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The Punjabi Middle Class And Pakistan’s Relations With India

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Umer Farooq writes about how relations between India and Pakistan are influenced by the sentiments of the Punjabi middle classes, which forms the support base of both political parties like the PML-N and the military. He asks where the Punjabi middle class stands on the issue.

In politics, Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Army share one thing in common: their reliance on the support of Punjabi urban middle class. Since his rise as an independent political leader in 1993, Nawaz Sharif has always relied on the support of urban-based Punjabi middle classes. Hence, his election campaigns have always revolved around issues dear to Punjabi middle classes based in the cities of Central Punjab. This is why in his rule, we have seen laptops for students, wide roads, bridges, jobs in industrial sector and an eagerness to do away with load shedding.

Pakistan Army is no less reliant on the Punjabi middle classes. Its media and publicity campaigns are almost primarily focused on attracting the country’s middle classes and are exclusively suited to the taste of urbanised middle-class people of every age. Pakistan’s leading drama channel, HUM TV is broadcasting an ISPR produced tele-drama series on army life, which is increasingly becoming a middle-class attraction in the urban cities of the country. The story revolves around four young boys who belong either to middle class families or are aspiring to join ranks of the middle classes, which will be provided to them through service in the army; the story makes middle-class life the ultimate objective of life.

Nawaz Sharif performed many political somersaults during the past three decades of his political career to keep his support base, consisting of Punjabi middle classes, satisfied. Meanwhile, the Pakistan Army continues to rely on the same middle class for recruitment of its officer corps from central Punjab’s urban and semi-urban areas.

In the six elections since his rise as an independent political leader in 1993, Nawaz Sharif has never been disappointed by the Punjabi middle classes, except in 2002 parliamentary elections. These elections were tightly controlled by the then military government of Pervez Musharraf. Moreover, the Punjabi middle classes have not stopped joining Pakistan Army in bulk.

One of the main political traits of Punjabi middle classes of Central Punjab was the anti-India sentiment prevalent among them. Faithful to his constituency, Nawaz Sharif visibly displayed anti-India feelings in the initial years of his political career. However, 1993 was the year when for the first time, Nawaz raised the issue of normalisation of relations with India as a campaign slogan and strangely enough, Central Punjab didn’t disappoint him in the parliamentary elections.

After that experiment, he became more confident and aggressive in pushing his agenda of normalising relations with India. This meant that his constituency was not reacting adversely to the idea of normal relations with India.

Nawaz Sharif has been advocating better relations between India and Pakistan both, as the opposition leader and as prime minister. He has talked about initiating trade on numerous occasions. The impression of the army scuttling peace efforts with India was reinforced during the political agitation against the Sharif government led by Imran Khan in August 2014. The agitation coincided with heightened tensions along the LoC, forcing Sharif to assume an aggressive posture against India.

In the weeks before the parliamentary elections in July 2018, Nawaz was expected to make another announcement about going the extra mile in his efforts to normalise relations with India in case he was given a fourth chance to become the prime minister of the country. But he was sent to jail before he could complete his election campaign.

In the meantime, something interesting and extra-ordinary happened in Pakistan; in an uncharacteristic overture on April 14, 2018, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa laid the offer of peace talks with India.

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“It is our sincere belief that the route to peaceful resolution of Pak-India disputes – including the core issue of Kashmir – runs through comprehensive and meaningful dialogue,” the COAS had said while addressing the passing out parade ceremony of Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) cadets in Kakul. The general’s speech came as a bit of a surprise for political observers in Islamabad. Given the fact that it was a full-fledged policy statement meant to offer peace talks to arch-rival India, it should have come from a civil government.

Political observers gave two explanations for General Bajwa’s offer of talks with India.

Firstly, very few people were aware that General Bajwa was to embark on a visit to Moscow within two weeks of making that comment. Even fewer knew that Pakistan was in talks with the Russian Federation for the purchase of state-of-the-art battle tanks, T-90s, along with other modern Russian weapons.

General Bajwa’s predecessor had signed an agreement with the Russian Federation in October 2015 which allowed arms trade between the two countries and cooperation in weapons development. During his visit to Moscow, General Bajwa held talks with his Russian counterparts over political issues related to the purchase of Russian military hardware. Pakistan was facing problems in convincing the Russian military-industrial complex for the sale of military hardware, especially in the face of intense Indian lobbying in the power corridors of Moscow against Pakistan.

General Bajwa’s speech in Abbottabad was meant to convey to his Russian interlocutors that Pakistan was ready to reduce political and military tensions with India and would still be needing military hardware to deal with the difficult task of stabilising its western border in the face of religious extremism and militancy. It is no secret that Pakistani diplomats who regularly interact with Russian government officials were facing entreaties about normalising relations with India before relations between Pakistan and Russia could further improve.

