MANY real and mythical actors animate narratives of modern Pakistani life, and particularly its politics: army officers, landlords, businessmen, mullahs, the ‘foreign hand’, and, of course, the proverbial awam.
The vast majority of these narratives place the rich and powerful at one end of the spectrum and the hapless awam at the other, with the occasional heroic general, judge or politician playing the role of game-changer.
Needless to say, the plot in real life is rarely this straightforward. A truly representative analysis of actually existing Pakistan requires us to move beyond the usual suspects and consider less invoked social forces that play major roles in shaping the social and political landscape.
Many scholars of Pakistan and other Muslim-majority societies have argued that small and medium-sized traders and merchants, or what some call the bazaar bourgeoisie, have greatly influenced the economic and political trajectory of these societies in the modern era.
For some the genesis of this class can be traced to the mediaeval period, while for others its modern manifestation is a phenomenon unto itself. Either way, the experts argue, there can be no gainsaying the importance of the bazaar.
Even though we do not associate them with grand political narratives, traders and merchants occupy a significant position in contemporary Pakistani society. Virtually all of us interact with the mercantile classes in the course of everyday buying and selling of goods and services, and often share with one another tales of their miserliness.
Many of us also know traders’ associations to be amongst the most organised and vocal collectives in society. Over the past few decades, traders have mobilised actively not only to defend their own class interests, but also around a plethora of social and political causes, and especially the age-old slogan ‘defence of Islam’.
The mercantile classes arguably came of age politically during the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) mobilisation that sounded the death knell for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
The face of the PNA may have been the religious right, but insofar as it was a movement, its most significant component was the small-town arthi (agricultural middleman) infuriated by the nationalisation of agro-processing industries initiated in 1976.
During the Zia dictatorship and subsequently, the political and economic clout of the mercantile classes has steadily grown, particularly in Punjab. The bazaar bourgeoisie has chosen to ally itself with two political constituencies as a means of accessing state power (and this is quite aside from its pandering to military regimes whenever these have been in place).
The first ally of choice is the religious right. It is not by mistake that traders’ associations take up Islamic causes as diverse as blasphemous cartoons and Dr Afia Siddiqui.
Not only do traders want their profiteering to be whitewashed by religion, there is also a clear sociological link between the religious right and trader-merchant segments. Those who are shopkeepers have brothers and cousins who are small-time imams; arthis are married to the daughters of madressah alims, and so on and so forth. There is a wide range of religio-political organisations supported by individual traders, both of the militant and parliamentary variety. In this sense traders provide a major fillip to sectarianism because they necessarily provide parochial support to the mosque or madressah of their own sect.
The second ally of choice is the (mostly Punjabi) big bourgeoisie. The political power of the mercantile classes was institutionalised during the Zia era initially through non-party local bodies and then the 1985 non-party national and provincial assembly elections.
Almost three decades later, while Zia loyalists have made a home for themselves in virtually every mainstream party, the Punjabi bourgeoisie has settled on the Sharif brothers as their representatives.
There is a symbiotic relationship between the small/medium and big bourgeoisie, or in other words, between the bazaar and larger-scale industrial and mercantile segments.
The PML-N and the prototypical trader do not enjoy a rapport that is beyond contradiction, but it is nevertheless true that the latter feel most comfortable when the PML-N is in power.
In effect the relationship is three-way; the big bourgeoisie, the bazaar, and the religious right. Since at least the Zia years, this troika has been patronised by the unelected institutions of the state, albeit selectively. At the very least it can be said that the troika has been quickly mobilised if and when the establishment has needed to create the spectre of ‘popular’ support for its manipulations.
The evidence also suggests that sectarian violence increases markedly whenever the PML-N has controlled the reins of power at the centre. Surely this is not a coincidence.
Notwithstanding the rather typical claims of the current government that the clashes in Rawalpindi during the Ashura period were the work of conspirators, it is hard to look beyond the quite dramatic increase in activity by ‘banned’ organisations since the general election in May.
The PML-N made a lot of apparently positive noises both before and after coming to power. Particularly compelling for many progressives was Nawaz Sharif’s repeated promises that establishing a sustainable peace with India would be amongst his major priorities.
Unfortunately, six months in the saddle have quashed whatever optimism that may have been lingering; it is, after all, hard to reconcile such claims with the fact that the troika of big bourgeoisie, bazaar and religious right appears as coherent as ever.
Granted this troika, like any other established political force in Pakistan, is subject to its fair share of internal crises. The pressures exerted by global and regional players can cause disruptions in the ‘normal’ state of affairs as much as the exigencies of domestic politics.
In any case the point I wish to emphasise is that the ‘intermediate’ strata such as the bazaar bourgeoisie are a mainstay of Pakistan’s political economy. We must move beyond sporadic and superficial references to it so as to promote both meaningful analysis and the building of an alternative politics to challenge the right-wing onslaught.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.