chapter  4
23 Pages

New politics of the middle class

ByADNAN RAFIQ

The debate on politics in Pakistan continues to focus on the binaries of military rule versus electoral democracy. Even in most recently published studies, the primary contestation in Pakistan is considered to be still between the largely industrial or feudal political elite and the military, while the rest of the society is mostly ignored or treated as mere pawns in the game of high politics and deprived of agency. Yet there are some indications of changes in the polity and indeed the society in Pakistan over the last couple of decades that require deeper insight and systematic analysis. In particular, the country’s politics is being increasingly shaped by an unprecedented wave of urban mobilization. Therefore, contesting the established viewpoints, this chapter views political contestation in Pakistan as a three-way struggle for power among the military, the feudal-cumindustrial civilian elite and the newly emerging middle class. Two protest movements since 2007 provide the most vivid indicator to date of this triangular struggle for power. The most recent instance was the protest movement led by Imran Khan’s PTI, which is generally viewed as representing the urbanized youth of Pakistan, against the alleged rigging of the 2013 elections by the ruling PML-N. The military had ample opportunity to intervene, but it could not. Instead, a high stake poker game ensued between it and the PTI, the new entrant in the political arena, as well as the incumbent PML-N – with each vying to outsmart the other two. Eventually, the military appeared to have gained the most from the episode after striking an alleged deal with the government that gave it much of its lost ground since Pakistan’s return to civilian rule in 2008.1 The second instance was the Lawyers’ Movement, which began in March 2007 when Musharraf ’s military regime sacked the higher judiciary, and continued until its restoration by the PPP-led civilian government in March 2009. This nationwide protest movement provides credible evidence of the increasingly active political role being played by the urban middle class. While the PPP with its support base in rural Sindh had little appetite for a powerful judiciary, the PTI and PML-N, the parties largely representing the urban constituency (particularly the middle class to varying degrees), took the lead along with lawyers and other members of the civil society (again with urban middle class roots) in the movement for the restoration of judges. In fact, the emergence of an active

judiciary and a vibrant media that has been generally hostile towards both the military regime and the PPP government represents an urban middle class discontent against both traditional political parties and military rule. This chapter therefore argues that behind these political developments lie the structural changes that the society is going through. Pakistan, for instance, is one of the fastest urbanizing countries in the world with one of the highest rates of urbanization among the South Asian countries. This has a profound impact on all aspects of the society, including environment, culture, infrastructure and politics. It also coincides with a few other trends that are increasingly shaping the socio-political realities of the country. The high growth rate and relatively shorter life spans mean that the country has a huge youth bulge where over 60 per cent of the population is under 25 years of age.2 Moreover, the economic growth (at an average of around 6 per cent during the 2000s) has given rise to a sizable middle class, mostly based in urban areas with markedly different aspirations compared to their rural counterparts. Lastly, the young, educated middle class urbanites are increasingly interested in politics to reshape the status quo that has prevailed since independence of the country in 1947. These socio-economic changes have led to the emergence of a new politically active middle class that desires increased political power, social recognition, and is more demanding of the state to respond to its needs and aspirations. This class of second-generation urbanites is less reliant on traditional kinship ties on the basis of which a patronage-based political system operates. It is in search of new forms of identities, and demands meritocracy, transparency, leaner and muscular governance, as well as an end to dynastic politics. Primarily the beneficiary of an expanding services industry, this political constituency has increasingly shown the capacity to sustain political action and has emerged as a key pressure group as well as an electoral block. The future of the democracy in Pakistan thus hinges on its ability to serve the growing needs and appetite for power and resources of this class. Its emergence and politicization must be seen within the context of deeper demographic and structural changes taking place in Pakistani society, which have resulted in new aspirants for political power and its diffusion among a much larger section of the society than ever before. Therefore, rather than studying Pakistan within the narrow confines of security studies, this chapter attempts to bridge the prevailing gap in knowledge by analysing the new socio-economic trends and their political implications in Pakistan. The role of the middle class in establishing and sustaining liberal democracies is well documented in the context of Western/developed countries, however evidence seems to be sketchy and at times contradictory in the cases of developing countries. In some countries such as Turkey, the emergence of the middle class has led to democratization, while in others like Malaysia, Singapore and Russia, the middle class, for having been served well under authoritarian regimes, has remained indifferent. There is, however, a consensus in literature3 that demographic changes do have a transformative effect on the socio-political structure of a country, and that they need to be systematically explored on a case-by-case basis.