Besides class dynamics, it is important to understand the role of populist politics in changing political landscapes across the globe, and particularly its impact in Pakistan.
There has been a rise of what political scientists describe as ‘anti-establishment political parties’ since the 1980s. In Andreas Schedler’s words, “Often described as populist or extremist, these new confrontational parties paint vivid, colorful pictures of policy failure. They accuse established parties of forming an exclusionary cartel, unresponsive and unaccountable, and they portray public officials as a homogeneous class of lazy, incompetent, self-enriching and power-driven villains.” In much of the developed world, or so-called ‘mature democracies,’ these anti-establishment political parties tend to be rightwing with xenophobic agendas. They distrust the reigning political elites and their language of rights couched in political correctness. This resentment is reflected in the rise of rightwing populism across the globe – from UKIP and Brexit supporters to AfD supporters in Germany. Trump’s America is a clear example of such trends becoming mainstream and winning a majority vote. As is clear from Trump’s electoral victory, voters resented Hillary Clinton as the representative of ‘established political order’ and cheered for Trump’s ‘political incorrectness’. The more offensive Trump became in his comments about race, Islam, immigration, women or even people with disabilities, the more appreciation he received. Any statement or behavior that goes against the established norms of politics or the prescribed demeanor of political behavior or political correctness in general, adds to the strength of Donald Trump who stands tall on a groundswell of resentment against the status-quo and anti-establishment politics.
It will be too simplistic, however, to replicate this model elsewhere though there are numerous similarities that can be pointed out. Out of a different historical trajectory altogether, the rise of Narendra Modi is similarly reflective of an aspiring middle class resentful of established political processes. Confident in its own achievements out of hard labor and disciplined work ethic, the Indian middle class abhors dynastic politics associated with the Congress Party and its royal family represented by Rahul Gandhi. Regardless of Modi’s past or ideology, he represents the promise of a hard-working man who has made it to the top on his own. His authoritarian governance in Gujarat, turned into a ‘model state’ for neo-liberal economic reforms – a feat which he can replicate throughout India. This of course, is a crass summary of a much more complex history, but it does help explain the reasons for persistence in Modi’s popularity despite such setbacks as demonetization.
Although Imran Khan represents the kind of political aspirations that drive people towards Trump and Modi, he can hardly be recognized by many as one of them because of the peculiarity of Pakistan’s political history and his own persona. Unlike Modi, he does not have blood on his hands. Unlike Trump, he has more charisma and likeability. What remains hidden from the view is that Imran Khan, too, is symptomatic of the same brand of politics, ideals and rhetoric
In the case of Pakistan, the term ‘anti-establishment’ denotes a completely different meaning. The term establishment is a synonym for the Pakistani military which has ruled Pakistan, directly or indirectly, since the 1950s. The term ‘anti-establishment’ politics has its equivalent of ‘anti status-quo’ politics in the Pakistani context. Used frequently by Imran Khan and his supporters, it refers to the rule of two-party system in Pakistan, i.e. by the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muslim League – since 1988, the dynastic element within their ranks and a distrust of the corrupt elite with its traditional style of politics. Like similar movements elsewhere, such a political approach is based on selective historical amnesia as it does not consider even basic facts of political chronology. This is primarily because the bulk of Pakistani population – almost 65 percent of it – is under the age of 35. This means that they were mostly born after the formal restoration of democracy in 1988 or grew up during the ‘benevolent dictatorship’ of Pervez Musharraf in the 2000s. Since Pakistan’s political history is not taught in schools, these millennials derive much of their knowledge of Pakistan’s history from Imran Khan’s speeches, Facebook memes, Tweets and ‘forwarded as received’ messages from WhatsApp groups. The main features of this worldview are that the Sharifs have been ruling Punjab for the last thirty years and that the PPP and the PML have been taking turns to rule Pakistan. It does not consider the role played by the military to manipulate the political process during the 1990s and the frequent dismissal of successive governments to destabilise democratic transition. Such an abysmal lack of basic knowledge about Pakistan’s political history has terrible consequences. Unlike other countries which at least have had uninterrupted democratic regimes or political consensus on the issues of constitutional democracy and federalism, Pakistan has still to establish political consensus on a range of issues that impact its heterogeneous population, not to forget the need to limit the influence of military in domestic politics and policy making. The result of an anti-political rhetoric in the absence of such a pre-existing consensus, make it doubly restrictive for the possibilities of evolving effective and radical responses to the homogenizing narrative of the state. In Akbar Zaidi’s words, there is an ongoing middle class revolution and the emergence of an urban Pakistan that is “increasingly non-rural, non-agricultural, and certainly not ‘feudal.’” Like Zaidi, I am not optimistic that it will yield progressive politics, or even develop a strong constituency for democracy.
The Ideal Trump
Imran Khan’s anti status-quo rants resonate with the new middle class – especially the millennials – most of whom only became interested in politics because of him. Like Modi and Trump, Khan has a dedicated set of followers who egg him on as he mocks his political rivals, uses abusive language or passes lewd comments. This further adds to his credentials of a person fighting against the status quo.
