One class enrols all
AT a recent meeting in Lahore, the PML-N’s Ahsan Iqbal acknowledged the rise of a new middle class in Pakistan and admitted that traditional political parties were slow to react to this change.
This summed up the recent modifications in the PML-N’s approach to politics linked to the emergence of this new, extremely demanding ‘middle class’, as also to the rise of a party seeking to assert the values of this so-called new middle class.
The message carried a warning to Imran Khan’s supporters that their rivals were now ready to fight it out and reclaim lost territory.
Since some in the traditional category are more traditional than others, the PPP–PML-Q combine has still to come to terms with this new reality. This is why the alliance prefers to work by old logic and work away from the main urban centres occupied by the new middle class.
The PPP–PML-Q alliance is content with holding an Eid milan party in Mandi Bahauddin and a public meeting in Vehari at a distance from the old centre of politics that Lahore signifies and preserves in its changing manifestations.
Via this by and large small-town and rural-areas route, the alliance is hoping to bypass their opponents and, crucially, the urban-centric media that thrives on championing causes close to Mr Ahsan Iqbal’s new reality.
Exactly where does this middle class exist and what does it look like no one is sure. Is it, maybe, a collection of white-collar professionals and educated urban citizens, joined by justice campaigners and civil society organisations at large? Perhaps it is more spread out than this.
As classical definitions fail to keep pace with the times, the terminology is getting loose. It’s been a while since the experts undertook — or borrowed from outside — a worthwhile division of people in classes, so no one is exactly sure where the lower class gives way to the middle and to what extent it continues.
The estimates are rough and definitions vary. This is a long debate but quite clearly the realisation of something new on the PML-N’s part and the consequent rise in its public profile indicates that those who stick to the old political divides and slogans do so at their own peril.
In a 2011 write-up, a pro-Bharatiya Janata Party commentator pointed out how the ‘ghareeb’ or the poor had gone out of the Congress refrain during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government. The old slogan ‘Congress ka haath, ghareeb kay saath’ was altered to ‘Congress ka haath. aam aadmi kay saath’.
This aam aadmi or average citizen accorded some dignity to the man in comparison to the previous ‘poor-man’ title which could have been found to be too offensive in the changed times.
It was recognition of a change by a party which boasted of its socialist credentials that the decisive masses of votes — the emerging middle class — could no more be labelled as poor.
Parties in Pakistan pretending to have a socialist present or past could take a cue from the Congress in India. If nothing else, they can at least pretend that, in pursuance of the slogan they had raised many long years ago, the ghareeb has been promoted to the more respectable class status of an aam aadmi.
‘Roti, kapra aur makaan’ was the chant back then and in some recent interviews President Asif Zardari has said that his preference has not changed for the next election.
This is like hiding behind obsolete symbols and the forgotten philosophy of it all. At the same time, it amounts to accepting blame for not being able to provide to the people the very basics.
The new symbols that sustain the singular Pakistani dream for prosperity, the PPP’s interior minister is finding difficult to reconcile with. Rehman Malik bans motorcycles and he bans cellphones — two basics the amalgamation that often goes under the name of the new assertive middle class in this country cannot live without.
It is this failure of the government, manifested in these bans on public mobility, which plays dangerously against the future prospects of parties that are currently in power. Because of their directness, these bans can be even more irritating to the people than the traditional middle class issue — corruption. This is the bare minimum — and not roti and kapra — the people demand.
The PPP is focusing on the classical disconnect between the urban — privileged — and the rural — backward. It may discover to its disadvantage that the overwhelming, singular, largely urban progress model has blurred these divisions.
This is precisely why Mian Manzoor Wattoo, the new president of the PPP for central Punjab is being asked to concentrate on the city and its burgeoning white-collar professionals, its educated youth and its dream- and opinion-makers.
For a set-up that has had to repeatedly deny and ban, this is a difficult yet inevitable recourse. Or else Ahsan Iqbal’s credit to traditional parties for having finally understood the situation will be ill-given in the PPP’s case, and the PML-N’s attacks will continue to be primarily aimed at the PTI.
If the Sharifs as leaders of a traditional party were woken up late, they were woken brutally by Imran Khan’s surge as a representative of the ‘new middle class’ and its values and goals. Since then, they have been using their experience and the resources at their disposal because of their control of power in Punjab.
The bridges have come up, the laptops have been delivered, the Turkish and Indian models of development have been paraded with pride and promise in Lahore in recent weeks.
Sporting events have been held at an almost dizzying pace, providing members of the Sharif family plenty of opportunities to act as the chief guest at ceremonies that cater not to the old poor but to the new mobile group whose moves Rehman Malik is seen to want to block. This has finally got moving a PML-N which had been long stuck in the old concept of governance.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.