Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Most Important Sociopolitical Trend In Pakistan In The Last Decade

For the vast majority of Pakistan’s history, its politics have been an elite-led phenomenon. There have been three actors in which have been of prime importance: the military, the land-owning feudal classes, and the business-owning industrialist classes. Representatives of each have controlled Pakistan at various times, and at other times battled each other for power. But the fundamental point would be that each of them remained institutionally divorced from the issues and concerns of, on the one hand, the professional and middle classes in urban centers, and on the other, the rural poor. Lip-service to their demands was paid, to be sure, but little was done substantively to advance their cause.

This state of affairs did not prove terribly problematic for the ruling classes. Indeed, why would it? The military, by definition, was not accountable to electoral politics. The country’s dominant political parties, safely ensconced in the knowledge of secure ethnic-based vote banks, could hardly be characterized as overly concerned with the so-called common man either. In short, Pakistan witnessed regime after regime of accountability-free rule, in all senses of the term.

Where this divide, between the government and the governed, was most stark was in the realm of foreign affairs. Whether it was fighting wars, instigating guerrilla campaigns in neighboring states, signing deals and treaties in foreign capitals, joining international organizations or whatever, Pakistan’s leaders conducted business without any real input from its public.

In the last decade, this picture has changed dramatically due to three central factors.

The first and most important factor is the explosion of private electronic media. In the 1990s, it was difficult for most Pakistanis -- the vast majority of which cannot or do not read newspapers -- to get information that was not government-sponsored or, less mildly, propagandistic. The BBC, both on television and on the radio, did a fair job of covering the truly major events in Pakistan, but like most foreign news agencies, it was obviously not concerned with the nitty-gritty politics of daily life. As such, governments could control the tenor and direction of the dominant political debates of the day. This is not to suggest that they enjoyed a hassle-free existence, but to posit that those hassles came from other elites, not from below.

This picture has changed drastically, as anyone with even a cursory interest in Pakistan will be able to tell you. There are now dozens of news channels in Pakistan, each with their own ideological and partisan bent. Some are national-level, others more regionally and ethnically focused. The trend began in the early part of this decade and has plateaued only recently, as the market gets sated. And while few of these channels will win awards for calm understatement or presciently sedate analysis, the fact remains that the media -- if it can be spoken of as a collective -- has given voice to a mass of the population previously unheard from. It has become a player of truly monumental importance for its ability to shape, mold, and excite the public. It is, at once, sensationalistic, blood-thirsty, xenophobic, conspiratorial, humorous, investigative, and anti-government. And yet its arrival on the scene is more than welcome, first for providing the venue for disenfranchised interests to make themselves known and second because the alternative is much worse.

The second significant factor, related to but distinct from the first, is the rise of communication technologies in Pakistan, particularly cellular phones. In 2002, there were 1.2 million cell-phone subscriptions in the country. By 2008, this number had risen to 88 million -- an increase of more than seven thousand percent. In addition, more than one in ten Pakistanis had access to the internet by the end of the decade; low by advanced countries' standards but an astronomical rise by Pakistan's. These developments in communications meant that political narratives became congealed and disseminated at speeds never heard of before, and that information and the wider "war" for public opinion became incredibly hard to win if a battle was lost at any stage.

The third major factor is the economic growth that took place in Pakistan in the first half of the 2000s. Pakistan's GDP doubled between 1999 and 2007, and more than kept pace with population growth, as GDP per capita increased by almost sixty percent between 2000 and 2008. More to the point, this growth was overwhelmingly powered by expansion of the service sector, which is concentrated, quite naturally, in the urban centers of the country. For the first time since independence, the term "Pakistani urban middle class" was not a contradiction in terms.

This development had two effects. First, and more trivially, the urban middle class did what urban middle classes do: they bought televisions and computers. In turn, that allowed them to plug into the private media explosion in ways simply unimaginable previously. Second, it shattered the elite-only edifice of Pakistani politics, and made challenges to government based on Main Street issues -- the price of flour, the lack of electricity, the selective application of the rule of law -- a viable process. Fifty years ago, Seymour Lipset wrote one of the canonical articles in Political Science on the process of democratization, its relationship to urbanized middle classes, and how the demands and values of the latter lead almost inexorably to support for the former. Here was living proof of Lipset's analysis.

What these factors -- private media, communication technologies, and the birth of a viable (but still small) middle class -- meant in conjunction was that political currents would now be affected by, and not merely find a sponge-like audience in, a new non-elite movement.

