By Nadeem F. Paracha
October 5th, 2014
After Benazir Bhutto’s tragic demise at the hands of terrorists in December 2007, the obvious vacuum in the country’s principal civilian political leadership was first filled by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and then by Mian Nawaz Sharif.
Both gentlemen, though belonging to different parties and stirred by divergent political trajectories, have continually found themselves sailing on the same boat.
The initial reason for this was an unprecedented understanding between the PPP and the PML-N during the Musharraf regime (1999-2008). Both parties confessed that (in the 1990s) they had been used and abused by the ‘establishment’ and that they had wasted much of their energies on battling one another over issues that went beyond electoral politics and were undemocratic in nature.
While the PTI and PML-N lock horns, it may be an opportunity for the PPP to make amends
This understanding was reached in the early 2000s between the former chairperson of the PPP, Benazir Bhutto, and the head of the PML-N, Mian Nawaz Sharif, when the Musharraf dictatorship was trying to degrade their influence.
But whereas the PPP managed to make an impressive comeback during the 2008 election and then the PML-N gambolled towards victory in the 2013 election, much in Pakistan had changed — so much so that at times both the PPP and the PML-N actually began to seem rather unable to comprehend these changes.
The Musharraf regime’s economic policies accelerated the development of an already evolving phenomenon that (ever since the 1980s) was seeing the gradual expansion of the urban middle-classes.
Though Musharraf’s economic manoeuvres eventually lost their steam and fizz and plunged the economy into despair, his regime’s early initiatives did succeed in bolstering the economic and social influence of the urban middle and lower middle-classes.
This influence also began to shape the political aspirations of these classes. These classes became an important part of the country’s economic and social elites, but were left frustrated when they perceived that their entry into the corridors of the ruling elite was blocked by the traditional electoral dynamics of the country’s political system.
Ever since the late 1970s, Pakistan’s urban bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie have largely felt an (albeit elusive) kinship with regimes run by military dictators and technocrats. Maybe this is due to the fact that dictators and technocrats come into power by overriding the country’s traditional electoral politics — a system the bourgeoisie think is stacked against them.
Also, Pakistan’s bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie have historically been a conservative lot and interestingly, their growing influence in matters of the economy and society has not much impacted their traditional conservative disposition.
If it has, then it has done so by only updating this disposition according to the social, cultural and economic dynamics of post-Cold War capitalism.
For example, the acquirement of modern-day materialistic satisfaction (and the exhibition of the products that represent this satisfaction) is an important aspect of the behaviourism of Pakistan’s middle-classes.
However, though the nature of the mentioned materialism and the act of interacting with the products associated with this materialism is inherently an amoral act, reflecting ‘lifestyle liberalism,’ in Pakistan, all this is merged with the traditional conservatism of the urban middle and lower-middle-classes.
That’s why this merged mind-set among these classes is producing cultural, social and economic expressions that may seem rather contradictory (even ‘hypocritical’) on an objective level but is comprehended as being some kind of an ingenious fusion of amoral Western materialism and ‘decent’ Eastern spiritual rituals and values. It’s an elaborate but convenient concoction.
In other words the growing economic and social influence of the urban Pakistani middle-classes has begun to generate various material and cultural concoctions that are now becoming part of the political narratives and aspirations of these classes.
Critics have lamented that all this is eroding the concept of politics that was once enacted to cater and address issues faced by the country’s working and peasant classes (who are in the majority).
But it is also true that though the orientation of Pakistan’s traditional mainstream (civilian) politics has always been geared towards appealing to the issues and aspirations of the country’s working and peasant classes, not much has been achieved in this respect.
On the other hand the growing political ambitions of the middle-class insist that it is this particular class that is best suited to address the issues faced by all Pakistanis, no matter how abstract (and jingoistic) this class’s approach to discussing what ails this country.
Whatever the case may be, it is a fact that, at least on the surface, the mainstream narratives that have been circulating in and around politics in Pakistan are now being dominated and driven by ideas and ideals of the urban bourgeoisie (thanks mainly to the proliferation of private TV news channels that have become the mouthpiece of these narratives).
But the question is, though these narratives and ideals are now being vigorously discussed on the mainstream electronic, print and social Medias, can they attract and gain any electoral mileage?
PML-N’s successes in urban and semi-urban Punjab ever since the 1990s, and MQM’s prevailing electoral supremacy in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, would suggest that yes, political narratives weaved from middle and lower-middle-class ideals and issues, can achieve electoral success.
PML-N was perhaps the first party to use the aforementioned narrative that merged modern amoral capitalistic notions of progress with traditional Pakistani bourgeoisie/petit-bourgeoisie morality to attract the electoral interest of Punjab’s middle and lower-middle-classes.
MQM did the same in Karachi. But unlike the PML-N, MQM merged notions and symbols of amoral material ‘progress’ and modernisation with the idea of ‘social moderate-ism’ and/or with what it calls ‘indigenous liberalism’ — which the party suggests is inherent in the make-up of Karachi’s middle/lower-middle-class Mohajir majority.
MQM eschewed any notion of bourgeoisie morality mainly because it understands it to be squarely associated with the Punjabis and the Pakhtuns — the two ethnic groups that are competing with the Mohajirs over Karachi’s dwindling economic resources.
The morality aspect by the MQM was instead replaced with an attack on feudalism — a concept that in reality is actually rapidly receding and eroding (due to widespread urbanisation), but still strikes a chord in the urban middle classes when rhetorically denounced.
Over the years both the PML-N and the MQM seemed to have been sucked into the traditional (and lethargic) ways of Pakistan’s political system. Consequently both might have lost touch with the changing dynamics of their main bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie constituencies.
This has boded well for Imran Khan’s PTI whose recent rise is thus the result of it usurping PML-N’s fusion of capitalist progress and bourgeois morality, and MQM’s ‘social middle-class moderation’ and ‘anti-feudalism’.
PTI then further added to this some left-leaning rhetorical populism to stand out as the new, ‘revolutionary’ expression of the political aspirations of Pakistan’s urban middle and lower-middle-classes.
This may also explain why PTI’s leader Imran Khan can at times sound like an alluring ideological potpourri of liberalism, socialism, capitalism, religious fundamentalism and demagogic populism — sometimes within a single speech!
These days the private electronic media has been overwhelming its viewers with its coverage of PML-N, PTI and MQM.
That is because these three parties are competing for the same constituencies. PTI is gunning for PML-N’s main middle and lower-middle-class constituencies in central and northern Punjab, and for Karachi’s middle and lower-middle-class votes, leaving both the PMLN and MQM feeling nervous and shaky.
This tussle may very well open up a discreet pathway for the left-leaning PPP that began to lose urban middle-class votes from the late 1970s onwards.
It can take this opportunity to quietly jump in and try to attract the electoral interests of those members of the growing new middle and lower-middle-classes who may come out feeling disorientated and disillusioned by the PML-N-PTI scrimmage.