SMOKERS’ CORNER: WHO ARE 'THE AWAAM?

Published April 14, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Like politicians, political commentators, too, frequently use the word ‘awaam’ [the masses]. I once asked a political analyst what he meant by the term awaam?  He said “common people.” In that case, he was certainly not part of the awaam, I pointed out — and he agreed.

But like many of his contemporaries, he uses the word awaam a lot — especially when describing Imran Khan’s popularity. “Awaam uss ke saath hain [the common people are with him]” is a common refrain. What or who are the awaam? And are the middle classes part of the awaam as well? Responses to this question are almost always ambiguous and unsure. But the concept of the awaam has been changing.

Awaam is a plural Urdu word, from ‘aam’ meaning common. From the early 20th century, the word’s usage saw manifold increase when Muslim political leaders in South Asia began to utter it during their speeches. Awaam in this context meant the masses. Globally, up until the early 1970s at least, the word ‘masses’ was mostly used by left-wing leaders and theorists. It meant peasants in the countryside and the proletariat (working classes) in the cities. The left understood it as a revolutionary force with the potential to overthrow capitalism.

The nationalist right saw the masses as a collective of common, simple, patriotic people with the potential of becoming a powerful nationalistic whole. To the liberal democrats, however, there was a difference between the masses and ‘the people.’ The democrats saw the people as made up of persons, each conscious of their own responsibility, whereas the masses were an ‘easy plaything’ in the hands of anyone seeking to exploit their emotions. 

The word denoting ‘the masses’ is often used recklessly by political commentators and the media, leading to glib understandings that negate class. But who exactly comprises the mass of common people?

The meaning of the masses was not as ambiguous as it would become from the 1970s onwards. Communists, fascists and democrats all saw themselves as protectors of the common people. However, in established Western democracies, where the middle classes expanded and became the largest voting bloc, ‘the people’ became the middle-class electorate. At the same time, ‘class politics’, or politics based on ‘class conflict’, began to fade away. 

By the 1980s, the size of the middle classes in developing countries too had begun to grow. Enjoying better opportunities for upward mobility, they were able to position themselves in the mainstream media. They then began to pilot contemporary political and social discourses to their advantage. 

Similar to what had happened in the developed countries, in developing countries, too, the discourse gradually eased out the concept of class politics. The new discourse now posited that class politics is largely about interaction between the working classes and the ‘ruling elites’ and ignores the middle classes. 

The middle class in developing countries such as India and Pakistan now constitute a large chunk of the electorate and are important economic players. This class has begun to see itself as part of the awaam/ janta. But it alludes to this without really talking about class.

However, despite the erosion of class politics, most politicians remain aware of the influence that the old imagining of the masses still carries in an election. So, they began to use symbolism to appeal to working-class sentiments and aesthetics, without really offering anything in the shape of pro-working class policies. For example, in Pakistan, wearing shalwar kameez is symbolic of becoming one with the awaam

Populists have adopted this kind of symbolism in the most effective manner. According to the German sociologist Linus Westheuser, populism ‘totalises’ its reference group, ‘the people’, and obscures its specific class or group character. The people or the masses can now be anyone, as long as they support a leader’s agenda and rhetoric. 

Modern-day politics eliminates class, not because it wants to exhibit classlessness, but because it does not want to ‘alienate’ the expanding middle classes. The middle classes in the US constitute approximately 50 per cent of the population. Over 60 per cent in most European countries are from this class (Pew Research Centre, 2017).

It’s a significant voting bloc and, thus, very much part of ‘the people.’ But in developing countries such as India and Pakistan, classes that are below-the-middle (BTM) are in a majority. 

According to the Indian economist Ejaz Ghani, 31 per cent of India’s population can be termed middle class. In Pakistan, the percentage of this class is between 33-40 per cent (UNDP, 2021).

Given that the upper class makes up no more than three per cent of the populace in Pakistan, over 55 per cent of the masses are BTM, including the lower-middle class. This means that, in both the countries, the mass of the population is still made up of classes that are BTM.

These are still the larger voting blocs here — the awaam. As demonstrated by Gallup Pakistan surveys in 2018 and in March 2024, the BTM blocs have consistently voted for large mainstream parties such as the centrist Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the centre-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) — whereas the middle classes have increasingly voted for the populist Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). 

This is due to the perception within the BTM that the first two parties are more likely to safeguard the interests of the traditional awaam than the third major party. PTI’s vote bank remained around 32 per cent during the 2018 and 2024 elections. Approximately 40 per cent of the votes were split between the PML-N and the PPP, and the remaining went to smaller parties. 

According to a study by The World Inequality Lab, the BTM vote has been splintering between PML-N, PPP and other parties. This is a disadvantage for them in the first-past-the-post system. The study also notes that, even though PTI hasn’t been sweeping the elections, it has, however, “unified a new elite” as a growing voting bloc. 

The ‘new elite’ are urban and peri-urban middle classes in league with certain traditional landed and industrial elites. They have come together as a voting bloc beyond ethnic or sectarian biases. This has served PTI’s electoral fortunes well in the first-past-the-post system. 

But keep in mind that this bloc transcends ethnicity and sectarianism but not class. That’s why PTI’s rhetoric is largely aimed towards appealing to middle-class ideas of economic prosperity, patriotism and Islam. 

If one were to define the BTM as the awaam (and I believe one should), then the awaam did not vote for PTI. The awaam’s vote split between the PML-N and the PPP (and the smaller parties). Political commentators need to be a tad more mindful of using the word awaam

As demonstrated by The World Inequality Lab study, when commentators speak of PTI’s vote-bank, they are actually talking about — an albeit growing — unified voting bloc of new elites. Not the awaam.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 14th, 2024

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