Momin Iftikhar

“In our personal ambitions, we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up or else we all go down, as one people.”

– Franklin D. Roosevelt

The emergence of a broad-based and assertive middle class in Pakistan, which is progressive, liberal and upwardly mobile and perceived universally as harbinger of a bright future is a good omen for the country. This vital stratum of any society, which embodies the aspirations and ideals of a nation, is rather a difficult entity to define, but is certainly linked to the acquisition of relative affluence. The essential presence of expendable money and the resultant attainment of purchasing power is only one facet of this societal phenomenon. To many sociologists, the middle class is more closely associated with the pursuit of higher education, association with liberalism, demand for a fair society and expectations for transparent governance. Drawing parallel with universal models, the rise of Pakistani middle class raises expectations as an engine of positive change and most would find their promise irresistible, yet there are bound to be detractors. A counter thesis by a writer-cum-analyst challenges the notion by postulating that Pakistan would not be able to benefit from the rising middle class values, because, according to the writer’s contention, this powerful driver of social change has been perverted and polluted by ills of the State/society.

The hearts and minds get attracted to where they are appreciated and, perhaps, this was a major reason that the analyst selected an Indian magazine, Economic and Political Weekly, for the propagation of her difficult to articulate thesis. The motivation for writer to take up the issue, as she explained in her paper, was the publication of three books that predicted a bright future for Pakistan, based on the rise of a strident and expanding Pakistani middle class; Maleeha Lodhi’s Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State; Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country and Javed Jabbar’s Pakistan - Unique Origins; Unique Destiny. She picked her pen to propound a counter narrative to the sanguinary central theme of the aforementioned books, denigrating the potential of the Pakistani middle class and negating that it would open doors to socio-political and socio-economic modernity in Pakistan.

Her essay, which seeks to castigate and berate the Pakistani middle class, is no objective, naturally flowing articulation of logical thought process or based on any genuine research work leading to the advancement of a rational argument. Detached from the ground reality, it comes across as rather a skewed piece of scholarship that rational readership would find difficult to follow through. To her, the rise of a tainted middle class in Pakistan would not usher in liberal, progressive modernity per se, but would move forward on a pattern structured along the axes of neo-liberal nationalism and rightwing radical nationalism. According to her, the meeting point of these two trajectories has turned Pakistan into a “hybrid theocratic State, which encapsulates a mix of economic neo-liberalism, pockets of social liberalism, formal theocracy and larger spaces experiencing informal theocracy”; ideas that are hard to translate into comprehensible version of the contemporary state of affairs.

The writer’s resultant assessment reflects Pakistan’s middle class in an execrable state. She asserts that the expansion of middle class in Pakistan does not necessarily mean political development, because it has “always supported and benefited from authoritarianism”. She even goes to the extent of attributing the rise of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf, as a plan for “wrangling political control through the army’s help.” Even the media and the legal community do not escape the negative swathe of her broad-brush; “the media and judiciary both have authoritarian, center right nationalist and even latent radical perspectives,” she observes. She challenges the widely held belief that the military as an institution has emerged as a representative of progressive, middle class ethos bearing the capacity of playing a catalyst role, critical for change. She even attributes the wave of radicalism, as part of the “evolving politics and psychology of the middle class.”

In playing out her wishful thinking, she seems to be absolutely out of touch with the obtaining realities in Pakistan where the rise and unprecedented expansion of the middle class is blazing new trails towards a bright future. According to the ADB Report on Asia’s rising middle class, the Pakistani middle class has grown to 40 percent of the population, significantly larger than India’s 25 percent of the population pie; outstripping its neighbor 36.5 percent to 12.8 percent on a comparative scale of growth since 1990. As a mark of upwardly mobile consumerism, the chief of Nestle Pakistan finds the local market’s per capita consumption of world’s largest packaged food products twice as much as they have it in India or China. The Economic Survey of Pakistan 2010-2011 reported that the first nine months of the year under review saw production of television sets jump to 28.6 percent and automobile production increase by 14.6 percent.

The materialist side of the upward mobility is duplicated in the field of positive, progressive and liberal trends displayed by the Pakistani population. According to Nicholas D. Kristof’s report, A Girl, a School and Hope, published in the New York Times, members of Pakistan’s emerging middle class are ‘stepping up to the plate’. “They (Pakistani middle class) are enraged at the terrorists, who have been tearing apart their country, they are appalled by corruption and illiteracy, and they want peace so that their children can become educated and live a better life,” he writes. The most significant development remains the focus on education that has emerged as the major game changer, whereby one-fourth of Pakistani children attend private schools, despite high cost fee structures compared to public schools associated with low standard of academic accomplishments. The Pakistani educated youth driven by an urge to change the status quo, are getting ready to use the ballot to achieve this end. The right to vote was hardly, if ever, exercised by their elders with such dedication and sense of purpose.

The media has found a liberty of action comparable to any country in the world. The judiciary is independent and undaunted and resultantly the misuse of power, corruption and poor governance resorted to by the system stands exposed and is bound to regress. There is a lot of ground to make up and the naysayers may continue with their witches brew of concocted and negative predictions, but the Pakistani middle class is on the rise and the future looks bright - God willing!

    The writer is a freelance columnist.