Middle class politics

Source:  Dawn.com Published in Politics on Monday, April 14, 2014

SINCE 2007, a growing middle class and its engagement with the political sphere has been the subject of much discussion in Pakistan. The impetus came firstly from the lawyers’ movement — initiated by middle-income professionals (bar association members and rights activists) — and then from the consolidation of PTI’s pop-politics stressing civic engagement and ‘reclaiming’ Pakistan from a corrupt political elite.

For the better part of the last decade, protests and political mobilisations against government corruption, perceived authoritarianism, nepotism, and even environmental degradation have emerged in Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, India, Venezuela and Pakistan. A common theme in these otherwise disparate locations has been the participation and organisational input of relatively affluent activists, and the marginalisation of absolute inequality and redistribution as issues within their protesting agendas.

This is not to suggest that poor people have not been active in these movements, but rather the overarching itinerary has been couched in the language of meritocracy, anti-corruption, economic growth, or the recognition of ‘civic rights’.

The Indian general election is a fairly instructive case study in this regard. While the Aam Aadmi Party is heralded as the clean, pro-accountability option, the BJP’s campaign is also underscored by a distinctly ‘professional’ tilt.

Modi’s popularity lies in the constant, somewhat misleading, flaunting of his record as Gujarat’s administrator, and the party’s ability to present itself as the pro-growth, pro-reform option vs the inept and corrupt Congress-led UPA-II (2009-2014). Both these political preferences — ‘meritocracy and anti-corruption’ and ‘pro-growth and pro-business’ — are often explicitly held by members of the India’s aspirational middle class.

What makes it even more interesting is that a quick cross-border comparison (simplistic in some regards) shows how the same overarching categories — accountability and growth — were prevalent in the pre-election messaging of the PTI and PML-N respectively.

This rise of middle class dissatisfaction and its relative success in reshaping the vocabulary of mainstream politics poses two important questions: why has this dissatisfaction grown over the past decade, and how has it translated itself into a fairly successful political project?

Amongst the many explanations given for the 1979 Iranian revolution, an oft-cited one was Nikkie Keddie’s usage of the ‘J-curve/relative deprivation theory’. Her analysis was as follows: when periods of relatively high growth and modernisation are followed by economic stagnation, and political exclusion, segments of the population begin to find their heightened expectations unfulfilled. This induces anger, frustration, and eventually leads to political mobilisation against incumbent regimes.

While the theory was found to be an insufficient explanation for the Iranian case, it does provide us with analytical value in partially explaining middle class politics in South Asia.

Between 1988 and 2006, pro-market reforms in both India and Pakistan saw considerable growth in the size and relative affluence of the middle class. For Pakistan in particular, the Musharraf era was one of considerable consumption-based prosperity, as was the first UPA government (2004-09) for the same segment in India.

A global recession, mixed with general ruling ineptness, sparked discontentment in both countries. The good days of cheap credit and suburban dreams came to a grinding halt, and with it brought about a considerable degree of anger towards the parties or authority figures in power. The BJP, like the PTI and PML-N before it, is currently cashing in on this anti-incumbent sentiment

Now comes the all-important second question — how did middle class discontentment ensure the PML-N and PTI’s success in Pakistan, and the BJP’s status as the most popular party in India? The middle class may have grown in size, but it still remains an electoral minority. How did its aspirations and considerations become universally acceptable in both countries?

One possible explanation is that middle-income groups are adept at shaping the political discourse for all other groups in the country. Control over academic institutions and the media puts them at an advantage as far as mass messaging is concerned.

Anchors and television/radio pundits highlight government corruption, talk at length against quotas and redistributive projects, and implicitly (often explicitly as well) make their political preferences clear. This has an undeniable impact on how consumers from all classes process the political world around them.

The complementary explanation, and a more compelling one, is that low-income voters are organisationally weak compared to the middle class. In the growing absence of representative political parties, or functioning unions, low-income voters become recipients of token scraps handed out selectively as part of cruel electoral transactions. They do not possess the resources required to project an alternate political messaging, and neither do they have the reach to reform the existing language of politics and economics.

To put it somewhat crudely, the political game — ie mass-messaging, party leadership preferences and agendas of mobilisation — looks increasingly rigged in favour of the more affluent in society. This is the dilemma democracy essentially faces in many developing countries. In a couple of weeks, Modi will most likely become leader of the largest party in the Lok Sabha, and like Nawaz Sharif, he will be entrusted to bring the good days of consumption and aspiration back to the country. Back for whom exactly, though, is a question that may very well go unasked.

Author Information

Written by Umair Javed

Author Information: The writer is a freelance columnist.

More by Umair Javed
Read all from Umair Javed»