to form a government in Delhi. Fulfilling lofty campaign promises isn’t easy, as Khan is finding. Perhaps that’s why he’s gone to back to the more reliable politics of protest.

The writer is a journalist.