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The rise of Mehran man

April 17, 2010

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As riots erupt in Pakistan over power shortages and textile mill owners plan strikes, there is much talk about how the country's economy is on the brink of collapse — yet again.

What is being obscured here amidst the storm and fury is the solid advances the economy has made over the last decade. For instance, in terms of purchasing power parity, Pakistan has the 27th largest economy in the world, while in dollar terms, it is the 48th biggest. GDP per capita has grown from $450 in 1999 to $1,250 last year. In 2005, the World Bank rated the ease of doing business in Pakistan as the highest in the region, and considered it higher than either China or India.

While external debt increased from $39bn in 1999 to $50bn in 2009, poverty levels have fallen by over 10 per cent since 2001. Indeed, there are now around 30 million Pakistanis who are considered to be in the middle class with an average income of $10,000 annually, while some 17 million are now bracketed with the upper and upper-middle classes.

Even though this does not approach China's and India's spectacular progress in this period, it does represent a solid advance. If one factors in the political turmoil the country has gone through, together with its ongoing insurgencies in the tribal areas and Balochistan, Pakistan's progress has been impressive by any standard.

How do these numbers translate into day-to-day life in Pakistan? To examine the social transformation the country is undergoing, Jason Burke uses the Suzuki Mehran as a yardstick to measure change. In his 'Letter from Karachi' published in the current issue of Prospect, the Guardian reporter writes

“In Pakistan, the hierarchy on the roads reflects that of society. If you are poor, you use the overcrowded buses or a bicycle. Small shopkeepers, rural teachers and better-off farmers are likely to have a $1,500 Chinese or Japanese motorbike.... Then come the Mehran drivers. A rank above them, in air-conditioned Toyota Corolla saloons, are the small businessmen, smaller landlords, more senior army officers and bureaucrats. Finally, there are the luxury four-wheel drives of 'feudal' landlords, big businessmen, expats, drug dealers, generals, ministers and elite bureaucrats. The latter may be superior in status, power and wealth, but it is the Mehrans which, by dint of numbers, dominate the roads.”

This growing affluence has already caused a major power shift, with the urban population now having a bigger say after years of being ruled by feudal landowners. As urbanisation gathers pace, Pakistan's traditional power elite will increasingly come from the cities, and not from the rural hinterland. This will have a profound impact not just on politics, but on society as a whole. As Burke observes in his Prospect article

“Politically, the Bhutto dynasty's Pakistan People's Party, mostly based in rural constituencies and led by feudal landowners, will lose out to the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif with its industrial, commercial, urban constituency. Culturally, the traditional, folksy, tolerant practices in rural areas will decline in favour of more modernised, politicised Islamic strands and identities. And as power and influence shifts away from rural elites once co-opted by colonialism, the few elements of British influence to have survived will fade faster.”

Often, perceptive foreigners spot social trends that escape us because we are too close to them to see the changes going on around us. For instance, Burke identifies the shift away from English, and sees 'Mehran man' as urban, middle class and educated outside the elite English-medium system. He sees Muslims being under attack from the West, and genuinely believes that the 9/11 attacks were a part of a CIA/Zionist plot. Actually, my experience is that many highly educated and sophisticated people share this theory.

Burke continues his dissection of the rising Pakistani middle class “Mehran man is deeply proud of his country. A new identification with the ummah, or the global community of Muslims, paradoxically reinforces rather than degrades his nationalism. For him, Pakistan was founded as an Islamic state, not a state for South Asian Muslims. Mehran man is an 'Islamo-nationalist'. His country possesses a nuclear bomb....”

Mehran man's views about the region and the world reflect contradictions and confusion. While India is home to Bollywood and IPL cricket, it is also viewed as the historic enemy. And while increasingly Islamic jihadis who kill Pakistanis are seen as terrorists, those who kill westerners or Indians are called freedom fighters. Small surprise, then, that public opinion in Pakistan no longer favours a pro-western agenda.

In his encounters with army officers, Burke sees a growing alienation from western goals and aims. According to him, the army is now full of Mehran men, and this has dramatically changed the institution's orientation. He concludes on this sobering note

“All this poses problems for the West. Our policy towards Pakistan has long been based on finding the interlocutor who resembles us the most — Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto, now her widower — and then trying to persuade them to fit in with our agenda. But the people we are talking to find themselves more and more cut off, culturally and politically, from those they lead, and less and less capable of implementing the policies we want. Pakistanis are increasingly defining their own interests, independently of the views of their own pro-western leaders. And Mehran man will soon be in the driving seat.”

As the undisputed leader of the growing army of Mehran men, Nawaz Sharif is confident of winning the next election.

Meanwhile, the PPP is doing everything it can to ensure its political demise. Despite the demographic and economic shifts taking place in Pakistan, the party remains a relic of the past, sticking to its outdated slogan of 'roti, kapra aur makan'. But Pakistan's rising middle class now want more than food, clothing and shelter they want security, education and services that work.

As Pakistan's social and psychological transformation from a South Asian to a Middle Eastern state continues on the track that was unwittingly set in 1947, there are huge implications for us and for the whole region. Unfortunately, not many policymakers are studying this trend. As usual, we will be caught by surprise when the metamorphosis is complete.

irfan.husain@gmail.com