Every country on the planet is suffering from populism. It is a cancer that metastasizes because of the failure of neoliberalism, because of the certitude and arrogance of elites and because of the emergence of social media algorithms that have given every fool and charlatan on the planet the self-confidence of ‘the most interesting man in the world’.
But does the universality of populism undermine the wellness of nations universally? The evidence is mixed. Some countries are better at coping with toxic manipulators of public sentiment than others.
India has a wildly populist political leadership that has deployed religious extremist ideology dangerously, but the same political leadership has governed over a remarkable run of achievements. Since his election as the populist icon his country’s people seem to have yearned for, Narendra Modi has been among the most competent and capable leaders his country has ever had. There are scandals and hiccups galore – but Modi has helped elevate the incomes of his people, and the standing of his country like few ever have.
Modi is probably an exception. In Brazil, populists on either side of the political spectrum are taking turns at trying to run their country – one side was too corrupt to be left to run the country, the other side was too crazy. Now the country is back in the hands of those deemed too corrupt. Sound familiar? Don’t be fooled. Brazil is a complicated place with a lot more going for it than whatever politician is making the news today.
In many countries in Europe, populists are not winning power, but they are draining the powerful of their capacity to govern effectively. Populist narratives make it harder for European leaders to levy taxes, to act in concert with the humanitarian compassion that supposedly defines European values, and to repel the advances of Russia’s substantial kinetic and psychological warfare capabilities. In the United Kingdom, populists convinced their people that a separation from Europe was in their interests. British power has not waned so dramatically since the withdrawal of colonial rulers from around the world as it has in the years since Brexit – and the economy in the UK shows no signs of being able to recover from the body blow of leaving the European Union.
There are no rules in the populist era. Some places allow populist leaders to rip their countries apart, but most have limits on how much they will tolerate. Donald Trump has done a number on the public discourse in the United States. The centrism of Joe Biden has not repaired that great country – but it has stopped the bleeding. In France, Emmanuel Macron’s centrism isn’t inspired nor capable of the intellectual depth that is attributed to the sons and daughters of the French republic. But it is a holding pattern that keeps the sauvage at bay. The costs of resisting wild populism are high – but for most countries, manageable.
Where does Pakistan fit in on the global spectrum as far as dealing with populism? As always, Pakistan is a unique specimen – a standalone example of a country that has somehow threaded the needle of mediocrity, incompetence, tragedy and cruelty so magnificently, that Imran Khan deserves his own category in the pantheon of populism. The Imran Khan brand of populism has three qualities that make Pakistan’s current experience or episode of populism utterly unique and singular.
First, Khan is not an organic national leader; he was re-packaged and launched by elements of the national security elites in Pakistan sometime around 2011 after he spent a decade and a half in utter political wilderness. That he is now, without question, the dominant political personality in the country, is a measure of just how successful elements of the deep state have been in shaping Pakistani politics. Shaping, ruining, elevating – it all depends on who you like at any given point in time.
Second, Khan is not an ideologue, nor does he represent any kind of coherent ideology or philosophy – his marginal deployment of religiosity is a talking point only for his harshest Pakistani opponents, perhaps the most unoriginal of elites, incapable of not only defining themselves, but also of countering Khan’s blistering narratives. Khan’s appeal is not the ideas that he espouses but rather his ability to expose the emptiness and incompetence of his opponents.
Finally, Khan is almost completely immune to his own inconsistency. There isn’t a leader on the planet that can contradict or walk back his most vehemently argued positions with as much ease as Khan can – without any major damage to his standing. The latest and most epic example is his conversion from arguing that he was a victim of US conspiracy to now arguing that he was the victim of General Bajwa’s conspiracy – in which the US was merely a tool in the hands of Gen Bajwa.
In the last week or so, as Pakistan still reels from the Peshawar terrorist attack and goes deeper into fiscal and monetary abyss, Khan has provided two interviews to American entities that he knows were not going to lob him the lollipop questions that his fanboys and fangirls in the national press here at home do. Neither interview went well. Isaac Chotiner dismantled Khan’s shallow command of his own positions for the New Yorker, and Sarah Zaman essentially red carpeted Khan exposing his epic lack of preparation for a return to office in an exceptionally crafted interview for the Voice of America.
Of course, none of this will matter. Khan’s most ardent supporters are now past the point of critical assessments of their leader. And it is hard to blame them. Khan’s competition is a family that has inserted Ishaq Dar as finance minister – to the profound detriment of the economy. Where once the Sharif brand – buttressed by substantial investments in infrastructure – was associated with competence, today it reels from a badly botched leadership transition. The PPP is wiser, knowing that its turn at the till is a process of elimination, and that turn inches closer. Khan’s fabrication of a US conspiracy, his mishandling of Pakistan’s relations with China, with Saudi Arabia and with the United States would be unforgivable even if Pakistan was fully solvent and capable of autonomous strategic decision-making. As it happens, the country he seeks to run again is none of those things.
Whatever one labels the conspiracy that took down the Imran Khan government, it is more and more clear what the country has faced, and will continue to face for the foreseeable future. A conspiracy of incompetence. What are the ingredients of this conspiracy?
First, and foremost: a national security system that is allowed to manipulate politics without any accountability whatsoever. Second, a national political system that is allowed to manufacture decision-makers like Ishaq Dar, with time-bound, conditional political persecution masquerading as accountability, and leading to repeat performances – ad infinitum. Third, a public sector that promotes individuals for having spent their entire professional lives surviving the national security and national political systems – wasting entire careers of once-brilliant women and men. Finally, as a result of the unaccountable national security system, the broken national political system, and an ineffective public sector, there is the unhinged national discourse – one that is capable of embracing, laundering, and elevating a leader like Imran Khan.
If the establishment can keep manufacturing dictators and interferers without accountability, the political system can keep manufacturing incompetent egomaniacs without accountability, and the public sector can endure both without batting an eye, then why would the public discourse not keep manufacturing excuses for Imran Khan?
Pakistan is in deeper trouble than its elite realize. This is because the elite have built walls that protect them from reality. These walls are so high that reality cannot climb over them. The national security system, the national political system and a pliant and spineless public sector may all be right to want to prevent Imran Khan from having a second opportunity to sate the narcissism of Khanistas. But the country’s systems are too incompetent, too compromised, and too inured to reality to be able to generate a viable alternative. In the residual vacuum of this conspiracy of incompetence is here, and now.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.
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