Many writers, quite fairly and accurately, have chosen to focus on the merits of this movement, by focusing, for instance, on its role in assuring that Presidents Musharraf and Zardari's attempts to sideline Chief Justice Chaudhary would be unsuccessful, or in unyielding efforts aimed at removing Musharraf from office. But what often goes unsaid is that this new political actor has destructive tendencies too, and it is in foreign affairs where this is made most apparent. Why? For the simple reason that foreign policy is the one area where the expectations of Pakistan's population concerning its leaders to speak for it on the one hand, and the capabilities of Pakistan's leaders to deliver on the other, are most conducive to clashing.

On the domestic front, Pakistan's turn to mass politics has been attendant with a rising nationalism and a suspicion of other countries, most notably but not limited to the U.S. and India, bordering on the pathological. While half-baked conspiracy theories and a reflexive defensiveness used to be the sole purview of the military establishment, these ideas now find currency amongst the wider population. The country as a whole is without the slightest smidgen of a doubt more right-wing and xenophobic than it was ten years ago. And while there are moderately strong winds based on reason and evidence that fan the flames of this discontent -- the revelations of Blackwater operating in the country, along with the increasingly cavalier approach of the U.S. with respect to action in Balochistan amongst them -- most of these opinions are flatly nonsensical: the notion of a joint Israel-India-U.S. axis to destroy Pakistan and redraw its boundaries, and the idea that terrorist incidents in Pakistan are plotted by Indian intelligence agents, to name just two of many.

This increasing distrust of foreign actors and their designs for Pakistan is reflected in great anger at any cooperation with said foreign actors, specifically the U.S. But this is where the bind that Pakistan's leaders find themselves in becomes clear. If Pakistani leaders would be best served domestically by bowing to the wishes of its people, and living a more isolationist existence, why don't they? Why don't they simply follow the dictates of the so-called median voter?

The short answer is simple: because they cannot. Thucydides, as all students in an introductory courses in International Relations are told, famously said that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. Pakistan's macroeconomic indicators fell off a clip following the surge in oil prices in 2007 and the financial collapse in 2008. It has witnessed a period of great political upheaval from March 2007 to the present. Its military is unable, at least at present, to meaningfully impact the extent to which militant groups can attack and kill innocent civilians. In short, it is in no position to dictate terms to outsiders.

Here, then, we have a quandary: the nationalist public wants its leaders to be brash and uncompromising. But leaders find that, once in office, they are in no position to do so. Domestic political demands cede to international political imperatives. This Catch-22 was made most apparent during the wholly inane furor over the Kerry-Lugar bill, where the Pakistani public was, in effect, being indignant at the insult of being handed seven and a half billion dollars. The government was accused of selling out the country and its people; the reality that aid-acceptors are not usually able to put their foot down on the precise ways in which the money is delivered scarcely registered.

Or consider this piece of evidence: Asif Zardari and Pervez Musharraf have almost nothing in common, save for the fact that they attended the same high school (St.Patrick's, for the Karachiites in the audience). The former is from a feudal family in Sindh, the latter a middle class family in Karachi. The former is a businessman and politician, the latter a general. The former never garnered the trust of the military-bureaucratic establishment in Pakistan, the latter is the establishment (or was). The former gained power by being married to the late Benazir Bhutto and inheriting (literally) the largest political party in the country, the latter by launching a coup, and relying on the military as an unshakable base of power. Their styles of leadership are starkly dissimilar too; Zardari stays out of the limelight as much as possible, and engages in backdoor deal-making, Musharraf was gung-ho and confrontational. And yet, despite all these differences, they share one all-important trait: the regularity with which they are and were accused of being traitorous, and disloyal to Pakistan's national interests.

The underlying reasons for that accusation, I hope, are obvious: despite their many differences, they shared the same set of constraints, falling prey to the clashing forces of domestic nationalism and international helplessness that would befall any Pakistani leader in the current climate. And yes, Nawaz Sharif, that means you too --if it comes to that. The simple fact is that this trend is unlikely to abate any time soon. On the one hand, vicious nationalism is a notoriously sticky phenomenon. On the other hand, Pakistan's bargaining position on the international table is unlikely to improve enough in the short-term whereby its leaders will be able to "just say no" on the issues which are most costly with respect to their domestic political interests.

