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Tuesday February 07, 2023

War of narratives

December 03, 2022

December is here, and is the season of stocktaking. Now that important appointments in the country have been made and the officials concerned have taken charge of their offices, it may well be worth doing an analysis of the PDM’s coalition government’s performance of the past eight months, even if it is a partial one.

The PDM government did well to keep its nerves and morale in the face of unrelenting assault from the PTI during the past eight months and made the important appointments in the country according to its agenda. It deserves credit for it.

However, the government seems lost in the war of narratives vis-a-vis the PTI. If the PDM aims to win the next general elections in the country – whenever they are held – it needs to focus on building a narrative for itself and effectively communicating it to the people.

Given that the odds were high and mighty against the PDM government, it has still managed to get good results regarding the key appointments. Yet, it could have done it better with a strong narrative as it did in the fall of 2020 when it was launched as a movement. But it seems to have lost the plot along the way.

PTI leader Imran Khan launched a propaganda campaign against the PDM government as soon as he was voted out of the prime ministerial office through a vote of no-confidence in April 2022. Almost every single day, for the past eight months, Imran Khan has addressed at least one public gathering, if not more. He went to education institutions and press clubs, addressed public rallies across Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), held press conferences, attended seminars and did everything possible under the sun, including his now-aborted long march, to remain in the news.

Imran Khan built a narrative that his government was overthrown due to a foreign conspiracy. And although he did not have any evidence for it – beyond a feeble cipher – a lot of people believed him. He repeated this mantra ad nauseam, day after day, event after event, while directly addressing the people and looking into the cameras. And it helped him gain immense popularity.

The PDM’s counter-narrative was nowhere visible, other than a few press conferences and some statements by its leaders. The field was left open for Imran Khan without contestation and he fully capitalized on it. This narrative building and its well-honed communication might have also led to the PTI winning a majority of seats in by-elections though Imran Khan was quite unpopular when he was prime minister and the PTI was losing most of the by-elections held when he was in power.

There are many serious allegations of financial corruption against Imran Khan, his family, his circle of friends and several PTI party leaders in the prohibited funding and Toshakhana cases, to highlight a few evidence-based realities. Yet he incessantly calls leaders of the PDM government ‘thieves’ and ‘dacoits’ in all public rallies. And no one effectively calls him out on his duplicity.

The PDM government needs to bear in mind that Imran Khan is not the usual politician, and they are not living in the era of politics when the likes of Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan used to lead political rallies and negotiations. Imran Khan does not do politics; he launches propaganda warfare against his political opponents.

Imran Khan’s propaganda warfare is calculated, divisive, anarchic, remorse-free, and run on scientific lines. He seems to have been trained in public speaking when he was being turned from being a shy cricket celebrity and philanthropist to a politician.

Imran Khan has been building a narrative for two-and-a-half decades. As others have also written about it, he was made into a brand, a brand of anti-corruption frenzy regardless of his and his inner circle’s alleged corruption.

So what the PDM government needs from now till the time when the elections take place is to build a good narrative for itself and efficiently communicate it to the people. In the old-fashioned world, the government that delivers to its people need not worry about propaganda. However, this is not the case anymore.

The government is up against unpopularity due to unprecedented price hikes and economic difficulties compounded over the decades, but particularly made worse by the PTI government, its huge foreign loans, and poor economic management. The PDM government needs to brush up its fall-2020 narrative and build on it.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is not an effective communicator. Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz need to come back to Pakistan and along with Bilawal Bhutto and other PDM leaders need to effectively engage the public on a daily basis from now till the elections are held.

The plan of those who operationalized the hybrid experiment in the country through Imran Khan, particularly since 2011, was to completely eliminate the two-party system governed by the PML-N and the PPP, get rid of the old political guard and let Imran Khan run the country for 10 or 20 years in a populist authoritarian-style single-party rule by controlling the media, justice systems, public opinion makers and civil society.

However, the inherent contradictions and push-and-pull factors have disembarked this hybrid experiment earlier than planned. The PDM got a lucky break and it needs to fully capitalize on it by not only delivering on economy, governance, and public welfare but also building a compelling narrative for itself and being good at its ability to communicate it well to the people.

We do not want the negative politics of the PTI, which revolves around hatred, divisiveness, anarchy and the constant disruption of socio-political and economic life in Pakistan. Imran Khan’s greatest crime in recent times has been to throw the over three millions flood affectees of Sindh, Balochistan, and southern Punjab under the bus and divert all national political attention on his petty politics.

We do not want such heartless political leaders to rule us. However, the PDM government badly needs to up its game on communication. It has achieved considerable success in presenting its and other developing countries’ case at the recent COP27 in Egypt. Even the international media is all praise for Federal Minister Sherry Rehman and her delegation.

Yet, the PDM government has not been able to highlight its achievements in Pakistani media. The PDM government is up against the psychological warfare of the PTI. It needs to win this war of narratives and up its communication game.

The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist. She can be reached at: fskcolumns@gmail.com

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