Of Leaders, Mythology And The Pakistani Middle Class

Of Leaders, Mythology And The Pakistani Middle Class
Nadeem Farooq Paracha’s latest book, Imran Khan: Myth of the Pakistani Middle-Class, is one of the first books to explore Imran Khan’s political career in detail. Paracha investigates the rise and fall of Khan the politician from various angles: economic, political, social and even psychological. In so doing, he also investigates Khan’s core constituency, the Pakistani urban middle-class. The book is as much a study of this class in Pakistan as it is of Khan. I managed to speak to Paracha recently about this.


Raza Habib Raja (RHR): First, congratulations on your new book in which you have explored the links between the middle class and Imran Khan. In the beginning of the book, you have discussed Imran’s personal transformation from a westernised man into becoming a more reactionary figure. Do you think this transformation is of a ‘born again Muslim’ variety? Or do you think that since he was inspiring to get into politics, he was just trying to overcompensate for his previous lifestyle?

Nadeem Farooq Paracha (NFP): There were multiple reasons. Firstly, after he quit cricket, he began to spend more time in Pakistan than in England. He seemed to have suddenly become aware of certain things which didn’t matter to him when he was a sporting star and a darling of the British tabloid press. However, when I say that he became aware, does not mean that he developed some potent insights about things such as religion, politics, etc. What I mean is that he developed a particular perception about the Pakistani society. And this perception wasn’t formulated through any academic means, nor through an experience of engaging with the so-called masses. The perception was more a result of what he heard in the circles that he began to frequent in Pakistan. This circle was largely made up of former bureaucrats, former military officers and certain activist figures who happened have a rather loathsome attitude towards mainstream politicians.

Their mindset was middle-class, in the sense that they felt ignored and alienated by the electoral engagement between the civilian ruling elites and the masses. Secondly, Imran seemed to have rediscovered Islam. He was convinced that God had directly intervened to aid the Pakistan cricket team during the 1992 Cricket World Cup. Khan was leading that team which came from behind to win the event. Khan understood this as a miracle of sorts. So, he began to engage with certain Islamic scholars. At the time, various segments of the country’s middle-classes, too, were supposedly reconnecting with their faith.

The ranks of various evangelical Islamic organisations swelled in the 1990s, and most of their members belonged to middle-income groups. It was only when he officially joined politics in 1996 that he began to discover the political dimension of Islam. This, despite the fact that this dimension had become prominent from the mid-1970s and was overtly flexed during the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship in the 1980s.

RHR: While his anti-West and Islamist rhetoric in the 1990s onwards gained more attention, at the same time, you have also pointed out in your book that his ideology was not coherent but a strange hodgepodge of various and at times even contrasting ideologies. What could explain this?

NFP: Imran was not much of a reader. He still isn’t. So, what he said or says regarding religion, politics or society, often comes from what he hears. He picked up bits and pieces from what Islamic scholars that he was engaging with were saying, or from what his British friends would say. These friends would often quote Western academics, or speak about the latest political and social narratives doing the rounds in Europe. Khan was also the kind of person who, when he does manage to read a book, sticks to a particular narrative or thesis that the book is highlighting. Such folk do not make much of an effort to dig deeper or explore the anti-thesis or critiques of the narrative of that one book that they fully embrace.

When folk like Khan do read, they mostly skim through books. Khan’s ideas were a hodgepodge of conflicting narratives because, for example, on the one hand he might have read something by the Iranian scholar Ali Shariati, then one thing by Chomsky, then was told about the political philosophy of Abul Ala Maududi, then about the wonders of the Scandinavian Welfare State, or British parliamentarianism, or American imperialism, or neo-colonialism […] Thing is, he ambitiously tried to merge all these distinct ideas to formulate a single ideology. But since he was picking up bits and pieces, and also that, he was thinking more like a British-Pakistani would in a very different reality, what came out of his mouth was a train of catchphrases, with one phrase negating the other.

He began to rage against Western colonialism, yet found great beauty in the British justice system that, ironically, is largely a product of British colonialism. A lot of Pakistanis couldn’t understand what Imran really stood for when he first ventured into politics. But many British-Pakistanis did, because, since he had spent so much time in England, he was still operating in that reality.

He was in awe of Western society. But as happens to non-Westerners in such societies, they develop a complex that they are being treated in a disparaging manner by their Western counterparts. So, they begin to formulate or adopt an identity which they believe is rooted in their own so-called authentic culture. Fact is, it is anything but authentic. It is an imagined authenticity but one which is then expressed to get traction from Westerners. This way one is able to rationalise their admiration of Western societies by believing that they are doing so, not by mimicking Western values or behaviour, but by retaining those of their ancestral cultures. This is a rather convoluted sense of the self.

RHR: In your book, you have used Arnold Beichman’s term “anti-leader” to describe Imran Khan and stated that such people know that their flaws and contradictions are a source of their charisma and therefore they are tempted to indulge in unconventional and non-conformist behavior. What is the source of this tendency? Is this “anti-leader” trait in Imran Khan his personal characteristic? Or do you think that the expectations of his supporters are also playing a role here? Like they expect him not to compromise with “corrupt” elements and consequently he is forced to play along those expectations. He cannot sustain to satisfy these expectations indefinitely due to realpolitik concerns. Is this why he ends up sounding contradictory?

