In August 2018, Imran Khan assumed Office of the Prime Minister, with the promise of creating ‘Naya Pakistan’. Jubilant followers, wishing for a change in Pakistan’s dynastic musical chair politics, termed it as the start of a new era, signifying accountability, good governance and end of corruption. Social media was rife with memes, slandering the politicians of ‘old Pakistan’. Promises made in the PTI manifesto and the ‘100-Days Plan’ were endorsed and taskforces were set up with great enthusiasm. Imran’s maiden speech was widely hailed and hope and optimism ran high.
But only eleven months down the road, Imran and his team have become the subject of the very memes that were once used by their proponents to rebuke others. The sensation-hungry media pounces on any opportunity to grill the new leadership, whereas bitter opponents are quick to pinpoint the slips of the nascent government. The government’s performance hasn’t helped either. Promises made in the 100-day plan remain unfulfilled. The hope and optimism have turned into despair and pessimism, while ‘Naya Pakistan’ has become a euphemism for indecisiveness, inaction and economic snags.
It’s not all political noise. The pessimism is real and the drop in Imran’s popularity is serious. According to Gallup’s Political Weather Report, his popularity rating has turned negative, for the first time in two years, with more people disapproving his performance than those approving it.
But it’s also not solely his performance either. Pakistan’s history is full of much worse examples of poor governance, economic crises, tough IMF programmes, rampant corruption and unfulfilled promises. If anything, anyone wishing for a change in the status quo should have expected a bumpy road.
In reality, much of what has gone wrong with Imran’s popularity has to do with bad PR (public relations). PTI’s PR strategy is dominated by the deafening sound of accountability, spiteful social media trolls, absence of a positive vibe and tacit restrictions on mainstream media.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the mantra of accountability. But effective accountability has to be impartial, non-partisan and above-board, without which it runs the risk of becoming a witch-hunt. The recent scandals of secret videos and political blame game have undoubtedly tainted the process and there is a need to restore credibility, if the PTI plans on using accountability to win people’s hearts.
Then comes the need for a positive vibe. The PTI doesn’t need to look far to find reasons to celebrate. After all, government’s foreign policy has been a roaring success. An ordinary legislator from DG Khan has been made the Chief Minister of Punjab, a position once considered too coveted to be occupied by anyone ‘outside the family’. Sizeable and irreversible allocations have been made for South Punjab for the first time and ministers are being reprimanded and changed on poor performance.
Moreover, it is no small change that the FBR is headed by a reputable tax expert from the private sector; Governor State Bank is a Harvard graduate and an expert in monetary policy; whereas the Finance Minister has been appointed because of his credentials, irrespective of his political affiliations.
Lastly, the government must realise that media restrictions can no more control the narrative. An otherwise unnoticeable interview would register record views on Twitter, if it’s censored. An article taken off the print media would go viral on social media. And such measures come with bad press. The recent embarrassing encounter of Foreign Minister with a Canadian journalist was telling. Silencing the media can mute the noise but cannot win over the masses.
Imran needs to create positive surround sound and co-opt media by changing his PR strategy — something that can repair the dent in his popularity and bring back citizens’ confidence and the sense of optimism.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2019.