Last week, in an alternate universe, the Government College University (GCU) Lahore invited former Prime Minister Imran Khan as the chief guest at a gathering of students. Khan considered the venue, the occasion, and the audience and noted how he would address the students at the ceremony. He would acknowledge the grand tradition of the institution, congratulate students for achieving academic successes, and inspire them with opportunities that lay ahead. He would also feed them with messages in line with the PTI manifesto — for it is necessary for a political leader to attract new people to his party.
Alas, that is not the universe we live in. Though Khan was invited to address students at the prestigious GCU ceremony, he probably thought he was lecturing a district-level gathering of his party workers. There was rabble rousing from the stage, ridiculing of his political opponents, double downing on the foreign conspiracy to oust his government and the local actors he disparagingly calls “the neutrals.” There was admiration for students’ acumen when they chanted “neutrals”. Keeping with the PTI’s name-calling tradition at events, he referred to the current prime minister as “cherry blossom”. The pauses in his speech were filled in with chants of “diesel” from the audience. He wasn’t entirely unprepared for the occasion, for he peppered his speech with Islamic and nationalistic sentiments to complete his populist speech.
All was not bad, though. In the first four out of his 45-minute speech, Khan talked about how the field of information technology (IT) was full of opportunities and promised to relax tax and regulatory burdens for IT startups when he returned to the government. He started well. But he quickly moved to politics, which in his words was the “important stuff”.
Being in the audience of a national leader is an excellent opportunity for students living through their ‘politically formative’ years. It could inspire them, give them hope and creative energy or lose their political innocence to crass slogans and pledges of vendetta.
It is not uncommon for political leaders to be invited to events at education institutes in other countries. It is not unusual to see leaders deliver addresses wrapped in their political ideologies. It is understandable in the US for a Democratic president talk about climate change, healthcare and poverty or a Republican president on national security, immigration control and debt control issues. The messages are almost always subtle, respectful, and only secondary to the primary target of the speech, which is to energise and inspire students for the next stage in their lives. One notable exception to this pattern is former US President Donald Trump, who earned criticism for making similarly partisan speeches at college and military ceremonies.
Criticism of Imran Khan’s speech at this venue is not a call to ban political leaders from addressing student ceremonies at education institutes. Never mind the norms of mature democracies, for it would be a missed opportunity for students not to get inspirational exposure to national leaders. However, it can’t be okay for Imran Khan to make political speeches at education institutes unless student associations and general political activities are also allowed back on campus. Without these changes, any attempt to normalise Khan’s appearance is not just saying the line begins where Imran Khan currently stands but also declaring that there can only be one person in the line.
The political leaders bear the responsibility for respecting the venue and occasion. Students of the GCU were not there as PTI workers. It is not hard to imagine that many among them did not favour the PTI and felt uncomfortable and helpless at the ‘academic’ event. No matter their political affiliation, an academic observer should feel troubled by seeing an institution with a rich history reduced to being a venue for a hastily arranged political stunt.
Being in the audience of a national leader is an excellent opportunity for students living through their ‘politically formative’ years. It could inspire them, give them hope and creative energy or lose their political innocence to crass slogans and pledges of vendetta. Making the correct choice doesn’t mean we give up our ideologies. But new rules are being written for a naya Pakistan, and political discourse is no exception.