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The cultural charades of our losing middle class

Updated December 15, 2014


Young supporters take their picture with a mobile phone during a PTI rally in Islamabad. —AP/file
Young supporters take their picture with a mobile phone during a PTI rally in Islamabad. —AP/file

As Khan continues his protests aimed at bringing down the government, in the urban areas of Pakistan, people are raising a number of questions about the state of our society. Among these questions is this rather obvious one: why are the urban middle classes perpetually annoyed and angry?

Before the 2013 elections, they were constantly annoyed with PPP and its model of governance, and since the elections, their ire has focused on the PML-N and its apparent inability to address their concerns. And irrespective of what the PTI would have us believe, their true base is the urban middle classes, who are funneling their frustrations with everyone else through the medium of Khan.

So how is this small yet highly vocal segment of society going unheard by the largest political parties in the country?

This question seems simple enough but for some reason, has long been ignored in favour of questions that branch from it; why urban middle classes back dictators are often the subject of discussions, instead of the core question above. In a way, the underlying issue has been ignored in favour of the effects it has on this crucial and vocal element of the society.

An inherently shy society

The answer to this question, I believe, is in differentiating between what the real demands are and what the nominal demands are.

In our society, we have a tendency to keep up complaisant appearances, while abiding by their way of doing things. Take, for instance, how we deal with guests who overstay their welcome; no family would ever say straight up that it is getting late and they would like the guests to leave because that is just not the polite thing to do.

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Instead, what they would do is up the ante and go on to offer beds and even breakfast 'if the guests wanted to stay the night'. The invitation is not really any invitation but the cue to leave. Guests abiding by the social contract would get the real message and proceed accordingly.

The point is, ‘rakh rakhao’ (social niceties) is important for us. Often, we take it to the extreme (the distinctive phrase 'log kya kahengay' being indicative of our unhealthy obsession with playing to the gallery).

We are never upfront about what we want, and that, I believe, is the root of the problem, because politics does not operate like that; it is much simpler and to the point.

Let me explain.

Another way to put this social attribute of our society is that Pakistani people love rhetoric.

Having spent a good year and half of my life in politics and then about four more years studying it, I have seen that closely. Populism works in societies like ours because all the feel-good rhetoric sounds so wonderful to us.

But the way these attributes come into play around every general election explains the frustrations chronically plaguing our urban middle classes.

How middle classes lose out in elections

Before every election, politicians spew rhetoric in overwhelming proportions, most of which is aimed at the lowest segment of the society. This builds up demands and expectations, and not only among the masses but in the middle classes as well.

This is where that attribute of socially acceptable insincerity comes into play. The middle classes assume the politicians are making them promises when in fact, the government initiatives being promised are not targeted at them.

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Our most typical election campaigns constitute what is, in essence, rhetoric aimed at the masses (who hold the power of vote) propagated by the elite (who are running for elections) and urban middle classes (who are the most vocal element of our society).

After the polls, the elites get what they set out to do (get elected) and the masses get some sort of relief through government programmes (which is nowhere close to what they need but is a start).

The only segment of society that does not get anything out of it is the most vocal one i.e. the urban middle classes. You see where the problem is?

This most vocal segment of the society raises awareness, builds energy, and as a consequence, naturally expects the new regime to make a difference for them.

Take a look: The growing middle class

But in fact, the issues they raised never impacted their day-to-day lives. Matters related to middle classes were never brought up, but they never realised it, owing in large part to the culture of a society which likes to operate behind facades; which likes to hide its desires and demands.

What they want versus what they demand

Take for instance government subsidies for farmers or loan schemes for small scale entrepreneurs.

These are valid demands but they are not going to help out an urban middle class university graduate whose parents have just shelled out close to half a million rupees on ‘education’ in hopes that would help their child land a half-decent job. PKR50,000 in loans to entrepreneurs may be awesome for a lot of people, but for this person, it is useless simply due to the Return on Investment ratio.

Or take the case of Metro Bus, a mass transit program that services over 150,000 people a day and improves travelling time for thousands of people. It has borne the brunt of criticism that mostly came from people who will never, in their lifetimes, ever use a service like it.

Same is the case with Benazir Income Support Program, which is criticised all the time on social media and even to a certain extent in traditional media, too. It is a program that does good work but not for the vocal segments of the society.

All this creates the frustration we are now seeing on TV.

The middle classes demand to know: they took part in the process and they spoke up, so where is the result?

They need to realise that all the speaking up they did is helping, but not them.

I mean, how often do you see pre-election coverage discuss viable financial products for the middle classes?

Where are the housing subsidies which allow you to own a house by the time you are in your 40s instead of 70s?

Where are the new jobs?

Where are the higher wages?

See: A mindset frozen in time

Electioneering in our country hardly includes policy debates on those matters, primarily because the urban middle classes do not boast a large voter base – they form merely one-fifth of the total vote share, but they often confuse the idea of having a sizeable voice with having more votes.

To add to their woes, the social rakh rakhao culture aka penchant for pro-poor rhetoric have them stuck in a vicious cycle of screaming out somebody else's demands instead of their own.

It's time the middle classes realised that their disappointment with governance will never end until they are brutally honest about their demands from the government and drop the charade of niceness.

The way the system is built right now, the only ones not getting their demands out are the urban middle classes and that is a problem which needs to be addressed.

For that to happen, the urban middle classes, the politicians, the bureaucracy/military establishment need to take them seriously instead of discounting those demands in favour of populist initiatives. This segment of the society needs to be respected because every single citizen deserves a decent level of governance, and these particular ones have been ignored for a dangerously long time.