NFP: Beichman unfortunately does not explore why certain leaders become anti-leaders, as in politicians who sabotage their own power and position. So, in my book, I tried to expand Beichman’s rather brilliant take on self-destructive leaders. I compared Imran’s career as a cricket captain with that of his stint as a prime minister and what he is today as a politician. Interestingly, there is nothing in his cricketing career to suggest that this self-destructive tendency in him was present in him when he was leading the Pakistan cricket team. On the contrary, he was very conscious of safeguarding his cricket career.

He built himself up from being a mediocre medium-fast-bowler to becoming one of the world’s finest all-rounders and a successful captain. So, I think it is about his ego, which was as present in his cricket career as it is in his career as a politician. The difference is: this ego was hardly ever bruised when he was a cricketer. But when he was ousted as prime minister in April 2022 through a vote of no confidence, the ego was shattered. This shattering or bruising of the ego allowed a self-destructive tendency in him to emerge. And it is burying his politics. He’s been walking around like a blob of rage and hurt, destroying any likelihood whatsoever of him ever becoming the country’s prime minister again. Who knows, had his ego been bruised when he was a cricketer, he would have ended up destroying his cricket career as well.

RHR: In your book, you have used a political-economic approach to define and distinguish strands of the middle class. You wrote that a particular strand of this class, while wanting economic freedom, also wants Islamisation of the state. For the benefit of the readers, can you explain as to why this linkage exists?

NFP: This linkage was first made by the Zia dictatorship. The idea was to sync religiosity with economic prosperity. It is based on the same belief that I earlier mentioned here, in which a secular and amoral activity is adopted, but rationalised as an act by someone who believes that he or she is still rooted in a religious or spiritual ethos. Zia deregulated the economy and encouraged free economic enterprise. Yet, he was also peddling piety and the creation of a charitable Islamic state.

Zia’s economic policies greatly benefited the urban middle-classes who then adopted the linkage between modern economic prosperity and religiosity. Thanks to deregulation and massive financial aid handed out by the United States and Saudi Arabia, the economy boomed for a while during that dictatorship. Therefore, a perception developed among those who were benefiting from Zia’s economic manoeuvres. Economic prosperity began to be perceived as an outcome of religiosity, and therefore, of the idea of an Islamic state which Zia was supposedly moulding.

RHR: You have written that PTI’s core strength originally came from a supposedly religious-neutral segment of the middle class which has tried to come up with its own interpretation of Islam. One would have assumed that this segment’s interpretation would be somewhat liberal given the fact that they, at one time, supported Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation.” Given PTI’s role in introducing some regressive laws, its opposition to the women’s protection bill and Imran Khan’s own statements, why do you think that it has ended up being so reactionary?

NFP: The more conservative segments of the middle-class emerged during the Zia dictatorship due to reasons that I have already discussed. The other segment, which I call the religious-neutral or the more cosmopolitan middle-class group remained largely apolitical, even though it too benefited from Zia’s economic policies. But the cosmopolitans fancied themselves as being better-informed Muslims and moderates.

They embraced Musharraf because he positioned himself as a moderate and mindful Muslim. So, the once apolitical segment of the middle-classes enthusiastically adopted him as one of their own. The conservative segment had fallen in the lap of Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, especially in Punjab. The cosmopolitan middle-class groups, on the other hand, became Musharraf’s constituency.

Although the middle-classes as a whole benefitted from Musharraf’s economic policies, as they had done during the Zia regime, a split within this class became most prominent when Musharraf fell in 2008. By then, the cosmopolitan middle-classes too had become politicised. They saw in Imran what they saw in Musharraf: a dashing leader with moderate views as opposed to a supposedly corrupt and dull Nawaz serving the interests of the other segment of the middle-class.

However, despite the fact that from 2015 onwards, PML-N began to move more to the centre during Sharif’s third rule, the cosmopolitans continued to see Musharraf in Khan, even though Khan’s rhetoric increasingly began to move a lot more to the right. I guess, the cosmopolitans invested so much emotion in him that their critical thinking abilities have been entirely eroded.

Khan is seen by this segment as an incorruptible, brave, and, of course, handsome man, who is crusading against corruption and for what he says is “haqiqi azadi” (real freedom). His followers see themselves as the chosen ones aiding a chosen one to wipe away political filth, and turn Pakistan into some kind of a utopia that is mixture of an imagined pristine Islamic past, the Scandinavian Welfare system, and a one-party state. But the fact is, Khan and his party have always been and still are nothing more than a populist, cosmopolitan variant of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), or what the singer and comedian Ali Aftab Saeed called a “good looking Jamaat-e-Islami.”

So, if one has completely lost his or her critical thinking abilities, they cannot be expected to entertain such critiques of a leader that they are so emotionally invested in. Anything outside an emotionally constructed belief system is unacceptable. Then there is also the fear of losing a political identity that was shaped by Khan’s rhetoric. If that collapses, there will be a void in his supporters. Such voids can be mighty painful. Like in someone who has been yanked away from a cult. I’ve explored this in detail in the book.

