One speech and more

February 22, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

A SPEECH and a half later, there is quite a lot of praise for Prime Minister Imran Khan. He was in recent days hailed by many for making an impassioned plea before Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for the release of fellow Pakistanis stuck in Saudi jails. That did catch the fancy of quite a lot of people here, if the discussions on various social media platforms and the mainstream media are something to go by. The prime minister then crowned his emotional speech-making with an address aimed at India that has earned him some immediate words of appreciation from people at home.

The address has since been criticised on technical points by some belligerent minds in this atmosphere of deep-set acrimony. By many of Imran Khan supporters, however, it has been welcomed as an event marking his coming of age as someone who knows how to effectively express his feelings.

Mr Khan stressed that the Indians — and hopefully his own war-hungry countrymen — must pay heed to his warnings about the perils of starting a war and the merits of dialogue on all issues. He has been greeted for not displaying any fears as he reminded any adventurers sitting on that side that Pakistan was ready to retaliate.

This would have been more or less the message from Islamabad under the circumstances, no matter who the prime minister. Other Pakistani leaders before him have tried to maintain the same tone in similar situations, the tensions between Pakistan and India unfortunately being a recurring theme in the history of this region. But in this latest case comprising these two occasions where he spoke publicly, Mr Khan’s efficiency as a speaker and his ability to shift from one emotional plane to another in quick time may be particularly noted to cap a back-burner discussion on the subject that has been going in the wake of his rise to power.

Regularly striking a chord with the audience is a tough route and the PM’s journey has come with its own highs and lows.

If the Saudi crown prince’s visit and Indian allegations over the devastating attack in India-held Kashmir mark a high in the oratorical career of Imran Khan, it is all the more an achievement given that not too long ago, the ex-cricketer, who always carried the ‘shy’ label, was dismissed as a hopeless merchant of words.

Just as the pundits were ready to bet their last paisa against him ever becoming the prime minister of the country he was avowedly striving to save they were sure that he would fade away as a speechless wonder. The PTI cadres are sure they have been proven wrong; in fact, other, more independent observers and even some opponents would concede that he can convey a message.

There have been comparisons. The names of past Pakistani leaders have been flashed against that of Prime Minister Khan who the PTI fans insist does need notes from advisers or patrons to compose his address. Inevitably, the first comparison is with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had developed an extempore style that was quite popular. It used to be a highly emotional show in which the leader often incorporated the strongest words (including expletives at times), for the sake of clarity and to have a real heart to heart with the people.

ZAB’s heirs in the PPP have all tried to borrow that thunder from his speech, but with little success. However, Ms Benazir Bhutto did in time win recognition as an English speaker and mastered a particular way of delivering Urdu lines that endeared her to vast numbers of Pakistanis. Her son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, say experts, is still in the process of finding a voice; his endeavours have been somewhat impeded by the parchis (notes) his party seniors thrust upon him.

Asif Ali Zardari has his own unique way of delivering messages and warnings that, it is insinuated, goes well with his reputation as a clever politician who is not ready to give away secrets. Consequently, the style he brings to the podium is what has been described by someone as a take-off on Dilip Kumar’s slow, measured speak where high tension comes wrapped in a one-tone buzz that may from time to time be taken up a notch.

But again, it is not the Zardaris or the PPP jiyalas Prime Minister Khan is up against. As in politics so too in the area of public speaking his competition is against the Sharifs who he is still in the process of replacing. Ultimately, it boils down to how honest his supporters say he sounds while making a point in ‘contrast’ to his prime rivals.

The Sharifs did take their time opening up to people at jalsas and other public events. They were frequently at the receiving end of jokes for being reluctant — Nawaz Sharif more than Shahbaz Sharif — for being afraid of the microphone. But as political leaders, they had no escape, and to their good fortune they discovered the power of Urdu sayings they must have learnt at school, such as ‘doodh ka doodh, pani ka pani’ (making matters clear) and the politically incorrect ‘sauteli maan ka saa sulook’ (step-motherly treatment). These are the sayings that have sustained the Sharifs’ long presence on the public stage even though professionals such as Nazir Naji were generally helpful whenever an important address was to be made.

Regularly striking a chord with the audience is a tough route and Mr Khan’s journey has come with its own highs and lows. Only recently, he puzzled all but his diehard fans with his emphasis on everything from confrontation with rival politicians and his personal achievements except the topic at hand during a convocation ceremony at a university he has founded. Against that background, what he has managed vis-à-vis Pakistanis in Saudi jails and tensions with India has come as a relief.

His method has been rather simple. He has built upon the abrupt, direct, sometimes brash manner for which he had been criticised earlier in his career. The long dharna that he staged in Islamabad that had him speak to the people ‘non-stop’ was perhaps where we got used to listening to him.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2019