Yearning for Change

20 Feb

Published in The News: Saturday, February 20, 2010

I am every bit of the middle-class Pakistani that Ayaz Amir describes with so much disdain in his article ‘The (misdirected) yearning for change’ (February 12). I live in a nice part of a town, I went to an English medium school, my mode of transportation is a car, I converse in English and I discuss politics with great enthusiasm in my drawing room. And my political activism is unfortunately limited to the drawing room only because there is no space for the likes of me or other middle-class Pakistanis in mainstream politics.

In his furious criticism of the middle class, Mr Amir forgets that it isn’t enthusiasm or willingness that’s missing on the part of the middle class; it is the lack of an influential surname and bank balance. History is testament to the fact that it is not honesty, integrity, skill, patriotism or commitment to public well being that will earn you a place in the political process of Pakistan. Instead, the pre-requisites for political participation are the ability to either coerce or bribe voters into submission. Political parties give tickets to those candidates only who bring with them either power of the purse or power of the punch. I would like to ask Mr Amir how, in the absence of correct lineage and appropriate financial assets, I should participate in the political process?

Political parties in Pakistan have done nothing to encourage young middle-class Pakistanis to join their ranks. There is no process through which young middle class people can get involved in mainstream politics and make a career out of it. None of the political parties have a commitment to nurturing future political leadership. There is a tacit agreement amongst all in power to further propagate their own control by renaming their progeny to the thrones of political power. The leader of the PPP will always be a Bhutto and that of the PML-N will always be a Sharif. And those that will stand by them will be Makhdums, Maliks, Chaudhrys, Bizenjos, Bugtis, Marris, Khars or Khuros. There is no place for just a plain citizen of Pakistan, Sehar Tariq.

I have educational degrees from very fine academic institutions. I have a passion for politics and a deep-rooted sense of patriotism. I also have training in the development, implementation and assessment of public policy. But I don’t think those qualities rank high on the recruitment criteria of any mainstream political party.

So, where should I take all that I have to say based on what I have learnt and based on where I would like to see my country go? “Why don’t you join the youth wing or the [insert political party name] Students Federation,” you might say. Surely, student politics is a good way for young middle-class Pakistanis to become involved in the political process. It is. However, student politics – sponsored and nurtured by the democratic forces that you urge us to join – is merely an extension of the coercive power of these political parties. Student politics in Pakistan is characterised by wielding hockey sticks, calling for strikes, intimidating students and professors and creating roadblocks or filling in seats at rallies when needed. And my skills with a hockey stick are sub-par.

I can write great policy papers. I often get A grades on them. But our student political groups don’t require policy nerds. Political parties neither leverage nor encourage youth wings to participate in policy making because it would take them away from disrupting the academic peace and diminish their powers of intimidation. In countries where political parties are truly interested in nurturing new leadership, student leaders are encouraged to write, think and present on key policy issues. Youth wings serve as engines for new and fresh thinking on old and pressing problems. But our political recipe for success involves minimising thought and maximising personal profit. This leaves little room for the academically inclined or the violently disinclined middle classes to participate.

The only form of participation open to us is discussion, which, due to the restrictive patterns of Pakistani politics, we cannot take to the National Assembly. So we sit in our drawing rooms or write on our shiny laptops and publish in English dailies – our armchair activism – our visions of where we want our country to go. But before you write us off, think of it this way, given that the salaried middle classes are the single biggest taxpaying group in the country – our money funds your salary. You participate in the political process on the back of our hard-earned rupees. And since it is our money you spend while you take decisions in the “national interest” and “participate in the political process”, at least give us the right to comment on and complain about those decisions since you have denied us the space to participate in making them.

The writer is a student at Princeton University. Email: stariq@princeton.edu

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3 Responses to “Yearning for Change”

  1. Umair July 9, 2010 at 1:55 am #

    Before i proceed with my comments on your article, i want to clarify two things, i belong to the same class you’ve defined at the start and secondly at times i might appear to be siding with the views of a reactionary Leaguer like Ayaz Amir, but i consider his brand of politics no better than the one you’ve eluded to in your own argumentation.

    Your argument is reasonable in so far as it suggests that political parties rely on big names with guaranteed vote banks to satiate the demands of procedural democracy. Your anger, however is based on two primary perceptions.

    a) The Middle Classes are ignored by the political parties hence middle class interests or input is missing from the construction of state policy
    b) The Middle Classes have no recourse to action hence they are confined to drawing room politics

    The perceived harm caused by missing middle class input into the policy-making process is because, as an undertone to your argument, you suggest that we as the middle class are the most educated and modern class in society. We would know what the state should do and what it should not. For the sake of my critique, i will force myself to agree with your view.

