A tale of two classes – by Mohammad Waseem

Tuesday, 15 Dec, 2009

In Pakistan, two dominant classes compete with each other for influence and privilege. One is the middle class, which provides the catchment area for the civil bureaucracy, technocrats, the military’s officer cadre and the business community.

The other can be called, for lack of a better term, the political class that includes political entrepreneurs of various kinds at various levels, led by the landed and tribal elite.

These two classes represent the two power centres in the country. The middle class operates as the most stable, influential and status quo-oriented segment of society. The institutional expression of this class is realised through the state apparatus. The process of post-recruitment socialisation in the form of the training of the bureaucracy and army officers aims at merging their individual ambitions with an all-pervasive institutional ethos.

The middle class has a near-monopoly over higher education, professional expertise and the cultural universe of the nation. Very few on top and at the bottom level of society make it to these fields. The three metropolitan centres of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, followed by Faisalabad, Multan, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Hyderabad, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Sukkur, Quetta, Sargodha and a host of other cities represent a sprinkling of the middle class in varying degrees.

More than any other section of society, the middle class is ideologically oriented in the two domains of religion and nationalism. It adheres to scriptural Islam as opposed to syncretic Islam. It supports the madressah-oriented written tradition as opposed to the shrine-based oral tradition of Islam. It is pan-Islamic in its vision. It seeks the unity of the Muslim world and upholds a dichotomous worldview based on conflict between Islam and the West. Secondly, the middle class supersedes all other classes in its nationalist framework of thought, which operates essentially in negative terms. In six decades, it has projected nationalism in the context of the perceived enemies of the nation. It has been all along anti-Indian, anti-Soviet Union in the first four decades and anti-American in the last two decades. It is also anti-communist and anti-secular.

The composition of the middle class has changed in two generations. Previously, it came from the impoverished aristocracy, politicians, the intelligentsia, lawyers, judges and public careerists of various kinds.

In recent decades, the professional middle classes — doctors, engineers, architects, accountants, corporate managers and information technologists among others — have been the descendants of military officers and bureaucrats in increasingly larger numbers. Their political outlook reflects their social background.

The middle class, most typically if not universally, hates democracy. Partition shaped the social, cultural, political and economic views of the emergent middle class along security-oriented lines and a state-centred rather than society-oriented policy framework.

This class lacks a social reformist vision and a public conscience. It distrusts the capacity and thus the right of what it considers the uneducated, irresponsible, superstitious and ‘primitive’ masses to exercise their vote and elect governments.

An absolute majority of the middle class is rightist in its collective thrust for policy and ideology. This includes: the moneyed right, i.e. the commercial elite committed to the preservation of the current privileged structures; the moral right, as the upholder of a conservative code of ethics; and the religious right, with its increasingly radical Islamic worldview. The rightist middle class, or parts of it, often served as a constituency of army rule in Pakistan.

At the other end, the political class comprises electoral heavyweights vying for power. Politicians are strong in the locality but weak in terms of institutions such as political parties or parliament. They are more pragmatic than visionary. While the middle class vows to serve the ‘national interest’ conceived in an idealised form, the political class pledges to serve ‘the public interest’ understood in terms of the distribution of resources on the ground.

Instead of mosque and madressah, the political class adheres to pir and shrine. The vast rural hinterland of Pakistan is studded with a number of devotional sites belonging to Sufi orders. The political class reflects the social structure based on caste and tribe. Partisanship rather than consensus is the hallmark of its political imagination. Ultimately, it depends on the civil bureaucracy for the articulation of its interest.

The political class considers nationalism as the outermost expression of collective life, not as a mission-mantled agenda. It adheres to various sub-national identities based on ethno-linguistic ties, and seeks to build alliances across communities and regions. If ideology is at the heart of the middle class ethos, identity is the rallying point of the political class in pursuit of electoral victory or a popular movement.

The middle class has enhanced awareness about the issue of corruption. It finds it extremely difficult to understand why people vote for ‘corrupt’ politicians. It fails to appreciate that the state structure, run by an administrative elite rooted in the middle class, bars people’s access to the system of governance. People seek to break open the gates of the remote, impersonal ruling mechanism with the help of politicians, corrupt or otherwise.

The middle-class public officials have been generally more powerful than those from the political class, ranging from Ghulam Mohammad and Iskandar Mirza to Ayub, Yahya, Zia, Ghulam Ishaq and Musharraf. Among politicians, only Z.A. Bhutto was a strong ruler, preceded by Liaquat Ali by a generation.

However, it is the less visible and more powerful bureaucrats, generals, judges and ulema from the middle class who wield real power in the administrative, legal, economic, security, cultural and ideological spheres of public activity. Their stock-in-trade is: democracy is hijacked by ‘feudals’; politicians are corrupt and inefficient; society is not yet fit for democracy.

Of course, there are liberal, progressive and public-spirited intellectuals, lawyers, civil society activists, trade unionists, poets, writers, playwrights and media persons, all from the middle class, who uphold the cause of democracy. They speak, write, demonstrate, sing, strike, organise, and perform, all for democracy. Unfortunately, they are only a fraction of the middle class.