New Directions

The discreet charms of Pakistan’s middle classes

Imran Khan’s PTI has found a constituency among pious, nationalistic, largely urban middle classes. ARIF ALI / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 May, 2013

SEVENTEEN YEARS HAVE PASSED since Imran Khan first entered politics. The former cricket legend’s five-month old Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party suffered a seatless humiliation in the 1997 elections. “It was the charge of the light brigade,” Khan once told me, smiling at the memory. “Imran out for a duck,” his critics crowed. Five years later, Khan was the only man left standing at the crease, with all other members of his party failing, once again, to win their seats. And at the last election, in 2008, he was poised to win at least a few seats, but stayed in the pavilion, boycotting the polls.

This month, with Pakistan’s general elections scheduled for May 11, he looks set to make a breakthrough. Khan’s message, defined by his contempt for a venal political class, hasn’t changed, but it has finally found a constituency. The vast crowds he attracts are principally drawn from an increasingly assertive urban middle class. He has a notable following among sections of the elite, and some of the opportunist politicians he has lured from rival parties have brought their rural supporters with them, but this is the first time that a party with national ambitions has put the middle classes’ concerns at the centre of its platform.

Many are coming out on to the streets to demonstrate their support for the first time; many will be making a rare appearance in queues outside polling booths this month. Until now, Pakistan’s middle classes have remained on the political margins. Their numbers were too few, and their influence too little, to have an electoral impact. When members of the middle class joined politics, it was often in service of parties whose major sources of support came from other sections of society. Various branches of the Muslim League, for example, courted the business communities, whose voters ranged from small traders to wealthy industrialists. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that has just left office, began life as the political vehicle of the labour movement; it is now backed by the rural poor. Uniquely, the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has been a significant middle-class party since its founding in the 1980s, but it has been limited to that city and its large Urdu-speaking community.

For decades, the bulk of the country’s middle classes saw politics as the preserve of a rapacious elite, and the credulous poor that vote for them. They focused their aspirations on securing economic opportunities, sometimes abroad, and a better education for their children. They derived their influence through the state’s main institutions: the powerful military and the civil bureaucracy. But in recent years, the middle classes have grown larger and more assertive. As Pakistan settles on a more stable democratic course, they are shaking off their traditional indifference, thanks to a contest that is as much about class, religion and culture as it is about politics.

In the USA, most citizens are happy to describe themselves as middle class, whether they are plumbers or investment bankers with seven-figure bonuses. In Pakistan, the segment is much narrower, and located closer to the top. Estimates range from 25 to 40 million people out of a population of 180 million. The cut-off points are blurry. One casual definition is that the middle classes drive their own cars—if you’re poor in Pakistan, you can’t afford one, and if you’re rich, you have a driver. In between, there's a broad range of self-driven Japanese cars, from tiny leased Suzukis to top-end, fully paid for Hondas.

The middle class is distinguished by its ownership of something—a car, a house, a plot of land—and by its working for its income. Exceptions abound, but even most prospering lawyers and businessmen, whose lifestyles match those of the elite, identify themselves as being from the middle classes. Unlike the traditional elite, they consider themselves largely self-made. The country’s powerful army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry are both from middle-class backgrounds, but are members of the country’s power elites.

From the time of the country’s founding, the middle classes turned to the state for jobs. New arrivals from India, noted for their education, became well-represented in the Pakistani civil service. Native middle-class Punjabis were drawn to the army. These two institutions were prized for their outsize influence, stable salaries and benefits, and the prospect of mobility they offered. The army could also be, as Pakistanis later found, a route to absolute power. The country’s last two dictators, Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, were both the sons of lower middle-class migrants.

In both institutions, there are scarcely any members of the elite left. You might still find the odd polo-loving nawabzada working as a two-star military spy or three-star corps commander in the army, but the days when unruly sons of the wealthy were dispatched to the military academy to acquire discipline and status have faded. The same is true of the civil service, where an elite schooling at Aitchison or Karachi Grammar, followed by an Oxbridge degree, is now more likely to lead one to the private sector than to the foreign office.

As old class equations change, new power centres emerge, including the judiciary and the media. Until 2007, when they clashed with Musharraf over Iftikhar Chaudhry’s removal as the chief justice, judges were seen as little more than pliant clerks. Now, the higher judiciary often casts itself as an alternative government through its activism. Independent television news channels arrived over a decade ago, but only broke free in earnest when journalists supported the judges in their confrontation with Musharraf. The middle classes dominate both the judiciary and the media; together, they amplify their class’s concerns. (The English-language papers, by contrast, are read by so few that they are effectively internal memos to the country's upper middle classes and elite.) So, when judges take notice of rising petrol prices, the media echoes their outrage. The economic concerns of the car-less poor find little resonance, by contrast. The publication of malnutrition or infant mortality statistics attract no attention in courts or newsrooms. However, when conservative norms are violated, action is taken, as in the case of Atiqa Odho, a famous actress, who, in 2011, was discovered travelling with two bottles of wine. The Karachi airport authorities registered a police report, the media keenly publicised the incident, and the chief justice himself took notice, demanding that Odho appear in court. Moral vanity is a strong element of the Pakistani middle-class identity.

