When the partisan dust of elections settles, you may find that with the ascension of Imran Khan you have dodged a mighty bullet. A populist bullet. And this might be a subject of great controversy for there are many for whom Imran is the face of Pakistani populism.
Much has been written in the West on populism since the shock victory of Donald Trump. It is no secret that we are right in the middle of a rising global tide of populism. And this did not start with Donald Trump or even Brexit. Narendra Modi’s victory in India, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey all point to this complex and important zeitgeist of our time. It is incumbent on us to study it in depth. Sadly, given the paucity of notable work published in Pakistan and the intellectual lethargy of our developed and organised minds, often contended by the publication of few Op-Ed pieces here and there, there is little chance that we would see a study comparing Pakistani trends with that of the world. Such studies could be of great interest to industrialists, politicians and other influential communities in the country. But no one has even thought of pitching this idea to the investors. There is no platform to do so and hardly any raw data to process the idea.
Before we progress an inch further, let us talk about three salient features of populism, which will help you understand why it is different from what Imran is promising right now. It will also let you know why if not handled carefully the undercurrents that carried him to power can transform him into a populist. Now, in many of my previous pieces I have mentioned it quite vociferously that I think highly of Francis Fukuyama. In Pakistan where we have limited exposure to America’s intellectual debates and progress he is often known for his end of history thesis. But you must read his Trust (1995), Our Posthuman Future (2002), The Origins of Political Order (2011) and most recent Political Order and Political Decay (2014) to grasp his true intellectual integrity and depth.
In a talk delivered last year at World Affairs Council of Monterey Bay Area titled ‘The Global Rise of Populist Nationalism?’ he presents three ways to define populism. Three salient features. One, it prefers policy choices, which are popular in the short run but not so good in the long run. Second, the populists are selective in definition of who the people are. They claim to be acting on behalf of the people but not everyone makes the cut. Populists tend to leave some citizens out of their definition of people based on ethnicity or belief. The third, of course is that a populist movement is built around a cult of a single personality.
When you look at these definitions and listen to what Imran has been promising you may notice there is a difference. While the third aspect fits his party fully, the first two don’t. I don’t remember him claiming that people of any given ethnicity or faith are not his people. Nor is he talking about short-term solutions. Perhaps until 2013 his policy proposals sounded a tad bit impulsive and simplistic. But not anymore. In his victory speech he spoke about institution-building, which is never a short-term goal. So, he is not a populist. But he can be. When political governments fail or struggle they often look for scapegoats and/or ways to win popular support at the cost of long-term interest of the polity. It is a badly-hung parliament and when the going gets tough we will see what he is made of. But in view of what follows in this piece, we should realise it is not a direction we should take.
So, which bullet was I referring to at the start? You need proper context to comprehend the answer. Hence, a little more patience please.
In America, Europe, India and Israel, you see different forms of populisms. The Indian brand is driven both by fanaticism and weariness of the old elite. But the essential components remain the same. Consider Modi’s make-believe ‘surgical strike’ which could lead to a nuclear war and the real surgical strike on the economy in the shape of demonetisation. Israeli populism is borne out of insecurity. American populism is a product of job insecurity and intellectual meltdown, which came as a proliferation of conspiracy theories. European populism arises from the identity crisis, resulting from the EU experiment and xenophobia. Population fluctuations and economic uncertainties are spreading anxiety around the world and Pakistan is not immune to it. In our country where the quality of governance has been poor since the very start and corruption is rampant there is no gainsaying that great pain already exists. As a byproduct of bad governance, the quality of education or general awareness is not great either. The most likely form that populism may take is religious in nature. It is a commonly-held belief that religious parties do not do well on the Election Day. But the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has changed that. Although it wasn’t successful in winning any National Assembly seat, it received 2.2 million votes nationwide and thus became the fifth-largest party in the country. And a look at the party’s platform reveals that it is populism 101. Had Imran and his PTI not worked as the security valve, the TLP’s share of the pie could have grown remarkably. So that is the bullet you dodged this time.
If you think, the TLP being a religious party could not win, you need to look at the religious and sectarian demographics of the country. Also, you might not realise this because of his use of odious language but Khadim Rizvi, the TLP head, is quite a clever man. And while our pundits may want you to believe that it is a product of the establishment’s machinations, the reality is different. It was the PML-N’s tiff with the slain governor Salman Taseer, which originally gave birth to the narrative that eventually led to the creation of this party. Then it grew mainly because of the competition between Sharif senior and Sharif junior. People like Sheikh Rashid further added fuel to fire perhaps out of desperation but the TLP originally is a PML-N gift.
If Imran succeeds in delivering on his promises incrementally, this country may escape the populist trap. If not, well, at least you know what comes next.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2018.