Tuesday November 28, 2023

'Aliens' and 'angels' — euphemisms mask Pak polls fears

June 07, 2018

ISLAMABAD: In most countries, politicians who warned that aliens were trying to influence an upcoming general election would likely find themselves ridiculed by the media and shunned at the ballot box.

In Pakistan, where cryptic references to "invisible hands" wielded by "the boys" have long been part of the political lexicon, such talk is a staple of the campaign trail.

Ahead of the July 25 vote, ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has cautioned that "aliens" will attempt to prevent his party from winning another five-year term.

Others whisper about the role the country´s feared “angels” might play.

The colourful terminology is partly a reflection of Pakistan´s rich linguistic heritage, peppered with English terms such as “blue-eyed boy” (one favoured by those in power) and “red lines” (forbidden subjects).

A closer look, though, shows a political vocabulary born out of fear of openly criticising the unnamed subject of most of the creative language.

“These terms are particular to Pakistan because of our governance structure,” said Jibran Nasir, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist.

July´s general election is billed as a historic event that would mark only the second democratic transition of power for a nation that has been ruled by dictators for nearly half its history since independence in 1947. But intensifying allegations of meddling threaten to cast a shadow over the milestone, with senior figures in Sharif´s PML-N alleging “hidden forces” are trying to weaken the party.

With newspapers abuzz with claims that attempts are being made to engineer the election result and media houses complaining that free speech is being crushed, journalists too are relying on oblique terms to get their message across without angering the mighty.

Newspaper editorials and social media are awash with fears the poll may be delayed due to behind-the-scenes scheming by “anti-democratic forces” - yet another euphemism commonly used.

In a recent speech, Sharif accused “invisible aliens” of intimidating his lawmakers and pushing them to switch sides.

“The real aliens... have been there for 70 years,” Sharif said.

“Now, it is going to have a match, God willing, with humans, and humans with the blessing of God will defeat the aliens.”

Imran Khan’s PTI, seen as PML-N´s main challenger, has in the past teased crowds at rallies that a “third umpire” might dismiss PML-N´s then-premier Sharif, widely interpreted as relying on a cricketing metaphor.

Nasir, the rights lawyer, said introducing “aliens” into the political lexicon was a calculated move by Sharif.

It may be difficult for low-level PML-N workers to openly and publicly keep repeating that Nawaz Sharif is not competing against Imran Khan but against someone else, Nasir said.

“But it is easy for a worker to say he´s fighting ´aliens´, and act naive. Everybody knows what he means.”

Many writers also feel the influence and overflow of Pakistan´s lingua-franca Urdu has swelled the popularity of such colourful turns of phrase in English, which is Pakistan´s second official language widely spoken by the political and business elites.

Terms such as “angels” hail from the belief that none of their work is documented and their involvement cannot be proven - but they still exist.

The doublespeak often befuddles diplomats engaged in talks with Pakistani government officials.

“We´ve noticed they will never say [the name of institution]. It´s as if somehow it would be bad form for them to admit they actually exist,” said one Western diplomat.

“They always tell us they have to run our request past ´relevant authorities´ or talk to ´appropriate authorities´.”

In a conspiracy prone nation, it´s hard to untangle the truth from paranoia.

But what is clear is the widespread belief by prominent politicians, businessmen and even ordinary people that their phones are tapped.

On-the-record interviews can be equally bewildering for journalists.

Talal Chaudhry, state minister for interior affairs until last week, recently told Reuters that certain institutions were pressuring rights activists to stifle dissent and create a “controlled democracy.”

But when asked which institutions he was referring to, Talal declined to name them.

“By naming them things might get even worse and we don´t want to make things worse,” Talal said, adding, “We want to make them better.”