Rallying behind a tune

November 17, 2019

Political anthems are common at rallies – even if the party is JUI-F


As participants of the Azaadi March grew impatient for Maulana Fazlur-Rahman’s appearance on stage, the JUI-F team played their official rally song, Maulana Aarahe Hain. It was loud and could be heard even by those at some distance from the venue.

Political anthems have been around for quite some time in Pakistan. They are a common scene at political rallies. Musical intervals between speeches are almost a necessity.

“Music for politics is nothing new,” says Mazhar Abbas, a senior columnist and an analyst at Geo, The News and Jang. “If I remember correctly, the song phenomenon originated in the 1980s but became massively popular after 1987, with PPP’s Dillan Teer Bijan, MQM’s Tera Mera Saathi and PML-N’s Mian Day Naaray Wajjan Gay.”

“The popularity of the initial hits kick-started a trend that was later followed by other parties,” says Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a cultural critic and columnist at Dawn. He adds that initially it was the fans and supporters of parties who wrote and recorded anthems. But, starting with the MQM, parties began to finance and sanction their anthems. “This trend peaked with PTI songs, when famous musicians were hired to sing anthems.”

A significant shift in the traditional structure of the political songs was witnessed in 2011. “Our party revolutionised the jalsa culture in Pakistan by introducing popular bands, singers, and later by bringing LED screens to rallies and jalsas,” says PTI senator Faisal Javed.

“For the 2014 dharna, our main subjects for songs were money laundering, rigging and corruption,” he adds. “We were lucky our fans sent us a 100 songs free of cost. We selected the ones that were passionate, patriotic and free of abusive language for other parties.”

He says that even the most popular ones like Jab Aaye Ga Imran or Tabdeeli Aayi Re were produced free of cost. “Out of the original 100, 50 were shortlisted.”

In order to connect with the youth in the country, he adds, it was imperative to use music — “We also had Iqbal’s poetry rendered into songs.”

Catchy as they are, these political songs are not all of the same kind. “When it comes to politics in Pakistan there are two types of party songs”, says PLM-N’s Hina Pervaiz Butt, a member of the provincial assembly in the Punjab. “There are those that revolve around the ideology of the party like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s Roshan Pakistan for our party,” she says.

The commissioning for such songs typically takes place ahead of an election campaign. “The second type of songs is built around a trending narrative, like the current PML-N’s Vote Ko Izzat Do.”

US President Donald Trump may have used Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar and Bill Clinton, Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop, during their election campaigns, but the practice of creating anthems specifically for a political party is not really a worldwide routine. “Rally music, is a very South Asian phenomenon”, says Paracha, “even though political parties in some African and Arab countries are known to have released songs.”

He says that songs produced by political parties in Pakistan are part of populist politics that dominate countries like Pakistan and India.

“They are a definite crowd-puller,” says Abbas. “But they perform the additional function of keeping the crowds’ interest alive as well, as public meetings tend to drag on and on,” he says, remembering the days when poets like Habib Jalib would recite passionate poems at political meetings. “Nowadays, music is being used as a political rhythm to engage the audiences,” says Abbas.

The advent of electronic media has a lot to do with the increasing importance of political anthem, according to Abbas. “It’s impossible to keep people engaged by broadcasting a plain rally with a number of speeches. There needs to be some colour.” He refers to a time when leaders of hardline religious parties would refuse to appear on TV due to religious reasons. “They would request for their faces to be blurred even for an interview, but after a while, even they realised that television is a powerful medium.”

In Pakistan’s political culture, these songs go a long way in establishing the popularity of a party, says Butt. “Every party needs them regardless of whether they are the parties of the Left, Right or Centre. Even the religious parties in Pakistan have had their songs composed for this reason.”

According to Abbas, when Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the former emir of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), formed the Pakistan Islamic Front in 1990s, he tried to introduce anthems to his party’s public meetings. “He faced tough criticism from within his party. So much so that at one point he was close to resigning from JI.”

Paracha says that these songs are significant to political parties as “they are like what is known as pop or rock anthems in the West – crowd-pleasing songs that can be played in large concerts.” He adds that the purpose of a political party anthem in Pakistan is similar. “These crowd-pleasing sing-alongs can be played at rallies to entertain and warm up the crowds,” he concludes.

Production of the political anthems can be as daunting as it is exciting. For, as history shows, not all change is for the better. “Fakhir [the singer] has just sent a new motivational song for the party, ‘Kathin Waqt hai Guzar Jaye ga’, which I really like,” says Senator Javed.

For now, the show goes on.

The writer is a staff member.

Pakistani politics and music through sands of times