The country witnessed paroxysms of rage and irrational hatred in the wake of a successful vote of no confidence motion against former Prime Minister Imran Khan, when he earned the dubious distinction of being the first democratically elected PM to be voted out of power. In a normal democracy, this would have called for some introspection on the part of the losing party and a sobering realisation of the governance challenges lying ahead on the part of the winning party. No such luck here in our neck of the woods, where the propaganda machinery of each party churns out a diurnal menu of conspiracy theories and calumnious allegations of misconduct, burying the truth deep under the carapace of social media constructed mendacity. The why’s and how’s of this pernicious phenomenon need to analysed to understand the factors behind the ever widening gulf of political polarization.
The democratic landscape of the world nowadays features several variants of democracy. We find amongst those the liberal democracies, illiberal democracies, weak democracies and anocracies. Fareed Zakaria defined illiberal democracies as those countries where, despite adherence to the form, the substance of democracy was absent. That substance, according to him, was a system of checks and balances through strong and independent national institutions like the judiciary, accountability commissions, media, and civil society organisations all suffused by an overarching spirit of political accommodation and accountability. The above substance is found in abundance in established democracies due to strong political traditions of accommodation, rule of law and accountability. The same, however, is found wanting in anocracies i.e fragile democracies where a transition is being made from an autocratic to a democratic order.
Pakistan’s roller-coaster journey shows that the process of democratic consolidation has not yet completed – not at least in democratic attitudes and traditions. Luckily, we have a constitution that is the only consensus document we have enshrining our social contract. What we do not have in ample measure are the democratic traditions of mutual accommodation, rule of law and political accountability. That is why the country observed the surreal spectacle of a PM promising last-minute surprises in cricketing parlance, to whip the fecund imagination of his cult followership into a confrontational frenzy before the vote of no confidence. The upshot of the hyperbole, however, was a childishly petulant rejection of the no-confidence motion by invoking Article 5 on the basis of a creatively imagined foreign conspiracy.
Without regard for the constitution’s sanctity or its proper understanding, the National Assembly was dissolved, plunging the country in a constitutional crisis. The courts, to their credit, acted with celerity without letting the constitutional vacuum stir old ghosts of non-democratic interventions.
In any democratic country, this would have been a political development to welcome, but not in the land of the pure, where the conspiracy theories and cultism trump reason and constitutionalism. PTI’s leadership sedulously nurtured a narrative of conspiracy and victimhood to goad its followers into a defiant mode. Willing suspension of disbelief and a refusal to confront reality have been the hallmarks of PTI followers, regardless of age or gender. They apparently had accepted the propaganda from their charismatic leader hook, line and sinker, thinking that a conspiracy was hatched to remove their great leader from his lofty political perch. When the military and judicial spokespersons cleared the air completely laying to the rest the conspiracy theories, even then the PTI acolytes refused to see reason and accept the reality. Why did this happen?
In the absence of the true traditions of accommodation, tolerance and the rule of law, the PTI’s democratic narrative got hijacked by cultism and populism. Whereas democracy is about tolerance, dissent, accommodation and inclusivity the cultism is about authority, conformism, groupthink, and exclusion of all “out groups”. While operating in democratic space for political power the PTI’s leadership shunned the democratic practices that call for dissent, criticism and a frequent reality check through a recourse to ground surveys. Its leadership instead got cocooned into a circle of sycophants painting everything green for the leader while the reality was stark red. A placebo culture was created by offering quick fix anodyne solutions like langarkhanas, cash doles, and creation of a plethora of “Authorities” to duplicate already bloated bureaucratic government structure.
Failing to convict any of their political opponents, their frustration mounted and the steely timbre of rhetoric intoned continuously the fire and brimstone treatment of “No NRO” for thieves with a metronomic regularity. The revolutionary reform agenda to reform Punjab police and revenue department fell apart when the late Nasir Durrani, a former IG of impeccable credentials sent to clean the Augean stables of police corruption, resigned in disgust after being stonewalled by people whose politics felt threatened by such reforms. As the governance sank under the weight of a “Wasim Akram Plus” foisted on 60% of Pakistan (i.e. the province of Punjab), the economy started tanking due to a series of faltering steps on foreign relations front. The continually upward spiral of inflation and price hikes meanwhile enervated the lower and middle class that watched askance as Khan made one phantasmagorical promise after another.
What distanced Imran Khan from reality and what continues to command the fanatical, unthinking devotion of his political followers can be understood if one understands cultism.
