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Monday October 25, 2021

The age of spectacles

May 20, 2021

If nothing else, the ruling party is keeping us all entertained in these depressing days of a global pandemic. In the first fortnight of the month of May, the PTI outperformed itself by creating four self-subverting spectacles in quick succession. The most media savvy political machine just a few months ago, the PTI, it appeared, had no clue about public sentiment and political communication.

How the party is losing sway over social media, the realm it ruled uncontested for many years, is a spectacle in itself. While the PTI’s social media teams used to hunt in gangs, most of their opponents are apparently lone wolves and are becoming increasingly creative in demolishing the 4G party in cyberspace. What has really changed in the meantime is not just the performance but the spectator sentiment as well.

On May 2, Firdous Ashiq Awan visited a market in Sialkot where her actions were such that would invariably be followed by a loud applause. Used to humiliation at the hands of state functionaries, people love it when babus are insulted at the hands of their elected representatives. Many politicians have in fact built their careers on such performances And yet the oft repeated trick backfired badly upon Awan when she disparaged an assistant commissioner using the kind of language that has become the lingua franca of the PTI.

Awan had noticed rotten fruit at a shop, and she considered it appropriate to give a piece of her mind to the young woman officer chaperoning her. Rather than joining her in condemning traders who overcharge consumers and sell low-quality merchandise, and the public servants who fail to check such practices, social media raged against Awan for days. What’s even worse, senior civil servants in Punjab ganged up against her; the chief secretary, the most senior civil servant in the province, formally and openly expressed his disapproval of her behaviour.

Another similar spectacle, performed at a national or perhaps the international stage, backfired upon the prime minister. Imran Khan had received some serious complaints on the Citizens’ Portal regarding corruption and bad performance at Pakistan’s embassy in Saudi Arabia, a country where millions of working class Pakistanis are employed and many of them need support from their national embassy.

While some disciplinary action was in process, Imran Khan gathered Pakistan's ambassadors posted all over the world in an online meeting and read the riot act to them. Broadcast live, it was clearly organised as a public spectacle rather than an occasion to provide guidance and leadership to Pakistani diplomats. As a man too smart to read from a written paper, the prime minister was quite spontaneous in insulting the whole diplomatic arm of the state. He even compared their bad performance with the better performance of their Indian counterparts.

The reaction from Pakistan's foreign affairs community and the national media was so strong that the foreign minister put aside his hymn book and publicly criticised the incident through a video. The prime minister retreated a few days later by admitting on television that he had made a mistake, the Foreign Office was performing well and this engagement should not have been televised live. However, the damage had already been done.

While the two events humbled and angered two arms of the civil services, another blunder made a common person feel humiliated and angry. At a time when the prime minister was on an official visit to Saudi Arabia with a huge entourage of public-expense-paradise-seekers, his cabinet colleagues inaugurated a high-profile Saudi funded Zakat-Fitra project in Pakistan and started participating in the distribution events of the project.

Pakistan has been a recipient of Saudi aid for decades. Pakistani madrassahs and charities also receive Saudi Zakat. However, the high-profile participation of federal ministers and the governor of Punjab in project activities made it appear that the state of Pakistan had become a recipient of Saudi Zakat. What was even worse for the PTI, in the public mind, the project got linked with the prime minister's visit to Saudi Arabia. The two events put together, unleashed the creativity of the PTI’s detractors on social media.

The fourth event could be counted as a great achievement of the government. Somehow, the wisest men of the land have made ‘One Eid-One Nation’ a great marker of the nation-building project. The government had a huge success on May 12 as the official Ruet-e-Hilal Committee and Mufti Popalzai of Peshawar agreed that Eid should be held on the following day.

This time, Chaudhry Fawad Hussain and Mufti Muneebur Rehman, two moon-gazing rivals for three years, were on the other side of the divide. Chaudhry Sahib, the former minister of science and technology and current minister of education, is the flag bearer of the rational interpretation of religion and finds support for his views amongst a large section of the educated population. He has had much of the educated middle class convinced that moon sighting on the night of May 12 was a scientific impossibility.

Mufti Muneeb, who is now amongst the leaders of the Barelvi onslaught on the government, challenged the credibility of the decision on religious grounds. This Eid will be remembered for one of the most controversial moon-sighting decisions in nation’s history, perhaps second only to the official moon sighting in 1967 when Ayub Khan was accused of changing the date to avoid holding Eid on Friday, which is considered inauspicious for a ruler. Incidentally, this time too Eid was held on Thursday instead of Friday, contrary to the predictions of the information minister.

Though Imran Khan has been saved from the ill omen of Eid on Friday, these kinds of spectacles may prove a lot more inauspicious for his rule.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan