Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In March 1991, a few days after the US forces invaded Iraq for the first time, 90 per cent of Americans who were polled approved of President George H. Bush’s ‘job performance’. Bush’s approval ratings skyrocketed and political commentators predicted that the Republican Party would be able to retain the presidency in the 1992 election. 

Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and then Bush had held the White House since 1981. And in 1991, it seemed Bush, too, would be able to win a second term just as his predecessor Reagan had.  

However, by the end of 1991, Bush’s approval ratings began to plummet, surprising many political pundits. This is when the strategy team of Bush’s opponent Bill Clinton (Democratic Party) came up with the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” 

Clinton was able to break the winning streak of the Republican Party by attacking the Bush administration’s economic performance, knowing fully well that the struggling economy had begun to impact many Republican voters as well. 

According to the famous German philosopher and political theorist Karl Marx, a person’s “political consciousness” is almost always shaped by his economic circumstances. 

Let me demonstrate this through the example of an acquaintance of mine, Tahir, or rather, through the story of his dad, Baqir. I’ve known Tahir since school. His family became extremely conservative in the 1980s, but it wasn’t always so. 

Tariq’s father had migrated to Pakistan from India in 1947. He was 16 at the time. In Karachi, Tahir’s paternal grandfather was a small trader who set up a shop in Karachi in 1949. Tahir’s father often visited the shop after school.  

Tahir once told me that their “class status suddenly jumped from lower-middle to upper-middle” in the early 1950s, when his grandfather managed to export merchandise to the US forces stationed in Korea. 

Between 1950 and 1953, the Pakistani economy witnessed a boom of sorts due to such exports to the US during armed conflict between the US military and China-backed North Korean armies.  

Tahir’s father, Baqir, took over the family business in the mid-1950s and began to expand it. Tahir told me that his father led a “highly Westernised life” and befriended many industrialists, bureaucrats and politicians. Baqir fully supported Ayub Khan’s 1958 coup because he believed that political instability had begun to negatively impact his family’s economic fortunes. 

And Baqir did greatly benefit from the Ayub regime’s ‘pro-business’ policies. In 1960, he married a bureaucrat’s daughter. It was a love marriage. Apart from expanding his export business, Baqir spread his economic interests by buying two cinemas in Karachi and one in Lahore. He also bought a restaurant and opened two bars in Karachi’s Saddar and Tariq Road areas. 

He also built a new palatial family home in Karachi. 

According to political economist Akbar Zaidi, the country’s annual growth rate during the Ayub regime (1958-69) was an impressive 6.7 per cent in GDP. But Zaidi also mentions that Ayub’s policies in this context also created economic disparities which were exploited by opposition parties, such as Z.A. Bhutto’s PPP. 

Baqir was a card-carrying member of Ayub’s centrist and modernist Conventional Muslim League. In December 1971, the PPP came to power on a ‘socialist’ platform. There was an increase in Pakistan’s import bills due to the 1973 world oil price shock, a serious post-1973 global recession during 1974-77, failure of cotton crops in 1974-75, pest attacks on crops and massive floods in 1973, 1974 and 1976-77. Pakistan experienced the worst inflation during 1972-77, when prices increased by 15 per cent. 

As his business nosedived, Baqir sold his cinemas and bars in 1973, and in 1975 he wrapped up his export business and moved the family to London where he opened two Pakistani restaurants. However, he returned to Karachi after the fall of the Bhutto regime in 1977. By 1980, he was able to resurrect his business in Karachi when the Gen Zia dictatorship initiated denationalisation, deregulation and privatisation policies. 

Pakistan achieved a national savings/GDP ratio of 16 per cent in 1986-87 amidst massive inflows of worker remittances from the Middle East. Unprecedented financial aid from the US and Saudi Arabia (for the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan) also helped. 

Baqir was successful in regenerating his export business and also became an importer after Zia lifted curbs on imports. This was the period of Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ and Baqir followed suit by shunning his ‘Westernised ways’. He became a ‘born-again Muslim’. His palatial house in Karachi also went through a transformation. Expensive paintings gave way to equally expensive calligraphy of sacred verses and water- colour paintings of Islam’s sacred sites. 

He built a mosque in the area where the house stood and also one in his vast office. 

He remained a Zia supporter even after the latter’s demise in 1988. He voted for Nawaz Sharif’s (then ‘Ziaist’ and pro-business) PML-N until his business once again began to go south due to international sanctions imposed on Pakistan after the country tested two nuclear devices in 1998.

In the early 2000s, Baqir handed over the reigns of the family business to Tahir. Tahir supported the Musharraf dictatorship for a while but, despite the 8.5 per cent growth rate achieved by the regime till 2005, Tahir could not revive the family business. 

Out of frustration, he sold it off and joined a multinational organisation as an employee. The frustration was also vented out through supporting the anti-Musharraf movement in 2007. The economy had begun to spiral down and this also meant Tahir’s wish to revive the family business was thwarted. 

He got married and moved to Qatar and then Saudi Arabia. This is when I reconnected with him through Facebook. He supported Imran Khan in 2013 and, just before the 2018 elections, he was posting statuses about the upcoming ‘Islamic welfare state’ and Riyasat-i-Madina on Facebook. 

However, only recently, as the country’s economy is once again threatening to spiral down, his Facebook posts have become critical of Khan’s regime. So I inboxed him: “Tahir, it seems there is no place for you to restart the family business in Riyasat-i-Madina.”

He didn’t reply.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 26th, 2019