In the aftermath of the Cold War, the process of pro-market reform has, more or less, continued unabated in large parts of the free, liberated, and would-be-liberated world. Pakistan itself has seen large-scale privatization, (which, by the way, still isn’t enough for some people), de-regulation in the financial sector, and an unabashed willingness to open up for foreign investment. People have mobile phones, new cars, and 15 different kinds of cooking oils to choose from. In the backdrop of this hasty, and somewhat selective, engagement with consumerist capitalism, Pakistan has seen a huge rise in the absolute size of a middle-income group, which, according to PIDE, is now estimated to be around 30-35 million.
That’s 30-35 million people who want to live their lives a certain comfortable way.
Interestingly enough, one of the things that Pakistan’s tottering economy has exposed is the degree to which our middle classes have become accustomed to this idea of relative comfort. Historically pampered with subsidized fuel, electricity, and controlled food prices, urbanites are having a hard time dealing with financial hardship, inflationary trends, and a rapid deterioration in state-sanctioned service delivery. The obvious response, and a natural one at that, is to blame the sitting government – something that they’ve become adept at for the last three and a half years. And let’s face it, in an era of objective crises, contextualized and nuanced reactions are neither present and nor should they be expected from the populace in general. If things are bad, people will throw eggs at whoever’s in the driving seat. It happened in the late 70’s, the late 90’s, and it’s happening again in 2012.
The substantive difference between the three cases is that this time around, there’s an organized, coherent, and, most importantly, civilian instrument of opposition in the shape of the PTI.
As much as Imran Khan would like to believe, PTI’s popularity has less to do with his personality, and much more to do with structural causes that have historically given rise to dissident sentiment. A while ago, an office-bearer of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, who moonlights as an orthodontist (or is it the other way around?), wrote an opinion piece drawing parallels with Z.A. Bhutto’s rise to power, and Imran Khan’s increasing popularity. Both leaders, he said, were accepted by a cross-section of the polity, both were able to mobilize effectively, and both relied on their personal charisma to engage with previously dormant segments of society. Based on these three characteristics alone, and ignoring the substantive content of their respective brands of populism, the comparison possesses some merit. PTI, like the PPP of the late 60’s, is promising to change the current order of things and for a large number of people, the rhetoric of change is more than enough to win them over.
The PTI effect, and that’s what I’m going to call it now, is an interesting culmination of three inter-connected trends in Pakistan since the 80’s: selective pro-market reform, middle class growth, and, most important of all, the gradual dissipation of working class politics. The first two are fairly obvious, while the third one is something most of us don’t bother dwelling on despite the fact that it holds the key to explaining party politics in contemporary Pakistan.
The very fact that local heavyweights are considered to be the biggest factor in determining electoral success shows the nature of political contestation in the country. A particular big-wig, say a large landholder like Shah Mehmood Qureshi, is considered to be a representative of everyone, rich, middle class, or poor, who lives in his constituency. The imbibed assumption is that an honest, hard-working, and good-intentioned representative will bring benefits to all and sundry, while the remote possibility that politics could be a zero-sum affair is considered to be an outdated notion, something that withered away with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, the truth is that this has little to do with socialism or communism, and everything to do with the way our political economy functions. The patwari, which PTI will replace with the computer operator, does not hold sway over the rural poor because of his position as a Class II government employee. He’s powerful because of the relationship he enjoys with the local big-wig, with the local magistrate, and with the police, which allows him to block a tenant’s right to land, to ensure female disinheritance, and to, generally, affect the process in a certain way. Replacing the patwari with a computer and an operator doesn’t alter the way power is structured and exercised at that particular level. It will at most force entrenched interests to adapt to a new reality. Consequently, the irony of talking about ‘getting rid of the patwari’ whilst having a landlord sitting right behind him on stage is completely lost on Imran Khan.
In the 60’s, Bhutto was made a leader by the rural and urban poor because of the circumstances left by Ayub’s Green Revolution and industrialization. Growing inequality, exclusion from land, and a heavy urban bias gave people tangible issues to rally around. Bhutto responded by leading a government, which despite its many flaws, managed to make the most significant rich-to-poor redistribution in this country’s history. Today, a desire for cheap fuel, uninterrupted electricity, trains and airplanes that run on time, and national honor fuel a new kind of movement. A kind that can only be built on the premise of a pro-market, neo-liberal economic agenda; can only run when middle class institutions (media, higher education, bureaucracy, armed forces) side with a segment of the elite for their own benefit; and can only gain traction when genuinely progressive alternatives have ceased to exist.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is populism in the 21st century.
Originally published in Pakistan Today on 09/01/2012