By Raza Habib Raja
I remember watching his last speech in a crowded room and also the huge roar when he announced his resignation. Just two years have passed and it’s amazing the way the fortunes have turned (or have they?). If election were held on facebook, Mr Musharraf’s only tough competition would come from Imran Khan!!. The “enlightened moderates” are up in arms and ready to wage a struggle (unfortunately or shall I say fortunately on facebook only) to bring their leader back.
How do you explain Mr Muharraf and his sophisticated and yet confused core constituency? The constituency comprises of the segment of upwardly mobile urban middleclass, with which he has experienced such a love hate relationship. It was elated when he deposed Nawaz Sharif and was swearing against him when he deposed the Chief Justice. The same middleclass, which prospered during his tenor was in arms against him when he challenged their ideological orientation and it is vociferous in its zeal to bring him back.
What is really amazing is that in many ways Musharraf had violated some important ideological “standards” which this constituency holds in high esteem. After all let’s not forget that Muharraf had a very pro West outlook, and was “guilty” of allowing the US to violate the so called national sovereignty several times. Moreover, Musharraf’s biggest mistake was sacking of the Chief Justice which virtually unleashed a movement against him eventually turning middleclass and the media vehemently against him. The mistake was topped by the stories of deals with late Benazir which again was against the urban middleclass mindset. A substantial chunk of urban middleclass hates PPP and construes the party to be the most corrupt organization which merely comes into power due to the votes of “illiterate and foolish” masses.
Musharraf was also not helped by the dwindling economy at the end of his long reign either. The huge bonanza which the urban centers had enjoyed during his tenure, spurred largely by property and stock market boom, was coming to an end and this coincided with all the aforementioned political developments. In fact after Benzair assassination and 18th February’s elections, Musharraf was increasingly isolated and ultimately it was a very unceremonious departure of virtually an impotent President.
And now he is back into the political arena. Although he will not be hailed by masses but nevertheless has regained the core constituency(if you could even call it a constituency!) of upwardly mobile professionals belonging to the urban middleclass. It is somewhat closer to Imran Khan’s constituency but some crucial differences exist. In Musharraf’s case the constituency is largely composed of slightly more liberal strain of the urban middleclass whereas Imran largely attracts either ultraconservatives in the old age bracket or teenagers who have no clue about political ground realities. Moreover, Musharraf’s followers are largely professionals and fall in the age bracket of thirty plus who have witnessed the economic boom during his tenure.
In some ways Musharraf was lucky that early part of his tenure coincided with 9/11 which suddenly elevated Pakistan’s strategic importance. Huge aid inflows coupled with low interest rates spurred a period of high growth. The economic indicators improved a lot and most of the gains were made by the middleclass professionals. Corporate, telecom and financial sectors were major gainers and so were the large number of the employees working in these sectors. The low interest rates also spurred a consumer credit boom and suddenly middleclass had easy access to high end commodities such as cars, electronics etc. The stock market and property booms also benefited a lot of middle income families.
Many of these middleclass professionals still fondly remember the huge income increases during the Musharraf period and though they opposed him in the later years, the economic crunch they are facing now, coupled with the overall deterioration of the “”feel good” factor, has rekindled their support.
Moreover, a substantial chunk of this group has always been skeptical of democracy and “chaotic” ways of the politicians. They know it very well that Musharraf’s tenure could at best be called a quasi democratic rule. Musahrraf due to his uniform was never sensitive to those kinds of political necessities which a political leader has to comply. Instead of reaching out, Musharraf could actually deal with iron hand and now that ability is being remembered rather fondly.
What makes the entire situation even more interesting is that Media and Judiciary have become extremely strong in the recent times and both the institutions are vehemently against Musharraf. Considering the fact that both the institutions are actually well supported by urban middleclass, the resurgence of Musharraf’s popularity is basically due to the perceived dismal performance of the present political set up. Musharraf has regained his constituency due to better “memories” rather than some ideological reasons.
Now what are his likely prospects? Let me reiterate what I wrote in the beginning that if facebook constituted the electoral landscape, parties of Musharraf and Imran Khan will become the ruling and the main opposition party respectively. However, the ground reality is very different from the world of facebook.
Musharraf’s chances to bag any seats will depend on whether PML (Q), which frankly is just a group of powerful independents, can group around him. In rural Punjab the politics is more about candidate’s political clout at the local level which explains as to why parties have such a strong preference for feudal lords. That preference is pragmatic rather than ideological. PML (Q) was basically carved out of PML (N) and constitutes strong individuals united by their one time support of Musharraf rather than anything ideological or philosophical. The party contested elections and in fact returned a sizeable number of members to the legislatures. If these strong independents can retain their local clout and join hands with Musharraf then perhaps they can bag a few seats.
Likewise Musharraf’s party can bag some seats in rural Sindh if it allies itself with the functional league of Pir Pagara. In NWFP and Baluchistan, there is frankly no chance. In cities, it will be tough despite the fact that his actual core constituency is in the urban Punjab and Sindh. The irony of both Musharraf and Imran is that their core constituency does not like to stand in queue and actually vote! Yes they will tag articles on facebook, share videos where anchor persons lynch “corrupt” politicians of PPP and PML (N) but when it comes to actual trouble of going to the polling booth, they fail miserably. There is a reason as to why the name “chattering classes” has been allotted to them!!! Frankly most of them are just internet warriors and nothing else. You know the type who instead of street activism will always be indulging in pseudo intellectual nonsense about “corrupt” politicians.
There is also substantial talk of Musharraf becoming an “establishment” candidate. Frankly I don’t see this possibility to materialize. I think the word establishment is often overhyped and repeated to death whenever something happens. Although I consider myself a liberal but I would admit that liberal side also suffers from a conspiracy theory mindset where everything under the sun is blamed on that murky thing known as establishment.
Even if “establishment” does decide to support Musharraf, the latter does not enjoy support in Judiciary and media which make it difficult to actually manipulate.
Last but not the least: if I am given choice between Imran and Musharraf only, I will vote for Musharraf!! At least he is not politically naïve and does not adopt apologetic defense of those monsters, Taliban. I have huge admiration of Imran as a cricketer and philanthropist, but frankly I hate his politics.