But there are certain noticeable differences between Imran Khan and others of his kin amongst world leaders. Of late, he has also issued religious statements, capitalizing on the issue of the honor of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) to garner support. This, along with his previous statements in support of a Taliban-style Justice, has evoked fears of fascism or a threat to the life of religious minorities in Pakistan. I believe this is a misreading of Imran Khan’s politics, as he made these statements simply for electoral gains. They cannot translate into anything more than electoral rhetoric. This is because there is little more than can be done legally or constitutionally to further brutalize Pakistan’s beleaguered minorities. Unlike the US where racial profiling in the form of a travel ban for certain Muslim countries or India where implementation of a uniform civil code or the construction of Ram Temple signify tectonic shifts in state structure built – at least theoretically – on democracy, freedom and secularism, Imran Khan’s statements are simply reinforcements of the kind of exclusion built into the body politic of the state for decades. In fact, Imran Khan’s personal life story; which combines elements of stardom, sex, drugs and religion offers the most potent mixture of success, pleasure and piety that the modern self desires. Like Trump, none of the politically incorrect things that Imran Khan has said or stories from his personal life have had an impact on his voters or reduced his popularity. The only exception, however, is the sajda performed by him at the shrine of Baba Farid in Pakpattan. He had gone to the shrine a month before the elections, presumably to seek favor from the Sufi for the upcoming elections. This act put the most ardent of his supporters in a degree of self-doubt. If anything, this is a reflection of the idea of religion and piety that has come to dominate the religio-moral universe of the new middle class. With a strong faith in the power of the individual in pursuit of gains in ‘this-world’ (and preferably doing it legitimately to get a reward for this effort in the other world, hence combining the two realms) by disciplining the self and the body, the new middle class abhors the idea of an intercessionary power outside of the self. This is especially so when it is also against the rationalized view of world order created by God, perfectly applicable in all aspects of belief and praxis in the form of a singular codex called Islam.
Imran Khan’s ‘liberal’ lifestyle choices notwithstanding, fears expressed by rights activists of possible repression in the coming months are not unfounded. Like Trump, Khan has openly showed his contempt for ‘bloody liberals’ of Pakistan and condemned the English press for publishing ‘fake news.’ Again, like Trump, it is the impact of his statements on his followers that has created a conducive environment for vigilante justice. There is a strong ‘we’ feeling among the PTI voters, connecting them directly with the government of naya Pakistan. One finds them making statements about ‘their’ government’s future policy on a range of issues, or inviting ‘suitable’ candidates from other parties to join ‘them.’ They express disdain for anyone ‘like them’ from the same class background and professional credential who does not join the PTI, or critiques Imran Khan. It requires name calling and accusations of ‘soul selling’ to distinguish between the genuine middle class from the pathological intruder that looks similar, but is actually a foreign element in the body politic of naya Pakistan. This virtually projects the idea of a One Party System for naya Pakistan as far as the new middle class is concerned. No wonder there is an air of unease and uncertainty about the future among Pakistan’s top journalists and political commentators. As Talat Aslam of The News recently tweeted, the “righteous triumphalist gloating, the constant policing of all dissent and a lack of magnanimity in victory is a sign of creeping fascism”.
In terms of their ideology as well, the core support for Imran Khan based among the new middle class – with few exceptions – show worrying signs of a misogynistic and sexist world view with little respect or tolerance for right-based politics. A cursory survey of social media and the posts/comments made by PTI voters, even by their leaders, would reveal a disturbing trend. Imran Khan’s personal views and comments have not helped either. Taking lead from his contempt for bloody liberals and few critical voices in the media, his supporters have caught on with the current global trend of using such terminologies as ‘liberal fascists,’ ‘libtards’ and ‘presstitutes’.
In short, while Imran Khan represents the kind of political aspirations that drive people towards Trump and Modi, he can hardly be recognized by many as one of them because of the peculiarity of Pakistan’s political history and his own persona. Unlike Modi, he does not have blood on his hands. Unlike Trump, he has more charisma and likeability. What remains hidden from the view is that Imran Khan, too, is symptomatic of the same brand of politics, ideals and rhetoric. Like them, he does not have to make big on his promises of transforming Pakistan. The mere rhetoric of being the crusader against the status quo will get him through. It is like Trump’s manifesto of building the wall with Mexican money or Modi’s promise of acchay din (good days) which, even if unrealised, generate enough support for the sincerity of effort. Like Modi and Trump, Imran Khan has also set out elusive targets – such as the high-pitched rhetoric of ‘brining back $200 billion of looted wealth from abroad.’ It is an elusive target because the figure is highly exaggerated and because it does not consider the legal complexities involved. The new middle class is seething with fury against the idea of corruption. This has been fueled by TV anchors and a flurry of WhatsApp messages which give astronomical figures about the scale of annual corruption in Pakistan (often exceeding the actual GDP of the country!) and the fairytale land that Pakistan can become if the looted amount is spent on welfare of the people. No wonder that the new middle class has little respect for the idea of due process of law. In such a polarized environment, Imran Khan will gain huge support for speeding up processes of inquiries and court cases against those accused of corrupt practices. But doing so without following the due process and simply on perceptions about a certain vilified group of politicians and their associates as corrupt, will create an atmosphere for witch hunt, vigilante justice and mudslinging.
Unlike Trump and Modi’s supporters who may feel guilty for voting for them, new middle class voters of Pakistan are proud voters as their vote ostensibly helps build naya Pakistan
Unlike Trump and Modi’s supporters who may feel guilty for voting for them, new middle class voters of Pakistan are proud voters as their vote ostensibly helps build naya Pakistan. The same degree of camouflage can be seen in the overall political system as well. With a pliant judiciary and muzzled media, the military establishment has successfully managed an election to put Imran Khan in power to revive the agenda of a modernizing bourgeoisie – albeit, this time with legitimacy under a political system that cannot be recognized as military rule.
The writer teaches history at Lahore University of Management Sciences