Punjab politicised

Published October 24, 2014
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

IN the end, one half of the dharna double-header ended in timid retreat, with a predictable final round of grandiose claims by Allama Sahib. For his part Imran Khan on the same day announced he would stick it out till the bitter end.

It was always going to be a case of when the Constitution Avenue campers would give up rather than if. The real-time manipulations of live television could not ultimately secure the epic victory the self-proclaimed revolutionaries had predicted.

Yet an argument can be made that a quick wind-up of the Nawaz Sharif regime is by no means out of the question. Most pundits are now suggesting that a consensus on the holding of mid-term elections is in the making. The plot thickens.


The ‘alienated elite’ is a new factor in Punjabi politics.


Regardless of what will eventually be decided in the corridors of power, different factions of the so-called middle classes have adopted definitive political positions over the past few months. And since Punjab is home to a big chunk of the middle class, one can safely say that Punjab is as politicised right now as it has been in a long while.

The last time a wide cross-section of Punjabi society was as invested in the political field was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The rural and urban poor were united by leftist ideology and posed a decisive threat to state and class power.

This challenge was met not just by repression but counter-mobilisation of the commercial middle classes, based largely in north and central Punjab. The Pakistan National Alliance uprising marked this class’s coming of age. During the Zia years and ever since, the ‘bazaar bourgeoisie’ has gone from strength to strength.

The commercial middle classes maintain substantial linkages with political power, and are one of the main faces of the conservatism that has grown more pronounced in Pakistani society over the past few decades.

There is, however, a more affluent segment of the middle classes that, by jumping on Imran Khan’s bandwagon, has ignited an intra-Punjab political tug of war. Based mostly in big cities, often with one foot abroad and one at home, and inclined to think of itself as civilised and forward-looking, this upper middle class — or what in a recent column I called the alienated elite — is, for the time being at least, a new factor in Pakistani, and most crucially, Punjabi, politics.

On the one hand then are the rural and small-town middle classes who have historically put their lot in with the PML, PPP and religious parties. On the other are the metropolitan gentiles that are putting their all into the PTI boat. It has the making of quite an epic fight.

Lest one get carried away, the PTI has also been keen to effect the defections of as many established politicos from the old parties as possible. Since the Zia years, ideology-less politicians have seamlessly switched political allegiances, always placing their bets on the most likely winners of electoral contests. Those like Shah Mehmood Qureshi who joined the PTI fold are just the latest in a long list.

That the PTI is a viable option for such established politicos, however, is at least partially due to the politicisation of a culturally and economically influential segment of society that has been politically dormant for some time.

When the dharnas were only a few days old, I wrote that politics was ultimately the casualty of the televised brand of populism of which Qadri and Khan were the face. Despite the politicisation of Punjab’s upper middle classes under the PTI umbrella, and the attendant effect this is having on the historical constituencies of the older parties, I cannot feel optimistic about how this particular political story will end.

Since the late 1970s, the working masses of this country — including Punjab — have ceased to be central players in political realignments, let alone major ones. They are but marginal actors that inertly make up the numbers at rallies, cast votes and animate populist rhetoric.

Certainly the ongoing wrangle between the PTI and PML — and the various segments of the middle classes that form these parties’ most important support bases — will have a major effect on the lives of working people. But they will simply experience whatever changes much as they have done all other major political realignments of the past few decades — as passive recipients rather than active makers of their destinies.

Whether in the form of the bazaar bourgeoisie or their liberal lifestyle-toting bosses in offices and homes in big cities, Punjab’s poor remain subject to an intense, patronage-based social order that harkens back to the landlord-dominated one of the colonial and early post-colonial period. The hegemonic order within Punjab is cracking at the seams, but counter-hegemonic forces remain conspicuous by their absence.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2014

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