FROM the tail-end of the Musharraf regime up till the 2013 elections, local and international publications ran a number of stories about Pakistan’s rising middle class. Some covered the economic opportunities offered by its 40 million-odd constituents (any household that made over Rs30,000 per month was considered middle class), while others spoke of the new forms of political assertion it promised.
Both perspectives had their root in some form of material (and discursive) reality: total consumption as a percentage of the economy has risen steadily since the early 2000s (to an all-time high of 85 per cent last year); manifesting itself through rabid consumerism in large and small urban centres. New shopping malls and other retail developments, now ubiquitous in their existence, stand as monuments to the consumerist turn in Pakistan’s economy.
Similarly, the promise of a ‘new’ kind of politics on the back of middle-class expansion came from the birth of the private electronic and social media sphere, the experience of the lawyers’ movement, and the rise of PTI in late 2011 and early 2012. These trends/events made it seem like the more traditional forms of political discourse and participation were on their way out.
The winning party might be different, but undergirding its win will be the same logic and strategy that propelled so many others to elected office in the past.
The 2013 election, and subsequent by-elections and polls held for local governments across the country, showed that this was not necessarily the case. As a large and culturally diverse income demographic, middle-class voters approach the political world in different ways. Some were swayed by the PTI’s anti-corruption, anti-status quo rhetoric, while others preferred the incremental, infrastructure gains promised by the PML-N. But most importantly, all this was happening while the actual political fate of the country was being determined through the familiar grind of dhara patronage politics and candidate potency in rural areas.
Five years on, and on the eve of another general election, similar patterns are expected to take centre stage once more. The winning party might be different, but undergirding its win will be the same logic and strategy that has propelled so many others to elected office in the past.
On first glance, this makes for pessimistic reading. Not necessarily because patronage and personality-oriented politics is intrinsically evil, but because it suggests stagnation and persistence. It suggests that this iron-cage structure moulds earnest intentions into expedient strategy, and leaves one asking how progressive change is even possible in such stifling circumstances.
There is no comforting answer to this question. There is, however, a way to recalibrate expectations. A decade of democracy might have been marked by the same kind of political absurdities seen over the last 70 years — political infighting, institutional conflicts, persisting uncertainty — but it has also seen some discrete (but nonetheless concrete) changes in the nature of politics itself. And a part of this, at least, is down to the political impact of urbanisation and the growth of a middle-class demographic.
Last week, PTI-affiliated social media accounts published a list of the party’s achievements in government. It included rising outlays on health and education, as well as reforms designed to improve citizen-state interaction in key sectors (such as policing). For much of the last few months, the PML-N has publicised its own achievements in Punjab, which includes a host of new infrastructure schemes, but also an ambitious set of reforms in the education sector. Even the PPP has attempted to showcase its efforts in improving health provision and social protection in rural Sindh. Resultantly, the airwaves are dotted with masala-driven (and usually uninformed) debates on who’s done better in government, and who got their priorities right.
Maybe because the standard of service delivery is still so poor, none of this counts as progress. Who cares that a few boundary walls are fixed if millions of kids are still out of school? Or who cares that mass transit has opened up new employment opportunities and increased local investment if there’s no clean drinking water in most parts of the country? For those unlucky enough to be hooked onto social media, these questions and debates are like part of the furniture. There isn’t a Facebook wall or a Twitter timeline free from them.
But relevantly enough, this cacophony of competition is the discrete change taking place in Pakistani politics. If we were to distil all the rhetoric around a decade of democratisation, and attempt to locate one solid step forward, it would be this. Politics as it stands today may not be capable of delivering on heightened expectations, but its overarching discourse is lumbering towards more tangible concerns.
Truth be told, sweeping change was never possible in this country. The old ways of doing things and the institutions so accustomed to asserting themselves over everyone else are far too entrenched to be done away with instantly. There are big-ticket questions about the nature of the state, and its contract with citizens that are still waiting to be asked (and solved). What is the future of the federation? What are the rights of ethnic and religious minorities? What is the role of the military in politics? The scope and space for asking these questions has always been limited, and this reality does not appear to be changing anytime soon. However, other types of questions have started to resonate and their impact can be seen in small nooks and crannies. One hopes the big-ticket ones find traction at some point too.
Pakistan is a low-income country with poor social indicators, a venal elite, and a set of predatory state institutions. This is the baseline turf on which we are operating, and which we have to contend with. The scope for drastic improvements in a short period of time is low, and saddling the political system with heightened expectations is a recipe for guaranteed disappointment. Structural transformations like urbanisation and economic growth will ensure change does take place, but it will likely not be at the pace everyone wants.
Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2018