The music of politicking

Published July 20, 2018
Campaign posters with political slogans are ubiquitous — on the streets, vehicles and even lights.
Campaign posters with political slogans are ubiquitous — on the streets, vehicles and even lights.

RED and green banners and posters adorn the walls of one of PTI’s main offices. Its gates are open as political workers busily move in and out, swelling with importance. Most noticeable, though, is the atmosphere of celebration fostered by music. The song playing is a re-hash of a well-known Coke Studio hit, Alif Allah Chambay Di Booti, the standard lyrics replaced by new ones praising the PTI and Imran Khan.

The copying of songs is nothing new. In a separate case, a Lahore-based candidate from the MMA, Jabran Butt, has sent a legal notice to a PTI candidate from Okara with the same first name — Jabran Bhopal — for allegedly using his song for political campaigning. The anthem uses the name ‘Jabran’ as part of the lyrics.

Making political copies of famous songs is quite a habit. But, after all, no election is ever complete without a party having its own original political anthem.

One website welcoming the free downloading of all PTI songs includes a ‘gift’ from Rahat Fateh Ali for the 2018 elections. In his soaring voice, Fateh Ali addresses the youth to rise. Yet the situation is odd since the vocalist has also sung the official 2018 song for the PML-N.

But then, even in the 2013 elections, first the PTI honoured Fateh Ali for their song Chalo, Chalo Imran Kay Saath, but he also went on to sing Tum Sey Apna Ye Wada Hai for the PML-N.

With popular names including Abrar-ul-Haq and Attaullah Khan Essakhelvi, PTI has no problems in producing songs. This year’s PTI song is Farhan Saeed Butt’s Ab Sirf Imran Khan, which has also recently been a popular Twitter hashtag. The song has a soft melody, Butt’s musical trademark, it seems, and an accompanying video showing Khan at various rallies.

Between 1988 and 1993, according to journalist Nadeem Farooq Paracha, the concept of using campaign songs was limited to Karachi. The famous PPP Dila Teer Bija, recorded in a small Lyari studio, and the MQM anthem Mazloomon Ka Saathi, were at campaign forefronts. Very soon, other parties followed.

Paracha says that by the 1993 elections, the PPP and MQM had recorded dozens of songs, even released them in the market. It was only after 1993, when the post-Zia democratic system began to wear out thanks to political tussles between the PPP, the PML-N and the ‘establishment’, that the trend of producing political campaign songs also witnessed a dip.

By the late ’90s, when the PML-N emerged victorious once again, it had its own political song. Soon after the removal of Musharraf, the party followed up with Mera Mulk Bachao, Hun Tey Wardi Lai Gai Ay [Save my country now that (Musharraf) has taken off his uniform]. The song was sung in Punjabi by Bahwal Haq Shah.

A turning point came in 2011 when the PTI hired a DJ for music at its rally. It lured in the younger generation with the Strings’ pop tune Main Tou Dekhoon Ga, penned by Anwar Maqsood. Almost as a reply, the PML-N came up with Sher Aya the very next year. Subsequently, the PTI began using popular icon Attaullah Essakhelvi’s Bane Ga Naya Pakistan in almost all its rallies. Even the Jamaat-i-Islami came up with some songs; Paracha points out that they called them taranas, or anthems, in a bid to appear serious.

LUMS professor Taimur Rehman, a political worker for a leftist party and also a singer/guitarist for the band Laal, feels that political songs are now becoming all about appealing to a certain target market.

“Our political music has revolved around songs produced by bands such as Junoon as well as patriotic songs by Vital Signs and others — and these have been used for rallies too,” says Rehman, pointing out the use of Jazba Junoon. “But the newer trend is that the parties are using a lot of music to attract younger people.”

But he does not think much of the lyrics.

“On the whole, the lyrics are quite poor. Even the better artists tend to create mediocre songs. They just don’t invest as much as they would in a commercial song,” he says.

Most of the lyrics are plain sloganeering. This is probably one reason that the PPP classic Dila Teer Bija, a jaunty song with ethnic Sindhi beats and Balochi lyrics, never seems to lose its charm — sometimes even amongst non-supporters of the party.

Curiously, the PTI and the PML-N have in recent times opted for more Pashtu and Punjabi songs, but fewer Sindhi and Balochi ones.

Some parties automatically benefit from the presence of singers and musicians amongst their ranks. But the Barabri Party Pakistan’s leader is artist Jawad Ahmed himself.

“Making this song, I wanted to make sure I came across portraying what the status quo was, and how it was stopping the middle and lower classes from rising,” he explains. “We have made a video to illustrate the lyrics.”

Ahmed previously created a heart-rending song and video concerning the lives lost in the Baldia Town factory inferno in Karachi.

Today, videos have become a crucial part of songs. Perhaps one of the best ones out there are affiliated with Jibran Nasir’s campaign with the tagline Hum Main Se Aik. It is a celebrity-studded video in black and white, with images of iconic people including Mashal Khan and Khadija Siddiqui. At the same time, it concentrates on issues including education, religious harmony, and human rights.

Abrar-ul-Haq, who refused to speak about the music used in his campaign, said that he was concentrating on “hardcore” and “more important” things. Perhaps he underestimates the role of music and songs during a political campaign, which in Pakistan has become as important as banners and posters.

What's in a slogan?

AS the election season heats up, party slogans have started filling the airwaves. No campaign is complete without a catchy and timely slogan that is brief and reflects the overwhelming mood of the time.

Unlike the electoral battle, a party’s success at producing a powerful one-liner is manifested in its popularity — if it is found on vehicles, walls, billboards, signboards and, most importantly, the internet.

While political catchphrases were driven by party philosophy in the past — from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Roti, Kapra or Makan (food, clothing and shelter) to Imran Khan’s tsunami wave and Tabdeeli (change) — the war of words this year has seen a shift in focus to target rival parties instead.

In 2013, Arif Lohar’s version of Mian De Naray Wajne De (Let people chant Nawaz Sharif) dominated the Pakistan Muslim-League Nawaz’s election campaign. In 2018, the Pakistan Peoples Party caught on to the slogan in a witty attempt to demonstrate that the party still has a following in Punjab as the workers chant Bhutto De Naaray Wajjan Gey at their rallies in the province.

Similarly, in the aftermath of the Panama Papers case, the PML-N projected its undeterred stance in its slogan Rok Sako Toh Rok Lo (Stop us if you can). In a sharp-witted and timely rebuttal, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf launched its anthem Rok Sako Toh Rok Lo Tabdeeli Aai Hai (Stop us if you can, change is here).

Besides carrying a political message, slogans help politicians convey their manifesto and political stance in a few words. The Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal’s election slogan is: Hamari Siyasat Khidmat-i-insaaniyat (Our politics is to serve humanity). PML-N’s Vote Ko Izzat Do (respect the vote) reiterates its narrative.

Interestingly, this time around the newly-formed parties and independent candidates are more interested in use of slogans to woo voters.

Independent candidate Jibran Nasir’s Hum Mein Se Aik (one of us) has picked up well on the public sentiment against corrupt leaders and nepotism. Jawad Ahmed’s Barabari Party Pakistan is banking on vote for equality, based on its manifesto based on egalitarianism.

With the growing emergence of religious groups in mainstream politics, religion-driven slogans such as Deen Aya Deen Aya (religion is here) and Islam ko vote do (vote for Islam) are also prominent on campaign posters across the country.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2018


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