RHR: You have analysed Khan’s cultish and in fact messianic appeal in the middle classes using a psychological as well as political economy framework. You explain this class as a blocked elite. According to you, the blocked elite is the major beneficiary of economic liberalisation, but feels that it is being denied political power. For the benefit of the readers, can you elaborate that why this blocked elite in Pakistan has fallen for Imran Khan? Is it because of the fact that he belongs to the same class? Or there is more to it?

NFP: I have already provided some reasons here, both economic and political. And yes, I believe this blocked elite that I talk about in the book, does see him as belonging to the same class and mindset.

RHR: You also pointed out that the hatred of the existing political parties, particularly PPP and PML-N due to their perceived corruption, and which is at least partly cultivated by the military establishment, is also a reason. Many PTI supporters claim that their support for Imran is his due to his honesty compared with status quo and corrupt parties. Why is the middle class so obsessed with financial corruption and why does it only see the other parties as corrupt? Interestingly, during the PTI tenure, Pakistan actually slipped in the Corruption Perception Index ranking and yet, despite the evidence, many supporters still think otherwise.

NFP: Indeed. But let me also add that corruption first truly became institutionalised during the Zia dictatorship. This was a period during which the size of the middle-classes rapidly expanded. I guess, corruption in things only becomes visible when a person stops benefiting from these things. This is why, despite evidence that Khan’s regime too was tainted by serious corruption, his core supporters refuse to accept it. They are still benefiting in some manner from what Khan provided them. And I don’t only mean economic benefits. There is a psychological dimension to it as well. The benefit in this case is a comforting illusion, which others might call a delusion.

RHR: In the book, you have traced as to how a secular idea like nationalism came to replace religion through sacralisation and explained how the same process has led to the evolution of political religion, which is different from civic religion. So, in your opinion, PTI in some ways could be called a kind of political religion and Imran is an Islamist Nationalist and a Messiah. What explains the timing of this rise? For instance, why is it that before 2011, IK despite being charismatic and getting a lot of TV time which he has always gotten could not get much traction? I remember even as late as May 2011: his rallies hardly had any participants. It seems this political religion suddenly arrived in late October 2011 with one big rally.

NFP: Three reasons. The obvious ones, of course, are the manner in which his rise was greatly facilitated, in fact engineered, by the establishment, and secondly, his emergence was also aided by the global rise of populism. The third reason was that many cosmopolitans who could not relate to Pakistani politics before Musharraf, suddenly felt empty after Musharraf’s fall. They then latched onto Khan. They did this, as if in a state of panic. It was a reactive and emotional decision. This naturally led to them mythologising him as some kind of a saviour. After his departure, the panic returned. But this time the messiah is in a state of panic too. Psychologically, this lot really is in very bad place right now.

RHR: How would you qualitatively distinguish an Islamist Nationalist party from an Islamist party?

NFP: In theory, Islamists are opposed to the whole idea of nationalism. To them, nationalism is inherently secular. But Islamic nationalists disagree. They believe that nationalism in Muslim countries is about creating a republic with an Islamic constitution but whose aim should be to evolve this republic into becoming an Islamic state.

RHR: Why do many middle-class women support PTI even though its leader and the party are misogynist? Some PTI female supporters, who claim to be feminists, use extremely misogynist language against female journalists critical of PTI and female politicians like Maryam Nawaz.

NFP: Well, they may claim to be feminists, but they really aren’t. As I said, anything outside the belief system constructed for them by PTI, is required to be lambasted and demonised. These so-called feminists too are part of the same system. And if they see a journalist criticising Khan, even if the journalist is a woman, they will attack her as viciously as a male misogynist would.
RHR: You have suggested that demagogues are often successful when society is polarised. Now every society is polarised on some basis. What, in your opinion, is the main factor polarising the Pakistani political landscape?

NFP: The inability to not only appreciate diversity, but to even recognise it. As a state we are still struggling with this. Within the society, there are polarising issues between sects, sub-sects and ethnic groups. These issues are constantly being exploited for cynical political reasons.

RHR: You suggest that IK’s core support comes from the middle-class. However, some recent by-elections have shown that at least for now, his support extends to other income segments also. Do you think it is just a temporary phenomenon or that something permanent is happening here?

NFP: I did not suggest that the middle-class alone supports Khan. What I do posit, though, is that this class, or certain segments in it, are at the core of his constituency. But I am pretty confident that his support does not run as deep as some claim. He is nowhere in Sindh or Balochistan. Even in the more multiethnic capital of Sindh, Karachi, support for him has drastically eroded. His support largely comes from established urban and peri-urban centres in Punjab and KP. With his party now in shambles, I can’t see how he will be able to pick seats even from Punjab and KP. And anyway, it is now more-than-likely that he will be disqualified. His is an entirely one-man-show now. One-man-shows do not win elections. They may win a lot of Twitter polls, though.

RHR: Thank you, Nadeem.

NFP: You’re welcome.