Secondly, General Bajwa’s speech was seen as an act to clarify Pakistan Army’s position, which was considerably maligned by political commentators, who alleged that Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power because of his inclination to normalise relations with India. General Bajwa’s comments could be a way of neutralising this campaign by independent campaigners.

The chief’s statement on India did not come out of the blue. It was preceded by a large flurry of activity by senior army officials aimed at publicly projecting that the Pakistani army was not opposed to the idea of peace with India. Regular ceasefire violations along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir followed a proposal from the military’s General Headquarters that Pakistani and Indian director generals of military operations should meet face to face in an effort to reduce tensions. Similarly, a senior army official posted in Balochistan, where India’s Research and Analysis Wing is accused of fomenting trouble, offered India, along with other regional countries, to join the CPEC.

Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, has shown an inclination to turn his guns against India whenever he comes under pressure from the anti-Indian lobby in Punjab. Nobody knows what changes Nawaz Sharif’s stint in jail has brought in his political thinking. However, the tidbits that are coming out suggest that his political views have been hardened by his time in jail. His party men are in trouble and are continuously struggling to blunt the sharpness of his position towards the establishment by either diluting his statements or by simply not reporting what he is saying to his visitors in jail.

Nawaz Sharif’s stubbornness, though, enjoys a folkloric status in the political gossip in Pakistani political circles. In view of this, it would not be surprising that Nawaz Sharif, after his release from jail, continues with his anti-establishment diatribes and continue to champion the cause of regional peace by shunning Pakistan’s traditional position on relations with India.

In Pakistani politics, these two positions – opposing the establishment and making peace with India – go hand in hand and Nawaz Sharif is no exception in simultaneously embracing these two positions. This is so primarily because, in Pakistan, normalisation with India has been usually dubbed as a pro-India position and the state machinery sees those politicians advocating this position as a suspect.

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Hence, the anti-establishment posturing of those politicians along with an attempt to normalise relations with India is understandable. In this regard, Nawaz Sharif is an exception, as even after he strongly started to embrace the normalisation position, he continued to have backers in Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. As evidence could be cited Nawaz Sharif’s hobnobbing with the then COAS, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, before the 2013 parliamentary elections which brought him to power in Islamabad.

The basic question that comes to mind related to this analysis is whether both Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Army can afford to alienate the urban-based Punjabi middle classes while continuing to talk about normalisation of relations with India? Or is it that Punjabi middle classes, which were considered highly anti-India till 1990s, are no more interested in hating India?

After all, it is not only Nawaz Sharif who in the recent past tried to vehemently pursue the cause of normalisation of relations with India. Not long ago, military ruler General Musharraf was as enthusiastic in his efforts to normalise relations with India. So, it is either that both the Pakistan Army and Nawaz Sharif can ignore the sentiments of the Punjabi middle classes or that the Punjabi Middle classes are no more the same.

Let’s consider the following two factors, which could have led to a change in the thinking and sentiments of Punjabi middle classes, thus allowing the Pakistan’s military establishment and Punjab-based politicians to change their positions.

Firstly, in the wake of 9/11 and Pakistan’s subsequent engagement in the war against terror, the image given to Pakistani audiences showed that Pakistani militant groups were the major enemy of the state. The image of India being the enemy was pushed into the background, especially during Musharraf’s tenure in Islamabad. The successive political and military tensions with India, in recent years have, however, brought the perception of India being the enemy back, creating a godsend opportunity for the Pakistani military to restore their old slogans.

But in the process, the grip of India’s ‘enemy image’ has been considerably weakened among Pakistani middle classes. This is evident from the lukewarm response among the Pakistani public to calls for extending support to the Kashmiri freedom struggle. The display of anti-India feelings was restricted to government-sponsored events this time.

Secondly, Pakistani middle classes, especially the Punjabi middle classes are considerably under the influence of political narratives and rhetoric of Pakistan’s urban-based political parties. Most glaringly, this includes the PML-N and PTI, which is exclusively focused on middle-class dreams and aspirations. Pakistani media is also excessively focused on the narrative that shows good, luxurious and comfortable middle-class life as the ultimate objective of the day-to-day struggle of the Pakistani masses. In such a situation, anti-India feeling is seen as an irregularity.

India is also seen as a country which is producing one of the most sought-after consumer products for Pakistani middle classes; Indian movies. As shown in its movies, Indian is seen as an origin of fashion and style, to be copied rather than hated.

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