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Middle-class messiahs

May 15, 2012


PAKISTAN’S middle class is understandably the socioeconomic group most disenchanted with Pakistan’s governance status. The upper class, free from the worries of making a living, actually benefits from the current system. The lower class is too preoccupied with survival to vent its frustrations vocally.

Sandwiched between them is the middle class which is neither free from but nor overburdened by livelihoods concerns. Consequently, it most vocally complains about governance.

Since the middle class dominates politics in developed countries, middle-class rule is often presented as the panacea for Pakistan by sections of the middle class. The upper class can only be horrified by the prospect since it would lose its privileges. The lower class too is unlikely to jump up in unison to suggest middle-class rule. In developed countries, where the middle-class constitutes a relatively homogenous majority, middle-class rule makes sense. However, how relevant is it for Pakistan where the middle class is an ethnically and ideologically non-homogenous minority?

Ironically, the emergence of middle-class rule would mean going back to square one for Pakistan for it fought its independence struggle under middle-class leadership. This, however, was an anomaly created by the constitutional independence path provided by the British which forced landlords, the most powerful Muslim social groups then, to abdicate leadership to professionals, who could negotiate complex legal and financial divorce matters. After Independence, this leadership soon lost its utility for landlords, who then wrested back Muslim League’s leadership.

However, this did not end the middle class’s rule in Pakistan as the middle class managed to maintain its grip on power through its control over the bureaucracy and military. Thus, contrary to common perceptions, Pakistan’s topmost political executives have mostly been middle-class persons. Jinnah, Liaquat, Ghulam Mohammed, Iskandar Mirza, Ayub, Yahya, Zia and Musharraf all had middle-class origins. Many, perhaps most, of the worst blunders committed by Pakistani rulers occurred during their era though clearly the upper-class Bhuttos and Sharifs have also made huge contributions to the mess.

Now, it could be argued validly that except for the founding fathers, none of the other gentlemen assumed power democratically. Being part of elite groups like the military and bureaucracy, they did not exhibit middle-class concerns and values. Thus, a middle-class leadership emerging democratically could provide better governance.

However, Pakistan’s dainty and timid middle class has largely eschewed its rough political arena historically. Fear of the political process has been a reason. But, equally important has been the fact that sections of the middle class have historically had so much access to power through non-political power bases (e.g., the bureaucracy, military and private-sector jobs) that they have not felt the need to enter politics. In fact, they have largely supported dictatorships which better address their interests.

This trend has been most visible in urban Sindh and Punjab, the two areas with the largest middle classes historically. Both were so well represented in the non-political power bases that they ‘forgot’ to produce political leaders for several decades in the post-Independence arena. Hence, all post-Independence popular politicians (e.g., Mujib, Bhutto, Wali Khan, Bizenjo) till the 1970s emerged from within disaffected ethnic groups who were poorly represented in non-political power bases. Once democracy became a fait accompli by the mid-1980s due to the struggles of others, these two ethnic groups hastily precipitated the emergence of the MQM and N-League so as to become competitive in the political arena too.

Middle-class political participation has increased since then in Pakistan. The MQM, ANP, religious parties and some Baloch nationalist parties are largely middle-class. Within the PPP and N-League too, a sizable chunk of junior MPs today come from the middle class. This trend has had some impact without turning Pakistan’s politics on its head. Thus, municipal services in larger cities have improved. However, these politicians have embraced the upper class-maintained patronage political economy — a system anathematic to the emergence of good governance since it prioritises distributing largesse based on personalised relationships over merit-oriented development.

Hence, missing until recently has been a nationwide political party dominated by merit-oriented professionals. Such professionals can be divided into two groups. The first includes professionals in commercial and technical fields, who usually are socio-economically disconnected from the poor. Often conservative, they view progress as fiscal and administrative reforms (rather than land reforms), large dams, industrial agriculture, swanky airports, emasculated governments and hyper-free markets, which may not benefit the poor.

In fact, some among them argue that the poor are primarily responsible for the country’s mess due to their high illiteracy and fertility rates, forgetting that major societal outcomes are largely determined by the actions of powerful groups like themselves and the upper class. Their rule often perpetuates inequalities though it avoids the worst excesses usually committed under upper-class rule. The PTI mainly represents this crowd. Thus, this group is finally making its political debut.

The second group includes liberal professionals in social movements who are organically connected to the poor. Since the poor majority cannot capture power directly, their leadership can serve as a second-best proxy. This has happened in Latin America with consequent benefits for the poor. This group is still highly unorganised politically and divided ethnically and it will take years for it to dominate Pakistani politics.

Thus, the middle class has participated in governance and has consequently partially contributed to the mess in various guises since 1947. While there is some truth to the claimed virtues of middle-class rule, one must differentiate among the various mutations of Pakistan’s middle class and the relevance of their differential goals for Pakistan’s development.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.