Fidel Castro once said that even if the US lifted its trade embargo on Cuba, he would do something extreme the very next day in order to get it reimposed. His idea of regime control rested on the nation collectively hating a common enemy. Maintaining pride and national solidarity would become difficult if the US restored relations with Cuba.
Castro is not alone in the archive of world leaders with persecutory delusions. The art of politics is the ability to advance your own narrative while undermining that of your opponents’. Every successful politician does this to varying degrees, but there are some who have perfected this as an art form. As of late, we have seen the word ‘Teflon’ enter the national discourse in relation to Imran Khan’s unique ability to not let any scandal, criticism, or opposition tactic damage his narrative.
Like Castro, Khan falls into the camp of leaders whose popularity thrives on villainising their opponents. Under Khan’s narrative, at the throwing end of every stone hurled at him is a domestic or foreign adversary. No criticism is genuine, and every political attack is a conspiracy. And since he portrays himself as the only force standing up for ‘haqeeqi azadi’ (actual freedom), and against servitude to the West, those standing up to him are deemed enemies of the state.
Khan’s relationship with the army perfectly encapsulates this phenomenon. Coming into power on the back of the establishment, Khan was all praise for them. But when relations became sour over a bungled DG ISI appointment, damaged foreign relations, and a sinking economy, he started targeting the establishment for letting the vote of no-confidence go ahead. Initially after his ouster, he did so softly by pleading them to correct their mistake. But when it became evident that immediate elections will not be called, he did so more harshly by accusing them of playing second fiddle to foreign conspirators.
For the past four months, we have seen this narrative play out on mainstream and online media. There were unlawful arrests and raids on the PTI workers and media personalities, which Khan leveraged towards his narrative of falling victim to a group of domestic and foreign enemies. With victories on 15 of 20 seats in the Punjab by-elections, and massive rallies in major cities up and down the country, his national appeal was evident. The narrative was bearing fruit.
Like Castro, Khan falls into the camp of leaders whose popularity thrives on villainising their opponents. Under Khan’s narrative, at the throwing end of every stone hurled at him is a domestic or foreign adversary.
All that ended abruptly with Shahbaz Gill’s arrest. Having pushed the envelope too far, Khan now has to do damage control. The PTI has already started creating a counter-narrative that gives them a way out. We saw a glimmer of that in the Lahore jalsa.
While Khan did not mention the establishment even once, his henchman Parvez Elahi declared relationship with the establishment to be improving. With a splendid display of narrative acrobatics, he blamed India and Israel for creating a rift between them and the establishment. Khan seems to have realised that despite its populist appeal, targeting the establishment has more downside than upside right now. As a result, a collective decision has been made in the PTI ranks to rein in the criticism.
Which brings us to the ARY News ban. Condemnable as it was to ban a media channel without due process, the ban gave Khan political fodder at the right time. The PTI government’s own record on media freedoms is reprehensible to say the least, but that never stopped Khan from criticising Pemra’s decision and portraying the PDM government as an enemy of freedom of speech. Populist narratives are myopic, as they disregard inconvenient truths in favour of self-serving and politically expedient accounts. This phenomenon is best explained by the term ‘alternative facts’, coined by former Trump advisor, Kellyanne Conway.
The foreign funding case is a glaring example of this. While the report does not present any evidence of the PTI being a foreign aided party, there is unequivocal evidence of prohibited funding. Is that not corruption? Not according to Khan, who has projected ignorance about the source of funding and, rejected the report as the work of a PTI hating Chief Election Commissioner puppeteered by corrupt elites. Even though Khan himself appointed Sikander Sultan Raja at the post back in 2020.
It remains to be seen if Gill holds up in interrogation. If he says he made the impugned speech as per official party policy, Khan will be incriminated directly. Leaders have been sent packing for far less in the past. But the PTI has officially distanced itself from Gill, declaring he should not have made that speech and must be prosecuted as per law. And Khan has fallen back on his softer stance, asking the establishment to “review” their policies while at the same time insinuating extra-governmental forces behind alleged torture on Gill under custody.
Unfortunately, in Pakistani politics, leaders have never been able to respect the line between expressing dissatisfaction or grievance towards state institutions, and threatening, accusing, or maligning them. Khan is not unique when it comes to that. Although as a civilian leader he has pushed the bar to new and dangerous heights.
But Gill’s speech is not the only situation that has landed Khan in murky waters. During his rally in Islamabad recently, he threatened Additional District and Sessions Judge Zeba Chaudhry for refusing to grant bail to Gill. Islamabad High Court (IHC) has directed added security for the judge, fearing the speech could jeopardise her safety while also initiating contempt proceedings against Khan. In addition, for threatening senior police officers and the district judge, the Islamabad police has filed terrorism charges against Khan.
Unfortunately, in Pakistani politics, leaders have never been able to respect the line between expressing dissatisfaction or grievance towards state institutions, and threatening, accusing, or maligning them. Khan is not unique when it comes to that. Although, as a civilian leader he has pushed the bar to new and dangerous heights.
Now, the war of narratives has spilled into the streets creating civil unrest. When it was reported that arrest warrants had been issued against Khan, Islamabad police and the PTI supporters were at loggerheads before Khan’s counsel applied for transit bail in IHC, to allow Khan to eventually appear before the anti-terrorism court for pre-arrest bail without being arrested. One can only imagine the reaction among his supporters had the ATC not granted pre-arrest bail to Khan.
On the other hand, the PDM government’s recurrent counter-narrative that it chose to sacrifice its own electoral popularity in the national interest seems weak against the ulterior motive of appointing the next army chief in November. But now it seems that they have been dealt a winning hand. It is hard to spin the leaked audiotapes between Shaukat Tarin and Punjab and KP finance ministers in any other way than a last-ditch attempt by the PTI to stonewall the much-needed funding. It makes the PTI look extremely weak. Now that the IMF has resumed the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) program which may provide the anticipated economic stability, it is hoped that leaders on both sides will suspend political warfare and focus their energy and attention towards rehabilitating flood victims. Charity and public welfare cannot replace the effectiveness of state machinery.
Gill’s speech, terrorism charge, contempt case in IHC, and the foreign funding case are all hanging over Khan’s head like a Sword of Damocles. It remains to be seen if the hammer that may fall as a result of them will damage Khan’s popularity, or worse, prove to be a final nail in the coffin. But despite all that, the PTI has been an overwhelming victor in the war of narratives since Khan’s ouster. Only time will tell if the future brings a return of Khan to power, or an end of the PTI as we know it.