On 20 December 1971, hours after being sworn in as President/Chief Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made an impassioned and stirring speech to the nation, setting out his government’s radical agenda and promising to “pick up the pieces, the very small pieces” and to “make a new Pakistan.”
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif took office on 11 April 2022 in probably the most polarised political atmosphere that has ever existed in Pakistan. A month later, we still await with bated breath to hear his idea and vision of Pakistan. At least on this count, he has not lived up to his claim to act with rapidity at the rate of “Pakistan Speed!”
The absence of a prime ministerial address to the nation is a troubling omission in of itself in the current fluid environment. But it is also symptomatic of a deeper issue, namely the growing perception that the government’s political narrative is an unknown commodity. With the government’s messaging conspicuous by its absence, it is only Imran Khan’s conspiracy-seeped message which is having a field day in the political arena, flawed and inaccurate though it is in most respects.
If we get down to brass tacks, the Kaptaan’s stance is very clear: first, he makes the populist claim (sham though it is) of a foreign conspiracy behind the removal of his government; second, he labels the current government as “imported”; and third, he determinedly demands early elections. This political narrative is being hammered home, day in and out, through a series of public rallies, as well as through a smart use of conventional media and social media platforms.
The government’s response to the PTI’s spiel is not much to write home about. At best, the government is resorting to a piecemeal and tit-for-tat retort to the PTI’s allegations; but an effective and sustained counter-poise against the PTI’s stance is yet to see the light of day. Consequently, the power of the media and digital channels has also not been harnessed by the government. This is quite alarming, because in this day and age, particularly with social media being the most potent tool of political messaging, no government worth its salt can afford to ignore the power of this medium to get its message across to the public.
However, it is not too late for the prime minister to hit the airwaves and to counter the PTI’s propaganda with a potent, positive and practical narrative that appeals to the common Pakistani.
The first point the prime minister should make is that he heads a unique, multi-party government, which is unprecedented in the history of Pakistan. The cabinet represents all shades of political opinion and ideologies, ranging from the PPP to the JUI-F to the BNP-M to the MQM, and it reflects a significant degree of evolution and maturing of the country’s democratic culture. The fact that the PTI is on a solo flight should also be contrasted with the phalanx of parties that comprise the current government.
The second point the prime minister should consistently lay stress on is that his coalition represents the votes of 68-70% Pakistanis. This is a necessary argument to nullify the PTI’s claim, specious though it is, about the resonance of its political viewpoint among the rank-and-file of Pakistanis.
Third, it has never before happened in our chequered political history that the leader of the PPP or the PML-N has served in a federal cabinet headed by the leader of the other party. The credit goes to Bilawal Bhutto for having become foreign minister in the current dispensation and for not letting his ego stand in the way. This is an unparalleled positive development, which bodes well for the cause of national unity, political maturity and the strength of the federation. Shehbaz Sharif would be well-advised to strongly and consistently emphasise the political weight of this development.
Fourth, the hollowness of Lettergate should be swiftly exposed, through the mature use of logic and evidence, and without resort to the grandstanding tactics adopted on the issue by the Kaptaan.
Fifth, the prime minister needs to squarely lay out his government’s agenda before the nation, assuming there is a coherent and defined agenda which the government intends to pursue. Is it legislative reform? Is it repairing the economy? Does job creation figure in it? Is the target a curb on inflation? Are relief packages being drawn up for the agricultural and industrial sectors? Is the water crisis going to be dealt with on a war footing? And so on and so forth.
The government needs to quickly build a political narrative around its priority areas and then drive the point home through conventional media and digital channels. In this way, a positive counterweight will emerge against the PTI’s political messaging, which only revolves around a trio of wild conspiracy theories: a hollow slogan of an independent foreign policy and a petulant demand for immediate elections.
The key point to be noted is that the PTI’s current pitch to the public does not contain any concrete/positive promise on the policy or performance front. There is no claim to end corruption within 90 days of coming to power or to build 5 million homes or to create 10 million jobs! This is not surprising since the party’s credibility has been shot out of the water after three-and-a-half years of abject misgovernance, failed promises and rank incompetence. Hence it is relying only a sham and populist narrative to remain relevant.
Therefore, if the government is serious about removing the sting of the PTI’s desperate messaging, it simply needs to highlight the party’s glaring weaknesses on the policy/performance front during its recently-ended innings in power and to contrast these with the strength and promise of the government’s own narrative.
But if the government has no cogent and substantial plan of action, then by default Imran Khan’s standpoint will continue to remain in play and it will make the government look defensive, tentative and, most dangerous of all, weak.
Prime Minister, the ball is in your court!
Epilogue: Post-Eid Maryam Nawaz Sharif has started addressing public rallies to challenge the PTI’s narrative. Irrespective of her proven crowd-pulling abilities, she cannot, and should not, set the government’s agenda. That task can only be done by the prime minister. Once he does so, Maryam can take the government’s narrative to the trenches and give the PTI a run for its money at the next elections. After all, Imran Khan is not going to get the doctored pitch of 2018 again!