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Smokers’ Corner: On the block

November 05, 2011

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In February I wrote an article on these pages called The blocked elite. Today after following all the excitement amongst the urban middle-class youth and in the populist electronic media about Imran Khan’s successful show in PML-N’s stronghold, Lahore, I believe the concept of the blocked elite needs a revisit.

One can understand the euphoria that penetrated the ranks of many young Pakistanis who are seeing Imran’s long-drawn arrival on the country’s mainstream political scene as some kind of a revolutionary movement in the making. Of course, one should bear in mind we are talking about a generation that gets its history lessons and learns politics not from academically sound books, research papers or even from good old-fashioned discourses between differing ideological poles but from finger-wagging orators masquerading as talk-show hosts, ‘security analysts’ and televangelists, or worse, from those dramatic documentaries that claim to unearth everything from modern Freemasons, to 9/11 conspiracies to the ‘al-dajjal’ (anti-Christ) on YouTube!

Imran’s rally had absolutely nothing to do with any sort of a revolution. Or, to put it in the context of what I am about to launch into, the rally was certainly miles away from the conventional understanding of revolution that exists between the French Revolution (1789) and Russian, Chinese, Cuban and even Iranian revolutions of the 20th century. Ever since the end of the Cold War (1989-91), the many revolutionary uprisings that have taken place in the former communist countries and in numerous Asian and Arab countries after 1991, have all revolved more around urban middle-class aspirations (or frustrations) rather than on any classical Marxist (proletarian/working class) or Maoist (peasant) interpretations of revolution/uprising.

What has happened in the Arab countries during the ‘Arab Spring’ and what is happening in the urban areas of Punjab, were/ are largely middle-class driven events, emerging from what is called the ‘blocked elite’ — i.e. an educated middle-class that feels it has what it takes to become a power-elite but its path is being blocked by a corrupt, unfair and autocratic regime, even if elected. But the question arises, what exactly are middle-class ideals in this context?

In the classical sense they should be democracy, economic stability, good governance and maintenance of law and order. But in the post-Cold War world such ideals have become blurred, especially in Muslim countries like Pakistan where the middle-class has largely begun to perceive democracy as something akin to populist chaos or a way for the West to impose its own political agenda and values.

That’s why in spite of the fact that Pakistan is one of the few Muslim countries that has seen a number of democratic setups, religious groups have made deep inroads into the middle-class psyche.

It is the country’s middle and lower-middle-classes that have (especially since the late 1970s) gone on to air these groups’ thoughts and anti-West rhetoric. But this hasn’t meant the transforming of the country into a strict theological state headed by an amirul momineen. And that’s because associated with these classes’ conservatism is a pragmatic factor that sees classes usually end up supporting conservative democratic parties (like PML-N), whereas it is the ‘masses’ (at least as voters and steps below the blocked elite) are the ones that have always kept religious parties at bay by voting for various left-liberal and quasi-secular, populist, political outfits.

For example, we have seen how the blocked elite in Arab countries demonstrated their aspirations to topple the autocratic elite and are more than likely to elect conservative (but democratic) Islamic parties to parliament. The blocked elite is inherently conservative and its most animated expression, the urban, middle-class youth, may exhibit populist fervour and revolutionary posturing, their main goal remains to (rather unapologetically) find for themselves and their class a place in the ruling political elite apparatus that they believe they have been denied.

In other words these uprisings have nothing to do with crushing the system or even the ‘establishment’, but instead to force it to be readjusted in a way that would allow the entry of the middle-classes in the same political apparatus that they denounce as being flawed. Of course, the sub-text here being that the people heading the apparatus and the system are flawed, not the system itself. It is a sheer delusion thus to associate such uprisings to any popular notions of revolution.

In Pakistan the blocked elite, especially ever since the 1990s, has somewhat always been repulsed by populist democracy, fearing that a popularly elected government too may end up blocking their upwardly mobile ambitions as does an autocratic one. This sentiment is actually an echo of what we call the military-establishment – an elite that nervously and with disdain is always in a tense tussle with the civilian power elite.

That’s why journalist and publisher, Najam Sethi, is correct to describe Khan’s rally in Lahore as largely pro-establishment. Khan has arrived as not only a horse the establishment can bet on now, but his colourful arrival is also a reflection of the aspirations of Pakistan’s blocked elite to find their way into those corridors of civilian power elite that comes in through the process of an election but is a tricky proposition for the military establishment to handle.

Nevertheless, to the much cringing and whining of the blocked elite, it is still this civilian power elite that remains rooted in the economic and political aspirations, not of the blocked elite, but of the simply blocked and thus doomed, masses.