    Debunking perception a)

    True, the middle classes are ignored by political parties. Procedural democracy is a numbers game and we are currently about 4 percent of the urban population in the country. This figure isn’t a shot in the dark its the exact percentage of people who have obtained degrees above the intermediate level in Pakistan (Labor Force Survey 2008). Hence it makes no sense for the political parties to come up and beg for our votes in return for our representation in their party structure. Secondly, I have no clue how people perceive that middle class interests are missing from the construction of our economic, legal and foreign policy making. 34 years of our history have been spent under bureaucratic-military rule. Both of the two constituent members of this oligarchy recruit precisely from the class with ideational values of ‘meritocracy’ and ‘good governance, the class who speaks good English and has college degrees. You gave the names of Bizenjo, Maliks and Chaudharys. I’ll give you the names of Mahbub-ul-Haq, Yaqub Khan, Shaukat Tarin, Salman Shah, Shaukat Aziz, Parvez Tahir. Naturally these aren’t the names you think of when you consider policy making in the country but each of these individuals (except Yaqub Khan) represent a particular contingency in our history when policy making was being conducted by middle class individuals with degrees from the finest institutions in the world and with experience as wide-ranging as the World Bank, the IMF and Citigroup (as stupid as that is). All of them are non-representative of the 96 percent of the rest of the country, all of them hail from the professional class and have constructed policy for this country at varying times. So just because a few of us who had A grades in policy papers were ignored doesn’t mean that many others from our class were as well.

    Debunking perception b)

    We do have recourse to action. Its what has been done by the very few middle class Pakistanis who have actually broken into mass politics. People like Meraj Khalid who possessed neither the big family name nor the economic power of a big bank account but instead who made their bones by participating in real grassroots level mobilization.

    Our spatial segregation from the popular classes (who incidentally are the classes that matter) is by now so absolute that we can spend our entire lives growing up in our suburban utopia without sharing the same public space with them (apart from of course our drivers, cooks and waiters at restaurants). When was the last time a middle class Pakistani decided to do something good for a low income neighborhood? Just the simple act of teaching at a small scale public school or helping them raise their voice against social injustices or simply to help them through their day to day interaction with the repressive ‘everyday’ state might not give us big bank accounts or big names but it might give us social capital. Social capital that at some point will make us worth our weight in democratic terms.

    Its all well and good to wave degrees from first-class institutions in the face of our political parties but as long as we hold democracy as an ideal, we need to reconcile with the fact that it is a numbers game in the end. A contest of competing hegemonies, so to speak, one which is being won by the Sharifs and the Makhdums because of a no-show by the shiny laptop wielding class. Mass politics doesn’t need to be about wielding hockey sticks…its about breaking the patterns of passive compliance exhibited by our popular classes towards the coercive political structures….this breakage isn’t going to come about because of our inherent superiority (since we are oh-so educated), its going to come about by making ourselves worthy as a choice in the eyes of the very people who make a difference when it comes to the ballot box.

    If mass politics continues to be seen as a taboo activity by our class, then we might as well just give up our pretentious obsession with democracy and overtly hitch our cart with the Alavian oligarchy and the judiciary. At then least we wont be accused of hypocrisy.

  2. Ayesha July 26, 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    @ Umair,Very well written piece of analysis.
    You are absolutely correct in saying that democracy is nothing but numbers game.
    I believe truly with all my heart and soul that the real answer lies in implementing the true Islamic model. The one brought and implemented by our prophet and his successors.esp Hazrat Umar r.a. I ask the author to name one person in history and to date who implemented a better system of governance than him. And what was his system exactly?
    For that ,the author and many others out there who think their prestigious degrees and policy making skills are the answers to many social, economical and political problems will need to do some REAL RESEARCH for a change. They need to wake up and smell the coffee. Democracy is a hoax that we have been clinging on to for so long that we have forgotten the most ideal system brought to us by none other than our beloved prophet.
    Talk about wasting time: ranting democracy, democracy de and democracy! Is that what Allah created us for? Our problems lie in the fact that we have shunned Quran and the way of life brought to us by our prophet. For many of us all that are OUTDATED and only good enough to be taught in ISLAMIYAT.tsk tsk…If only we know…….
    This change won’t happen overnight. Its people like you, who should take an initiative and channelize their strengths’ and energies in the right direction rather than fretting over issues that n country or no person has answers or solutions to.
    So come on and do something worthwhile. If there are people who have made ISLAM and everything related to it look bad. You don’t have to believe it.Go do some real work instead of believing the entire BS churned out by the foreign media.
    Find out the real beauty within it and get the answers to all your problems individual, collective, social, economical or political. ISLAM IS THE ANSWER…

  3. sulemanwrites September 8, 2010 at 3:48 am #

    “… I have a passion for politics and a deep-rooted sense of patriotism …”

    Exactly my sentiments

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