Middle Class Politics and Corruption

by Salman Tarik Kureshi

The shocked cries of “corruption!” emanating from drawing rooms and TV sets are directed towards the president and his political party. But they include all the personages we call ‘politicians’, i.e. those who seek power by way of the ballot box. Now, while no one condones the corruption of ‘politicians’ so defined, a clearer perspective would show that blatant sleaze by elected office-holders is no worse or more widespread than the subtler, institutional corruption that all Pakistani citizens experience in their interactions with state functionaries at all levels. The tax man, the police inspector, the magistrate or civil judge, not to mention the Patwari, the canal engineer, power project engineers, civic authorities or federal secretariat officials, provincial secretariats, military procurement personnel, all are notorious for requiring ‘lubrication’ to keep the wheels moving.

Thus the present squabble is between an elected but corrupt power structure and another corrupt but unelected power structure. The question is whether only the present parliament, or the very institution of elected parliaments, is at risk. To understand this, we need to look deeper. We need to analyse the social infrastructure in which democracy can be promoted and supported.

In my last offering in these pages, I referred to Dr Hamza Alavi’s thesis that, in the newly created Pakistan, a civil-military oligarchy — the ‘Salariat’ that actually runs things in the army, the districts and the secretariats — assumed an autonomous role, independent of the interests of the nation-forming social classes. This happened because, among Indian Muslims in general and within the regions that became Pakistan in particular, social structures were quasi-feudal with tribal holdovers and such bourgeoisie as existed was numerically small and financially and politically weak.

Let us then see what could have been the role of this bourgeoisie with which Pakistan was not blessed. Karl Marx, no friend of the capitalist order, nevertheless writes:

“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part…Wherever it has got the upper hand, (it) has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations…It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals.

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all nations into civilisation.”

And it is this vital, transformational class that, in Hamza Alavi’s thesis, lacked the numbers, institutional strength or consciousness to transform Pakistan into a dynamic, democratic nation. How and why this happened is beyond the purview of a brief article like this. But we can at least quickly analyse the elements within the Pakistani bourgeoisie.

Such big bourgeoisie as exists (textile millers and other industrialists) is relatively small time compared to its counterparts beyond our borders. A timid class, it was primarily formed during the Ayubian ‘golden era’ within the crucible of bureaucratic patronage, with the help of permits, SROs and artificial exchange rates. It was always kept within bounds by the military-bureaucratic oligarchy. Far from playing the role of a transformative national bourgeoisie, building powerful industrial and financial empires, its investments have generally remained restricted in size and scale. It did not invest in substantial infrastructure projects. More, we have seen how the profits made by our industrial barons siphoned out of the economy for investment into real estate in Manhattan, Mayfair and Dubai or tossed onto Stock Exchanges in New York, London, Singapore, even Mumbai.

Now, our captains of industry can justifiably blame inconsistent government policies, bureaucratic corruption, Bhutto’s nationalisations, political instability, bad law and order, infrastructural limitations, the power crisis and so on. But the fact of a powerless and politically inert big bourgeoisie remains the bottom line.

The middle and lower bourgeoisie divide into three separate groupings. The professional middle classes — civil and military bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers, business professionals, judges, journalists and so on — are of course uniquely powerful. These are the organic descendants of the ‘Salariat’ and it is they who comprise the civil-military oligarchy, or articulate their interests through that oligarchy. This is the social stratum that houses the Leviathan commonly referred to as the ‘establishment’, whose backbone is the civilian bureaucracy and whose forceful arm is the military. These oligarchs, lacking in political literacy, embrace Alexander Pope’s dictum:

“For forms of government, let fools contest.

Whatever’s best administered is best.”

However, they can have political opinions. In general, these are conservative, ranging rightward from elitist pseudo-liberalism (‘enlightened moderation’) to rock-solid Islamism. When elections are held, they seldom vote, believing that “corrupt, damned politicians” are incapable of running things. When coups d’état occur, they feed ‘laddoos’ to one another.

Of immediate note is the din that the various elements in this oligarchy are presently kicking up regarding the venality and corruption of the ‘politicians’, the din usually preceding another constitutional deviation.

A minority among this social stratum (among which this author must locate himself), believes itself to be anti-establishment, indulges in the luxury of intellectual debate, joins civil society organisations, certain NGOs and progressive political groupings. Quarantined under the label of ‘westernised liberals’, the members of this marginal minority are amusedly tolerated by the others.

But that is not all there is to the middle and lower bourgeoisie. Alongside the well-heeled gentlemen and ladies of the professional classes are the less fashion-conscious middle and lower business classes. These are traders and small industrialists, workshop owners and shopkeepers, cotton ginners, rice huskers, agricultural merchants and middlemen — all those who are in fact keeping the wheels of business moving — and those members of the educated petit bourgeoisie linked with them. This is a vital class, from among whom a real national bourgeoisie could emerge — if a Pakistani equivalent of Nehru and Patel’s Indian National Congress could have been wished into existence.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the fledgling PPP in what was then West Pakistan and the Awami League in what is now Bangladesh, couching their campaigns in populist-socialist terms, were able to excite the anti-elite instincts of this incipient national bourgeoisie and mobilise them politically. But that, to take liberties with the Bard of Avon, was when we were another country and anyhow those persons are dead.

Today, the business bourgeoisie of Pakistan is politically fragmented. At one extreme, misled by pseudo-Islamic slogans, many of its members actively support jihadist enterprises. Also on the right, this is where the supporters of the religio-political parties, the 10 percent that always show up at election time, are to be found. The MQM and the ANP, in their respective provincial strongholds, draw their support from these, as do the various avowedly ethnic sub-national parties who articulate regional grievances. Mian Nawaz Sharif and his faction of the Muslim League have actively cultivated the middle and small bourgeoisie; but their political support remains mostly confined to Punjab.

The PPP, as the only political party with a significant measure of support in all regions of the country, appears to have lost its ideological moorings. Increasingly, it is perceived as a vehicle for merely an alternative elitism. In the absence of any attempt to assemble and mobilise a meaningful mass base, both the
PPP and democracy in Pakistan could well be in serious peril.

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