The Fight To Win Over Pakistan’s Middle Class
During the last two decades, Pakistani middle class has doubled in size leading to increased middle class political activism in the country’s politics. Lawyer movement in the wake of 2007 removal of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry by the military government of General Musharraf, was a classical case of middle class protest movement. This was followed by the rise of middle class political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 2011-2012.
“During the last decade (2001-2011) the size of Pakistan’s middle class (M-class), defined as households having daily per capita consumption of between $2 and $10 in 2005 purchasing power parity dollars, doubled to 15 million households. The biggest shifts among the various economic classes occurred as a result of a 6 million increase in the size of the lower M-class, a 2 million drop in the lower class and an equivalent increase in the upper M-class. As a result for the first time in the history of Pakistan, over half of the households in the country belonged to the M-class”, says The emerging middlè class in pakistan: working paper authored by jawaid Abdul ghani, Karachi school for business and leadership.
Many commentators believe that the increase in the size of Pakistani middle class is the result of market oriented policies of successive government in the period from 1988-2006. However it is not a proven fact. People who have quoted this fact in their reports have not provided any substantial evidence to prove this fact. So the task is look for the market oriented reforms in the abovementioned period and to probe these reforms really led to affluence in the society and the creation of new middle class in Pakistani society.
Among the academics there is widespread speculation that rise of new middle class in Pakistan society led to mobilisation of lawyers’ community in 2007 against Musharraf regime’s attempt to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and subsequent rise of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf in urban areas of Pakistan. The last two decades have seen middle class voters playing a decisive role in the electoral politics of the country. However it is also a fact that PTI — the new middle class party — didn’t come to power immediately after middle class mobilization in urban areas of Pakistan. PTI didn’t emerge as a winner in 2013 elections, the elections that were held immediately after its rise in 2011. PTI won in 2018 parliamentary elections, but again we cannot say that it was a complete, hands-down victory for the party.
PMLN secured sizable number of votes in the seats from urban areas of Pakistan indicating that middle class is divided between those who support the anti-corruption slogans of PTI and those who are impressed by the developmental works carried out by the PMLN government. Question is how far it is true that the new middle class completely supported PTI, while old traditional middle class went out to vote for PMLN. The available data and commentaries don’t shed light on these issues neither do they answer these question.
The increase in the size of middle class didn’t lead to increase in the economic growth rate of the country as predicted by many economic and political commentators. Many commentators say that Middle class is an engine of growth in developing countries. The new found academic interest in the middle class is its rise in expanding and growing economies like China and India. They say that middle class in any society are sufficiently affluent to spend extra money on non-essentials like luxury items. They are also ready to spend more on education and health. This leads to demand for increased production in the society in which there are growing and expanding middle class. Thus middle class becomes an engine of growth of the economy. However, Pakistani growth rate remain either stagnant or declined during the last two decade despite increase in the numerical strength of middle class in the Pakistani society.
Pakistan’s mainstream political arena hosts two major right wing political parties including PMLN and PTI, both espouse conservative social policies and attitudes. Does this fact indicate that Pakistani middle class is socially and political conservative primarily on account of the support they extend to conservative political parties? Why is Pakistani middle class conservative?
Growth of economy primarily on account of market oriented reforms and pro-business policies of Zia military government in 1980s led to growth of new middle class in Pakistani society, which was distinct from the old middle class comprising of government servants and military officials. But this middle class on account of its associations with the religious right and prevalence of Gulf money in the society was more conservative than the lawyers and doctors that became active in the society in 1970s. So why was Zia’s middle class conservative? It was primarily because in the urban areas of this new middle class, as it is referred to in academic reports, comprises migrants from East Punjab, who introduced their religious conservatism into political arena, which they espoused because of the displacement trauma they faced at the time of partition.
What are the concrete evidence to prove that middle class in Pakistani urban areas support Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan? How is this middle class divided between the two? Is it as neatly divided as suggested by some commentators: Zia era middle class supporting Nawaz Sharif and new middle class—that emerged in the period from 2007 to 2018— supporting PTI. Rise and activism of middle class after 2007 is well documented but some of the commentators say that this is part of the international trend in the world where middle class activism has become a norm. How did Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan become leaders of middle class in Pakistan? What qualifies them to become middle class leaders in the first place? After all both of them don’t belong to middle class at the economic or social level.
Strictly legally speaking Army is not a political party—although it does indulge in active and visible media campaign to attract the loyalties of middle class to its cause. It is likely that these three contenders for loyalties of middle class will confront each other in political arena and there will be more friction in the political system of the country. There is no certainty as to what will be the political final alignment of these three political forces before we reach the next parliamentary elections.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.