In Pakistan, it’s middle class rising

The contradictions within this class will now set the future course for Pakistan’s economy and its politics

February 28, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 03:10 am IST



The general perception still, and unfortunately, held by many people, foreigners and Pakistanis, is that Pakistan is largely an agricultural, rural economy, where “feudals” dominate the economic, social, and particularly political space. Nothing could be further from this outdated, false framing of Pakistan’s political economy. Perhaps the single most significant consequence of the social and structural transformation under way for the last two decades has been the rise and consolidation of a Pakistani middle class, both rural, but especially, urban.

Class categories transformed

As academics know, signifiers of social categories such as “class” are no longer fashionable and we work in an environment which no longer theorises about classes of any kind. The political category of class has been replaced by numerous other categories such as “institutions” and other more generic and broader substitutes.

This is particularly the case in Pakistan, where while there is much literature on Pakistan’s over-determined military, there is some on the judiciary, media, gender, but little research and academic engagement with the social and structural transformation which results in how the nature of class composition has changed over time. The previous, more simplistic and simplified class categories such as feudals, industrialists, and “the working class” have not only been transformed but are also now even more problematic. In this academic environment, where there is little research of core social categories, trying to identify and calculate the size of the middle class becomes particularly difficult.

While a definition, and hence estimation of Pakistan’s middle class, or middle classes, has not been easy, the term has acquired much prominence in social and anecdotal references. Increasing references to the middle class — durmiana tubqa — both as a political category but also as an economic one, occur more regularly in the media. Often, Pakistan’s middle class is referred to by the consumer goods that it has increasingly been purchasing, from washing machines to motorcycles. But more importantly, the term is used for those having an active political constituency and presence. In many ways, the terms used in India after Narendra Modi’s 2014 election, of an “aspiring” or “aspirational” class — also somewhat vague but nevertheless signifying some political and developmentalist notion — have also found some currency in Pakistan.

Attempts to quantify Pakistan’s middle class, largely based on income and the purchase of consumption goods, show that as many as 42% of Pakistan’s population belong to the upper and middle classes, with 38% counted as “the middle class”. If these numbers are correct, or even indicative in any broad sense, then 84 million Pakistanis belong to the middle and upper classes, a population size larger than that of Germany and Turkey. Anecdotal evidence and social observations, supplemented by estimates other than what people buy, would also support the claim that Pakistan’s middle class is indeed quite formidable.

Girls shining

Data based on social, economic and spatial categories all support this argument. While literacy rates in Pakistan have risen to around 60%, perhaps more important has been the significant rise in girls’ literacy and in their education. Their enrolment at the primary school level, while still less than it is for boys, is rising faster than it is for boys. What is even more surprising is that this pattern is reinforced even for middle level education where, between 2002-03 and 2012-13, there had been an increase by as much as 54% when compared to 26% for that of boys. At the secondary level, again unexpectedly, girls’ participation has increased by 53% over the decade, about the same as it has for boys. While boys outnumber girls in school, girls are catching up. In 2014-15, it was estimated that there were more girls enrolled in Pakistan’s universities than boys — 52% and 48%, respectively. Pakistan’s middle class has realised the significance of girls’ education, even up to the college and university level.

In spatial terms, most social scientists would agree that Pakistan is almost all, or at least predominantly, urban rather than rural, even though such categories are difficult to concretise. Research in Pakistan has revealed that at least 70% of Pakistanis live in urban or urbanising settlements, and not in rural settlements, whatever they are. Using data about access to urban facilities and services such as electricity, education, transport and communication connectivity, this is a low estimate. Moreover, even in so-called “rural” and agricultural settlements, data show that around 60% or more of incomes accrue from non-agricultural sources such as remittances and services. Clearly, whatever the rural is, it is no longer agricultural. Numerous other sets of statistics would enhance the middle class thesis in Pakistan.

Rise of the ‘youthias’

It is not only in economistic, or more specifically, consumerist, terms, that the middle class has made its presence felt, but also politically. The “naya Pakistan” of today is dominated by middle class voices and concerns. The “youthias”, as they are called, a political category of those who support Imran Khan and his style of politics, are one clear manifestation of this rise, as is the large support in the Punjab of Nawaz Sharif and his Punjab Chief Minister brother, Shahbaz Sharif. The developmentalist agenda and the social concerns of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government which is ruled by Imran Khan’s party, and those in the Punjab where the Sharif family dominates, are representative of this new politics. Free laptops, better governance, more information technology, better schooling, better urban health facilities, jobs for the educated youth, the right to information, and so on, represent government initiatives to appease this political category.

Vague, expectational foundations from Europe and other western countries, that the middle class is necessarily democratic, tolerant and secular, have all come undone by events in recent years. The expectation that the middle class is necessarily “liberal” no longer stands.

In the case of Pakistan, on account of many decades of a forced Islamisation discourse, backed up by Saudi funding and growing jihadism, one might argue that Pakistan’s middle class is “Islamist”, very broadly defined, and also socially conservative and intolerant, pro-privatisation and pro-capital. Yet, social and structural transformation, from Internet access to girls’ education and social media activism, also results in trends that counter such strict formulations. While still probably socially conservative, contradictory counter-narratives would suggest that there is a large noticeable tension which exists within this category of the middle class which questions a simple categorisation of its ideological moorings.

A politics hardly progressive

It would be trite, though not incorrect, to argue that Pakistan’s middle class is in an ideological ferment and transition, but its aspirations do not extend to groups and social classes outside its own large category. They are not interested in the working classes or their issues, they are comfortable making economic and political alliances with large capitalist landowners and industrialists, many of whom have close links with the military. At present, the politics of this middle class is a far cry from even a soft version of the term “progressive”. It is the multiple fractions within the middle class which have been dominating the political and developmentalist agenda in Pakistan. It is going to be the contradictions within this middle class which will now set the future course for Pakistan’s economy and its politics. Perhaps from the fringes of this middle class, one could possibly expect the emergence even of progressive forms of politics.

S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist based in Karachi. He teaches at Columbia University in New York, and at the IBA in Karachi .

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.