Populism, PTI, Pakistan and 9th May

Imran Khan’s popularity does affect remaking of Pakistan’s modern identity and image

Inam Ul Haque May 09, 2024
The writer is a retired major general and has an interest in International Relations and Political Sociology. He can be reached at tayyarinam@hotmail.com and tweets @20_Inam


European Centre for Populism Studies (ECPS) conducted an online panel discussion titled ‘Mapping Global Populism: Unveiling Many Faces of Populism in Pakistan’ on September 28, 2023. The discussions involving renowned scholars, expectedly, riveted around PTI-engendered populism.

In essence, the 19th Century term ‘populism’ comprises a range of political positions and stances wherein ‘the people’ are pitted against ‘the elite’. As per debate about populism within political science and other social sciences, it is the populist leader or party which decides who the ‘real people’ are, and those not agreeing with the populist’s notions are completely excluded. Populists portray the ‘elite’ — political, economic, religious, media-related, military, etc — as non-representative, corrupt and liable to be thrown out.

Populists’ stance is mostly emotive, appealing to the youth, for the romanticism of their narrative’s anti-status quo underpinnings, and the potential inclusion of the so-called ‘have-nots’ and the marginal fringe of society into the ‘hoped-for’ system, after the change (tabdeeli). Without a rational plan of action and mostly under heroic exuberance, the populists want to rework the political and social contract. Hence tabdeeli as its rallying cry by the PTI in recent times. Populists work systematically to ‘subvert’ the targeted strata of society, raising hopes and expectations impractically high. Emotionalism generally cloaks other cool-headed human predilections. The followers, generally frustrated by continuous failures in trying other leaders and parties, consider the inexperienced cabal of populists as messiahs they had been waiting for, and blindly follow charismatic leadership.

An academic and more common framework for understanding populism is called ‘the ideational approach’, which presents populism as an ideology, pitting the morally good force (the people) against the corrupt and self-serving elite (ashhrafiyya). In Pakistan’s context, PTI-engendered populism is a curious mix of contradictions… an evolving ideology, and provincial ethno-nationalism blended with conservative religiosity, buoyed by youthful energy.

In 2015, Venkat Dhulipala, an Indian American professor, wrote a book, Creating a New Medina, contending that such iterations depict Pakistan as a ‘millennial theocratic dream’ linking to Medina, despite the staunch opposition that Pakistan Movement received from the clergy. Jinnah, and the All-India Muslim League, interestingly, never invoked Medina, or Pakistan as a theocracy. To some scholars, the idea of Pakistan was more riveted in the Hindu-Muslim counterpoise on more mundane issues such as representation, self-rule, jobs, and so forth. Hindu majority, for example, never wanted Muslim minority to secede. They cite support of modern Muslims in the 1940s for Pakistan springing from the almost ‘universal disenchantment with Muslim clerics’, and as a ‘Kemalist coup’ against clergy’s hegemony. One may disagree with such iterations, but the fact of the matter remains that the founding fathers never envisaged a theocratic state for Muslims only in Pakistan. Invocation of riasat-e-Madina, they contend, is hence non-normative.

In an article by Yasser Latif Hamdani, “Imran has damaged the idea of Pakistan. Don’t expect it to turn into a normal country soon” published in The Print on 13 April 2022, the writer fears that the damage Imraniat has done to Pakistan’s national narrative is more enduring, with its full scope yet to unfold.

Pro-Islamic theocratic tilt under President Zia and its continuation under former PM Nawaz Sharif, ended abruptly under General Pervez Musharraf’s ‘enlightened moderation’. It was when Ardeshir Cowasjee, a Pakistan’s journalist of Zoroastrian faith, bravely coined the term ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’… as a modern, liberal, and progressive nation-state. The fall of Musharraf led political parties to recalibrate their ideological calculus. The PPP galvanised towards a socially liberal Pakistan with agile advocacy of minority rights. PML-N prefers to operate in the grey zone of ideology, to remain circumspect. Religious parties agree to disagree on religious semantics. And PTI, the new entrant, tinkering with Islamism in its typical populist and insufficiently deliberated manner…and without full realisation of its blowback, wants Islamic conservatism to rekindle in theory at least. In KP, it is blending Pashtun ethno-nationalism with religious conservatism to stay afloat…thus far, successfully.

PTI also considers modern nation-states like Pakistan spiritual or otherworldly, and not temporal entities as these essentially are, conveniently, overlooking Pakistan’s multicultural, multiethnic, and multi-religious ethos. Intra-Muslim sectarian divisions also make such theocratic states vulnerable to competing and contrasting dynamics. His followers are working overtime to paint IK as a great Islamic leader, able to stand to the West Plus, and destined to make Pakistan a true Islamic state, modelled on Madina, with an independent foreign policy. In Pakistan’s legacy politics, it is religion, not patriotism, that is ‘the last refuge of an autocrat’.

However, paradoxically, in PTI’s riasat-e-Madina, it would quite sadly be kosher to divide, disdain, and deride national institutions and leaders, even attacking them, if they are in the way of party’s power grab. Sadly, on 9th May, PTI, a major political party, shared ignominy with the brigands of TTP, laying bare the contradictions between Imraniat’s theory, and practice. And it is seen a departure from Jinnah’s Pakistan by experts, considering IK’s overt religiosity, and other initiatives like publicly practising religious superstition, and political alliance with a party having a sectarian name plate (the Sunni Ittehad Council). To them, it is the antithesis of Jinnah’s ideal of a modern thinker, unencumbered by wearing religion on the sleeve and performing rituals.

IK’s popularity does affect remaking of Pakistan’s modern identity and image. Therefore, his heady mix of faux patriotism, populism and religious conservatism will plague the country for decades. His populism drives the winds of potential change under unabated national, sectarian, ethnic, and political polarisation…while the real issues are not on the table and brushed aside. Rhetoric reigns supreme, emotions run high, agitation remains a panacea, and obstinacy the hallmark.

Sadly, the largest and most populist party remains without any plan, any idea, or any willingness to address the problems of have-nots, who blindly follow its ‘great’ leader. Constitutional democracy is cherished once it is facilitative, accommodative, unifying and healing, and disdained when at cross purpose. So, ostracising national institutions, ostensibly considered obstacles to absolute power grab, and persistent hate mongering must never be allowed to persist. It is of vital national interest for the ghosts of 9th May to be fully investigated, and buried, with blame apportioned publicly and without fear and favour, and perpetrators punished for the infamy, that Black Day brought to Pakistan, its Army, its people, and its politics.

Dithering, politicking, and bending rules will allow millions to follow other political demagogues in silent servitude!

Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2024.

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