The narrative conundrum

Pakistan has witnessed several political narratives. The PTI has given the people some more

The narrative conundrum


few months ago, Imran Khan was struggling with his political career. The survival of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf looked uncertain in view of flawed governance and failed narratives. But his narrative calling the no-confidence motion against him a “conspiracy” hatched by the US with the help of local “traitors” has caught on. It has turned Khan’s drowning PTI into a real political force posing a big challenge to other players.

Political parties devise narratives to galvanise public support for their agendas. None of the parties or heads of state have lived up to what they promise the masses. After securing the support of the masses, they have either targetted their opponents or focused on personal gain. This is true for all political parties including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Imran Khan and the PTI can be singled out for changing their narratives rather quickly. What started with the slogan of a New Pakistan, sailed through several narratives including corruption and accountability, Riyasat-i-Medina, prosperity, justice; and when all failed, a US conspiracy against the regime.

According to social scientists, a political narrative is knitted around public sentiment. Sometimes it appears suddenly. At other times, it takes a considerable amount of time to develop. The narratives can be developed using facts but they revolve around emotions and sentiments. Pakistan has witnessed several narratives, political and otherwise. Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, for instance, gave his narrative in his famous August 11, 1947, speech about a democratic and secular Pakistan.

The first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan (August 1947-October 1951), also came up with a narrative of Pakistan. The Objectives Resolutions adopted by the first Constituent Assembly in 1949 spoke of a constitutional modern Islamic democracy. The resolution laid the foundation of several features of national polity.

In 1958, Gen Ayub Khan took over the reins as the first military ruler of the nation and gave it a narrative about purging the country of corrupt practices. First, he targetted the political leaders seen as a threat to his rule, by introducing the Public Offices Disqualification Order (PODO), later morphed into the Elective Bodies Disqualification Order (EBDO). Over 70 political opponents, including Sohrawardi and Qayyum Khan, were barred from contesting elections till 1966. However, they were never convicted. Ayub Khan’s purge also took a toll on 3,000 civil servants who were dismissed following trials for misconduct in special tribunals working under retired judges.

When Ayub Khan resigned and Gen Yahya replaced him, he vowed to reform the country and dismissed 300 civil servants.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) with a narrative of socialism, democracy and Islam. The slogan “Islam is our religion; democracy is our polity, socialism is our economy and masses are the source of all power” made for a popular manifesto. Bhutto tried to implement some features of socialism through land reforms and by nationalising industries but faced severe resistance. In 1974, he went for a new narrative: Pan-Islamism. It got immense political support but did not win over the religious groups. In 1977, the PPP narrative of ‘roti, kapra aur makan (bread, dress and shelter) won it the general elections but the opposition parties rejected the results and alleged massive rigging. Gen Zia toppled Bhutto’s government and hanged him using a ruthless justice narrative. It is now called a ‘judicial murder’.

After ousting Bhutto, Zia gave the people a shariah narrative. He crushed his opponents using military courts and illegal confinement. The Afghan jihad narrative afforded him a long rule. His narratives also ushered in sectarianism and militant groups that later became hard to contain.

Benazir Bhutto got elected in 1988 as the first Muslim woman prime minister using her father’s narratives. Her government was removed on charges of corruption.

In the 1990 elections, Islami Jamhoori Ittihad, heavily funded by the army and strongly supported by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan won the elections and Nawaz Sharif became the prime minister for the first time. He had earlier used the slogan Jag Punjabi Jag – teri pag nun lag gaya dagh (Wake up Punjabi, your turban has been stained). The narrative won him the Punjab and lost him Sindh.

In 1993, Benazir Bhutto was again elected prime minister on the same slogan. Her government was toppled by her own hand-picked president, the late Farooq Leghari – using a corruption narrative.

In 1997, Nawaz Sharif swept the polls getting a two-thirds majority with his narratives of clean governance and making Pakistan an Asian Tiger.

In October 1999, Gen Musharraf overthrew him and gave an instant narrative “corruption-free Pakistan”. He used the tactics perfected by earlier military rulers and orchestrated a party, Pakistan Muslim League in 2002 that later came to be known as Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q). Musharraf also came up with the Pakistan First narrative. The support for the narrative soon wore off.

When Gen Musharraf deposed the chief justice of Pakistan in 2006, the PPP, the PML-N and the PTI launched a movement for the restoration of the judiciary. The deposed chief justice espoused the narrative of mother-like state. His restoration was followed by unprecedented judicial activism but ended with allegations of personal gains.

The PPP won the 2008 elections using the same old narratives but failed to deliver allegedly because of the judicial intervention. However, it could claim credit for the ouster of Gen Musharraf and for the 18th Amendment.

The PML-N won the 2013 election with the narrative of ending electric power loadshedding. It achieved the goal but Nawaz Sharif was still ousted in the middle of his third term. The corruption narrative was used again to oust him.

Imran Khan used the corruption narrative against Sharif and Zardari. He won the 2018 election with a thin majority and was unable to form the government singlehandedly. To form a government, he embraced several parliamentarians he had earlier described as criminals. After assuming power, his party lost several by-elections, showing the diminishing attraction of its narrative. Sensing that his corruption narrative was no longer effective, he added a religious tinge of Riyasat-i-Medina to it. Still losing the first phase of local elections in his stronghold, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and several national and provincial assembly seats in the Punjab, Sindh and KP, he appeared to be at his wits’ end. He wanted the people of Pakistan to rise with him against the no-confidence motion against him. When he sensed that nothing else was working and those who had earlier extended all-out support to him had withdrawn it, he came up with a new narrative – a US conspiracy against his government. While there is no solid evidence in support of his claims, the results of the recent by-elections to 20 Punjab Assembly seats indicate that the people have bought into his new narrative.

Whether the the masses will keep buying his narrative in the future or not is the question.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

The narrative conundrum