The political environment in Pakistan has always been propitious for cult worship and conspiracy theories. Due to elite capture of society, the people have been deprived of their due share in the national economic pie. According to a UN Fund Report of 2017 and ILO Report 2019, a large segment of Pakistan’s population (63%) constitutes a young cohort (i.e. between 15 and 33 years of age) out of which 7.81% are unemployed. The young and unemployed do not have jobs but everyone somehow owns a cell phone. Frustrations with an unequal society and the state’s apathy towards the jobless have created a youth bulge that is seething with anger at the visible symbols of state governance including established political dynasties, business oligarchs and the traditional elite. The disempowered people, including a large cohort of jobless youth, hankered for a messiah who like the proverbial Godot would descend from heavens to deliver them from the crutches of the corrupt elite. The seedbed of hatred with the established polity and its symbols sprouted hate narratives that needed a charismatic voice to convert into a national narrative.
That promised messiah was found in the shape of Imran Khan, who with his cricketing successes and cancer hospital had secured a hold over the public imagination. Despite several failed attempts at political power, he was in the political wilderness until noticed by the establishment as a viable alternative to the misgoverning traditional political elite. Like all parvenu political forces, Imran Khan’s PTI and its establishment allies forged an alliance to conduct a hybrid experiment. The experience could have succeeded had it not been for the political naiveté and mishandling of the economy. Imran Khan’s besetting sin was the lack of performance and delivery on the governance front – due to his flawed understanding that governance is limited to accountability only.
Cults are defined by Jonica Carlton Best as groups of people who have similar beliefs and routines that others find bizarre. According to Tajfel and Turner’s Social Identity Theory, humans need to be respected and therefore to ennoble their state of existence bond into revered group identities. For such members of cults, the group’s identity and that of their leader becomes a sacrosanct notion that needs to be protected from external assaults through aggressive defence. According to Turner and Reynolds, the members of cults would go willingly along with conformism and compliance as a hedge against the cognitive dissonance experienced because of differences in group beliefs and the reality. By seeking affirmation of their beliefs from fellow members cult members sharing the same beliefs, an echo chamber of delusions is deliberately nurtured, which regards a contrary view from someone outside the cult as sacrilege.
For cultists the fidelity to their cult transcends all other affiliations. Nothing, for instance, could explain PTI supporters’ vociferous defence of the sacrilegious behaviour at the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) mosque in Madinah, where PTI activists chanted slogans and hurled abuse against their opponents. A bounded rationality environment operates for cult followers, where they are only fed the cult’s propaganda, restricting the thought space to given narrative. Minds are then moulded by deliberately suppressing critical thinking and alternate reasoning. Solomon Asch’s famous experiment where the cult members preferred to suppress truth deliberately in order to be socially included in the in group clearly points out the fact that the cults thrive on “otherisation” of out groups. A careful survey of social media traffic after the Vote of No Confidence shows that the charged cadres of PTI are lapping up the narrative of their leadership without critical inquiry, and are willingly ignoring visible yet contrary truths.
For the first time in the country’s history, political cultism is negating all that democracy stands for, i.e. respect for the constitution, political accommodation and regard for the institutions. The cultists are not sparing even revered institutions and their leadership which, in their view, now stand accused of protecting the constitution. Funnily they are angry at institutions and their leadership for their admirable fidelity to constitutionalism! Facts are being deliberately distorted to defy constitutionalism in a quest for political martyrdom. In any other country, such a cult would be treated as a threat to democracy and measures would be taken to insulate the impressionable youth and gullible population from the echo chamber of delusions being created on social media platforms. One way to protect from the assault of cultism on democracy is to present counter narratives on the same propaganda mediums to rebut the steady flow of falsehoods and half-truths.
Short, summarised presentations on easy-to-understand facts about economy, constitutional realities of vote of no confidence, accountability, harmful conspiracy theories and perils of populism need to be disseminated through all social media platforms as well as mainstream media channels. This initiative should be accompanied by a genuine package of reforms and incentives targeting jobless youth and impoverished segments of population.
Pakistan’s new government needs to understand that old ways of governance and politics would not work in the future. The new administration should therefore trim its governance sails to the prevailing public mood and sentiment. In the meanwhile, the cultism needs to be discouraged – while promoting the democratic values of rule of law, institutionalism, merit and accountability.
How to insulate the youth from the insidious wave of cultism to help them appreciate a true democratic ethos is a vital and urgent objective.