Middle-class denizens of urban Punjab or Karachi see themselves as more pious, and also more nationalistic, than other sections of society: they don’t share the bitter provincial resentments of the rural Sindhis, Pashtuns and Baluch. The middle classes are at ease in their relationship with the Pakistani state, not least because their family members have served it directly. But the only power centre where the middle classes’ influence remains elusive is the one to which you have to be elected: parliament.

There is a lazy view of Pakistani politics, keenly advanced by middle-aged British writers, that claims the country is a feudal-dominated society. But Pakistan has ceased to be a mainly agricultural society. Punjab, the so-called breadbasket of the country, is now only 40 percent rural. The rest is either urban or peri-urban. So-called feudalism has long been in decline, as landholdings have been shrunken by reforms, dwindling inheritances and urbanisation. Urban industrialists have eclipsed the feudal classes in matters of wealth—and of political power.

Pakistan’s parliament today is a mixture of big urban industrial and corporate money, rural landowners and tribal chiefs, local bosses with suspiciously deep pockets and a small private army, small landowners, some poor party loyalists, Islamists drawn from the rural peasantry and lower middle class, and increasingly greater numbers of the middle class. The so-called feudals, with their vast landholdings, now retain a presence only in swathes of southern Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif won a quarter of all seats in the last parliament, but sent only four members who could plausibly be described as feudal. The MQM’s 25 members were all from the urban middle class.

Despite the changes in parliament, the middle classes still see themselves as ruled by a grasping, inept and distant elite. The perception stems chiefly from the leaderships of the traditional parties, who come from either feudal or industrial backgrounds. Their vast and tawdry private residences, fawning courtiers, and longstanding allegations of corruption all incur middle-class disapproval, as does the entrenched culture of patronage, on the basis of which a local parliamentarian can liberally disburse funds, jobs, and grant other, less than noble favors, like releasing relatives from prison.

The culture of entitlement chafes salaried workers, who might often be overqualified for the underpaid jobs that they have had to fight for. An urban professional will also resent the sense of entitlement exhibited by a rural political dynast, and frown on the mixture of religion, politics and class as found in certain rural areas. In the cities, religious attitudes tend to follow a literalist reading of Islam. The pluralistic, Sufi-leaning traditions found in Pakistan's villages are seen as a superstitious deviation, like the worship of shrines. The custodian of a Sufi shrine might also be a large landowner who uses his spiritual clout for political gain, relying on peasant devotees for votes.

Pakistan’s national identity was formed in opposition to India, but in fact, the example of its neighbour should be instructive in some ways for both sides. In India, it has been possible, despite the claims of the Pakistani middle class, for democracy to flourish in a country with relatively poor levels of education. India also rebuffs Pakistani liberal claims that uninterrupted democracy will lead to greater political transparency and accountability. And as we have seen in recent years from across the border, periods of economic growth can often lead to more corruption.

While traditionally suspicious of India, in recent years, as relations with Washington deteriorate to near-rupture, the Pakistani middle classes have come to loathe America. National pride is wounded when Pakistani leaders like president Asif Ali Zardari are seen cozying up to Washington for aid. Drone attacks, in which another country bombs Pakistan against their helpless wishes, have proven a source of humiliation. This partially accounts for the attraction of Imran Khan, who ritually launches broadsides against the West, and whose patriotic pique soothes feelings of injured Pakistani amour-propre. It is an anger that can often blind people to failures at home. Decades of the Pakistani state cultivating jihadis are overlooked in favour of blaming America, and the politicians who court Washington, for bringing war to the region.

The Pakistani middle classes are at ease with Western influence—up to a point. They covet education and employment opportunities abroad, much like the liberal elite. They also enjoy elements of Western—and Indian—culture. But they draw lines when it comes to foreign policy, as we have seen, and religion. When Salmaan Taseer was killed in 2011 for defending a Christian woman falsely accused of blasphemy, he was alleged to have committed a Western-inspired act of blasphemy himself. The reaction to his murder was more shocking still—when Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who shot Taseer 27 times, appeared in court, lawyers showered him with rose petals. Few ordinary Pakistanis would have wished to see Taseer killed, but after the act, they were not prepared to risk being on the wrong side of the dominant religious view. Their sympathy for Taseer was also diluted by the perception that he represented a intimidatingly voguish elite: he was not one of them.

This is a form of class rage that colours many political reactions. When the Supreme Court sacked Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister last year, for refusing to write a letter to Swiss authorities urging them to reopen corruption cases against Zardari, the middle classes exulted. The legal niceties didn’t concern them. As president, Zardari enjoyed immunity, as the Swiss were careful to note in their reply. Nor did it matter that an unelected and unaccountable institution was deciding who can and cannot be prime minister. All that counted was that a member of the political elite was punished.

Imran Khan, though no stranger to the good life, is embraced by the middle class. His cricketing triumphs have long established him as a national treasure. His reputation for honesty and philanthropy is well deserved. He also frequently casts himself as a moral crusader, acting on behalf of Pakistan’s poor majority. This rhetoric isn’t used just by Khan, but also favoured by the media, the judiciary and every military dictator in Pakistan’s history: everyone pays lip service to the elusive aam aadmi.

But on closer inspection, there is little on the agenda for Pakistan’s poor majority. Because their opinion is rarely solicited, it is taken for granted that the poor have the same concerns over petrol prices for cars they don’t own, or political battles in which they are not players, or quarrels over the roots of terrorism they suffer from the most. For well over 130 million people, the middle classes may be dismayed to find, the elections are merely a contest between rival elites.