Spellbinding conspiracy theories

Imran Khan has been using the foreign conspiracy narrative following his failure in the vote of no confidence. Has he been successful?

August 21, 2022


any Pakistanis are highly obsessed with conspiracy theories, mainly concerning with the intentions of the United States (US) and India regarding their country. The most popular conspiracy theory sweeping the land is that the US and India are engaged in a global conspiracy to bring down Pakistan. So, whenever an event or incident takes place in their country, they come forward to dig out a conspiracy allegedly hatched by either India or the US or both as a justification.

For example, some circles tried to justify the shooting at Malala by dubbing her an “American agent”. Some of them also said that she was not injured by bullets but pretended, on the directions of the US, that she had been shot by the Taliban. Had she been shot by the Taliban, it was said, she would not have survived. Some Pakistanis also doubted the killing of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of the US forces in a compound in Abbottabad. Later, however, they tried to argue that it was a conspiracy by the US to shame Pakistan in the comity of nations as Laden had died long ago. Had the US killed him, they would have shown his dead body, they reasoned.

Only a minority of Pakistanis blame their rulers for their failure in reaching an agreement to, say, build the Kalabagh Dam. Many more allege instead that some Pakistani politicians are in cahoots with India to halt its construction.

Shrewd politicians either manipulate some prevalent conspiracy theories or generate new ones to shield themselves against fallout from their failures. They transform the theories into narratives since their supporters are ever ready to buy those. A narrative is essentially a story. The term has historically been associated with fiction rather than with political science. It affects peoples’ perception of political reality, which in turn, affects their actions in response to or in anticipation of political events. It plays a critical role in the construction of political behaviour. In political narratives, fiction often becomes ‘fact’ and myths become part of public discourse. Thus, political narratives do not appear out of a vacuum; they are mostly dramatic and animated summations of sentiments that are already present in a society. A single event can generate various narratives.

For example, Imran Khan’s ouster from the office of the prime minister through a vote of no confidence generated two opposing narratives: 1) Khan and his supporters alleged that the US, in collaboration with some Pakistani politicians and certain elements in the establishment, had compounded a conspiracy to topple his government; and 2) the opponents said that the opposition parties had successfully ousted him from power through a legal move – a vote of no confidence (VNC) – after he had failed miserably on the economy and foreign policy fronts.

But who did Khan learn the art of playing with narratives from? Most likely from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former president and a prime minister, a past master at the game of narratives. For example, Ayub Khan agreed to a ceasefire with the Indian prime minister to end the Indo-Pak War of 1965 after learning that Pakistan was running out of ammunitions since the US had stopped the supply of weapons and military hardware. Ayub had probably run out of options. Instead, when Bhutto launched a campaign against his former boss, he alleged that the Pakistani forces were on the verge of battlefield victories. Had the ceasefire agreement not been signed, Pakistan would have won the war, he claimed. Thus, Pakistan had lost on the negotiating table what its forces had won on the battlefield. Bhutto’s “war narrative” turned out to be one of the major causes of the decline of Ayub Khan despite having no basis in facts, as was later ascertained in investigations by various political scientists and historians.

Bhutto also tried to depict the toppling of his government by Gen Zia ul Haq in 1977 by building a narrative that the US, in collaboration with the military establishment and the Pakistan National Alliance (the PNA — an alliance of nine political parties), had hatched a conspiracy against him since he had refused to roll-back the country’s nuclear programme. He alleged that the Americans had doled out millions of dollars to fund PNA’s movement against him and then facilitated Zia’s coup.

Contrary to Bhutto’s claims, a different picture emerges from an objective analysis of the Pak-US relations. Bhutto had enjoyed good relations with Richard Nixon unlike Jimmy Carter, with whom he had a kind of toxic relationship. Bhutto had refused to surrender to Carter’s pressure to halt his country’s nuclear programme. Subsequently, the latter had decided to maintain the US arms embargo on Pakistan, which was placed by Nixon in 1971. Carter did not end this embargo after Zia’s military coup. He also terminated all aid to Pakistan and imposed further sanctions after the coup. Had Carter sponsored a coup against Bhutto, he would be expected to lift the ban on arms embargo instead of placing new sanctions on Pakistan.

Learning from Bhutto’s play of narratives and anticipating his ouster from the office of the prime minister, Imran Khan had already started building a narrative that his ouster was planned by the US because he had refused the US military bases in Pakistan and wanted to establish deeper relations with Russia. Ultimately, he claimed that the US had enforced a regime change with the help of the opposition political parties and the military establishment.

His narrative on the US conspiracy was not taken seriously in the beginning because it was riddled with contradictions and lacked substantial evidence. Both the American and Pakistani establishments and governments categorically denied his accusations of an “American conspiracy” against him. Pakistan’s National Security Council (NSC) and the Supreme Court have rejected Khan’s allegations by stating that they have found “no evidence of conspiracy”.

Khan then attempted to revive his previous narratives i.e., “corruption” and “Riyasat-i-Madina” and link those with the new narratives i.e., “American conspiracy” and “regime change”. He was successful in doing so and has since claimed that his plans to establish a corruption-free riyasat (on the pattern of Madina) have been halted by infidels and the corrupt, both foreign and local.

With the help of these narratives, he has successfully shielded himself against blame for his incompetence and failure on economic, foreign affairs and governance fronts. He is selling what people are ready to buy — the anti-Indian and the anti-US narratives.

Imran Khan aims to return to power, and this time, preferably without relying on the support of his backers in the establishment. But how can he manage to do that? He can do so by engaging in aggressive politics to rally masses around him. What is left in his political armour to gather public support? He is left with no option but to mobilise the masses through narratives that appeal to them the most. So far, he has managed to do this successfully as is evident from his stunning victory in the recent by-elections in the Punjab, where his engineered narrative helped him bag 16 out of 20 Provincial Assembly seats. Keeping this in view, Khan is likely to give a very tough time to his opponents in the next elections.

The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at mazharabbasgondal87gmail.com. He tweets at MazharGondal87