As such we should, if I am correct, see the tension between these competing pressures on Pakistan's leaders continue, and challenge even the most adroit and strategic of leaders. The obvious solution -- easier said than done, it must be conceded -- is to gain cache with the population with sound governance, so that the public can at least weigh the benefits of higher standards of living against the demerits of purported treachery and disloyalty. Indeed, it is striking that Musharraf enjoyed excellent approval ratings from the Pakistani public, well above 60 percent, until he took on the Chief Justice in March, 2007 (see p.39 of this report). Ironically, given my analysis, Musharraf never suffered for his international "mistake" to ally with the U.S. until he compounded it with one on the domestic front.

The lesson, then, is that Pakistani leaders do have some room for error with the Pakistani public, but not a great deal, and certainly less than their predecessors.


Anon_for_a_good_reason said...

Interesting read..
Why Does Pakistan Hate the United States?

Faiza said...

Wow I actually remember Lipset (but not so much what he said). You bring back memories from those Politics undergrad days Ahsan. A very interesting article this is. Being an eternal optimist, I would still think that the rise of an urban middle class is more positive than negative. Are there any political theorists that say that this democratization process and the rise of the media eventually push society out of its rightist position and lead to a more even distribution across the political spectrum? Simplistic I know but it would be interesting to think about the causes of dominance of the right and the left. I think I may have even studied that in relation to Eastern Europe (but I don't remember).

pc said...

>Fifty years ago, Seymour Lipset wrote one of the canonical articles in Political Science on the process of democratization, its relationship to urbanized middle classes, and how the demands and values of the latter lead almost inexorably to support for the former.

Chinese middle class must be an exception. If Chinese Communist Party manages to hang on (looks like it will) wouldn't others emulate its model?

Raza said...

A similar trend can be charted in America over the past decade. As you say, in Pakistan the middle class is now engaged in politics because and through the main stream media (MSM), while the middle class in America has RE-engaged in politics because of 9/11, Iraq war etc, again through the MSM.

And in both cases, this engagement has shaped MSM itself. The MSM's role in American political sphere has almost devolved into something resembling what it is in Pakistan--strong partisanship is reinforced, the ideological extremes are given generous airtime, little objective analysis exists at all. In both counties today, media polarizes.

I think this simply reinforces the case for having an educated and informed populace in order to make democracy work properly. I don't think I'd be wrong in saying that the middle classes in both American and Pakistan are neither educated nor informed (even with media around), and hence main stream political discourse in both countries is often crap.

(yes, i just said 'everyone is an idiot' in a really round about way. I'm so middle class like that).

Riaz Haq said...

The level of urbanization in Pakistan is now the highest in South Asia, and its urban population is likely to equal its rural population by 2030, according to a report titled ‘Life in the City: Pakistan in Focus’, released by the United Nations Population Fund. Pakistan ranks 163 and India at 174 on a list of over 200 countries compiled by Nationmaster. The urban population now contributes about three quarters of Pakistan's gross domestic product and almost all of the government revenue. The industrial sector contributes over 27% of the GDP, higher than the 19% contributed by agriculture, with services accounting for the rest of the GDP.

If the level of robust economic growth, human development and increased urbanization can be sustained to significantly enlarge the Pakistan's middle class, then there can be hope for genuine and durable democracy to thrive.


Kalsoom said...

Excellent post, Ahsan.

Ahsan said...


I am too busy to respond to Hitchens' drivel, but you can read this post which sums things up nicely. http://www.newslinemagazine.com/2009/12/hitchens-pakistan-delusions/#comments


Indeed, what you outline is very much the dominant view in the literature. The basic logic is that when they are too many poor people, you either get tyranny or oligarchy, since the rich have that much more to fear from them and so attempt to keep them marginalized. When there's a viable middle class, there are different demands (more political accountability vs. economic redistribution) which makes democracy more amenable. If you are interested in this stuff, there's A LOT you can read, but you can start with the works of Robert Dahl (1971), Carles Boix (2003), Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (2006), Barrington Moore (1966) and obviously Lipset (which is an article, the rest are books).


Yes, that is an interesting case, perhaps THE outlier. There will always be exceptions to the rule, but when an exception is this big, you have to start wondering about the rule a little bit.


Yes, I agree. I think I have mentioned elsewhere that the media explosion in Pakistan can also be termed the Fox Newsification of Pakistan. Same script, different actors.

Riaz Haq:

Thanks for those numbers.



