Limits of populism

May 24, 2019

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The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.
The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.

POPULISM is a political ideology that believes society is divided between the pure masses and the corrupt elite. No longer just relics of totalitarian regimes, populist leaders are now common in liberal democracies. The PTI may have been elected on a wave of populism but parachuting elite-technocrats into government as damage control is adding to the weight of its contradictions.

Negotiating the grids of liberal and authoritarian democracy, Pakistan’s populist leaders have always been elites. Some recall Gen Ayub Khan as a benevolent populist but it was Z.A. Bhutto and Mujib who competed for genuine populism. In 1988, Benazir Bhutto returned as Daughter of the East and claimed that the post-Zia establishment tamed her populist promises, but between her and Nawaz Sharif’s interrupted rule over the 1990s, social benefits were outpaced by policies of deregularisation. Elite capture was strengthened but so were development and democratisation.

In 1999, Gen Musharraf justified violating the Constitution and dragging Pakistan into conflict by impugning civilian democracy as inherently corrupt. He weakened popular leaders but not corruption or elite capture. He leased elites from other parties to maintain control over the grass-roots electorate. He then hired ‘technocrats’ — who are by definition not just elites but also the brokers for other elites — to actually run the country for his own elite institution. Many sit in the PTI cabinet today.

All this time, the prime minister-in-waiting, Imran Khan remained popular but not a populist leader. Then, in 2014, he climbed up the container of populism.

The trouble with populism is that it is intoxicating.

Never a fan of parliament, he rejected the results of the elections but also did not reform his own party’s electoral structure. This sealed his fate for a less democratic and more populist career. He became par for the Rawalpindi course. The gap between populist rhetoric and the practical need for elite electables to win the election was closed by a series of quick ‘U-turns’.

Khan is not the only one who prefers populism to the democratic process. Politics is now a moral cause for freelancers and new media has encouraged a breed of talking-heads and saviour-priests. Some of our chief justices and TV anchors are examples of this trend.

As a form of subscribers’ revenge, citizens have become journalists and civilians are keyboard warriors. Reality show hosts run around town like avenging angels with microphones, violating laws and decency, solving cases as self-appointed judge, jury and jirga.

The trouble with populism is that it is intoxicating. Social media is the natural arena for narcissistic populists, revenge-seekers, and fake news. Here, gladiators and anti-elite ‘radicals’ accuse anyone they don’t agree with of being corrupt, a ‘lifafa’, ‘patwari’, traitor, or Islamophobe. This wins applause and offers instant gratification with no responsibility. Who would rather file RTIs or cases, debate in parliament, or respond through scholarship that has to be peer-reviewed?

Blogs and pop-up e-magazines can circulate any personalised character assassination with no citation, cross-checks or editorial constraints. Rejoinders or apologies are useless once the damage is done. No one likes to read that much, especially the technicalities of the Panama case, or dry facts that disprove juicy unsubstantiated accusations.

The PTI’s promise to recover billions from corrupt leaders and make Pakistan solvent was not based on legal proof or a viable plan; it was populism. The end-of-corruption deadlines have passed several times, and the chicken-and-egg poverty alleviation plan is still incubating for a decision about which will come first.

The revolutionary roads of KP were apparently not flowing with milk and honey, as voters in other provinces believed. The beleaguered BRT of Peshawar has only redeemed the allegedly corrupt metro projects of Punjab.

No speculative oil and gas reserves have been discovered but the provinces that have them will be expected to ‘do more’ and demand less. Turns out, the IMF is our daddy after all, and the dollar rate is being manipulated by the current government in the same way it accused the previous one of doing. Old technocrats will befittingly run the not-naya Pakistan.

Populism is considered to be an illiberal reaction to liberal democracies run by political elites. The prime minister claimed to despise liberals but then several neo-liberal hitmen were hired.

As it approaches the end of its first year in power, the government has failed to keep its populist promises or reduce elite influence. It is a government of contradictions consisting of the illiberalism, political and economic elites running government, and a populism low on collateral.

Populism without a plan is risky but one that has run out of ideas leans towards fascism.

The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2019