A. said...

Excellent article over all. But Ahsan there are two more things that are worth considering: first some institutions and individuals are directly involved in spreading right-wing propaganda; second, there really isn't a truly progressive side in the electronic media. So its somewhat different from the US situation.

takhalus said...

i dislike the whole present day feudal class argument. I think it's a myth, if anything there is a crony capitalitis class which is essentially feudal in nature. Traditional feudals are largely restricted to pockets in sindh and southern punjab. In Punjab they have largley vanished because of the rise of Nawaz Sharif and in sindh they are there but in an emasculated form. While in Balochistan Baloch nationalism is eroding the old sardari system even more..

The media's ability to influence things is good but selective they more often not challenge the states very raison d'etre and not inspire change.

On the flip side while mass movements of the 60's and 70's are largely non existent you have a new class who use modern technology to wage effective wars against the state through political hot and run attacks.

Mosharraf said...

I am sorry that such an insightful thread was polluted with Hitchens' garbage. Ahsan's voice is yet another important one that is calling people's attention to the Pakistani urban middle class. Without being jingoistic about it, it is possible to refract light through this new prism and see a quite different future for the country, than the kind of past it has had. Bravo.

greywolf said...

i think what we can take away from this article is pakistan and pakistanis can thank God for president musharraf from 1999-2007. mr riaz haq has laid out plain and simple the case for musharrafs' legacy. ahsan pointed out in an earlier note, the government of pakistan can be judged on how its actions affect the common man. politics aside, it is the ability of a government to change the common masses condition. from the three described sociopolitical trends, president musharraf deserves credit for all three. i just wish more people saw that. what happened in march 07 was not conspiratorial. it was a reaction to corruption allegations. thats all water under the bridge.

karachi khatmal said...

brilliant post ahsan...

wondering if this was a paper you wrote that got bloggified :P i think you remember our ongoing snipes on this issue

but on a serious note, i think there would have to be a case for focusing attention away from the choices of the leaders we have - as you rightly point out, its not JUST that they are useless idiots, they have very little option to be otherwise.

however, it is important how this urban middle class goes about its business. and for them to have only the media as their guiding voice is a bit frightening. a popular pro-establishment blog has a long running poll where musharraf has forever been top choice for the next president of pakistan, only that by now zaid hamid is within a percentage point of the lead... yowza!

we need to find non-political avenues of change

Ahsan said...


Professional right wing peddlers and no real progressive voice...and America is different how? Haha just joking, blogs and MSNBC have ensured that there is now a viable progressive voice in the MSM, but it's still a minority in my view.


They may become crony capitalists but they get their start and base of power as feudals. I mean, look at both the PM and the Prez for Exhibit A and B.


Thanks! Though as I alluded to in the post, people like you tend to focus on the positive aspects of this movement, and something needs to be said about the negative aspects too, which is what I have tried to highlight here.


It is true that Musharraf did a lot of good for the common man but his moves from early 07 onward were of an unhinged man. He made a lot of very serious mistakes that actually cost lives (May 12) and serious political instability (emergency, firing the CJ twice). We shouldn't have a blinkered view of anyone's time in power.


Actually, I hope to make it the opposite: it is a blog post that I want to develop into an academic piece.

Umair Javed said...

If Dr Waseem is to be believed then the rising Middle Class is the single largest structural constraint towards the development of democratic institutions. Primarily because of their obsession with the idea of a national good as opposed to the public good, their continuous disregard for 'uneducated' feudal politicians and most importantly their love for the organized and rationally dictated military and civil bureaucracy. More so, I can viably argue that the middle classes have been the one of the most dominant policy making group represented within the permanent structure of the state since the 1973 Civil Service Reforms of Bhutto that introduced the Common System. Moving on, its the development of these non-official middle intermediary classes in small and large urban centers that have supported either the right-wing parties or to a much greater extent direct rule by the Army. I dont see how a greater increase in their numbers will justify the Lipset theorem or any other theory that suggests a move towards democracy in these conditions

Danish Iqbal said...

Ahsan: brilliant post.

I'm wondering what your thoughts are on the viability of an Obama-style new leader emerging in Pakistan? Will there ever come a point where the masses are simply fed up and disillusioned with the major parties that exist today or will the hold on ethnic hearts continue by the parties? What about Imran Khan? Is he too honest for Pakistani politics? I cannot see any of the major political figures besides him affecting any change in the country at all. A massive re-orientation towards education alone could turn Pakistan around, in my opinion and we need a new man who people revere to bring about a new Pakistan. Am I being optimistic?

P.S. By Obama I mean someone that people feel is truly a new, fresh face that makes a country feel good about itself again. (whether or not that feeling is rooted in realistic ability to deliver is different)