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Politics of invective

June 18, 2019

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THE quality of rhetoric in the country’s political arena has been questionable for some time, but in the absence of any ‘self-regulation’ by the politicians themselves, it has become steadily more problematic. Most recently, the PML-N has resorted to the easiest trick in the playbook on how to malign political opponents. Last week, former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in a press conference accused Prime Minister Imran Khan of having committed an offence against religion. Allegations to the effect had been circulating on social media in the wake of certain remarks made by Mr Khan in a speech last week. Sections of the opposition have now pounced on them as a stick to beat him with. It is a short-sighted ploy that inevitably boomerangs on those dishing it out; the PML-N itself has been its target when a minister in its government was forced to resign, and another was shot and wounded on religious grounds last year. That makes the party’s latest salvo against the prime minister all the more reprehensible.

The value of politicians weighing their words before articulating them applies to other kinds of rhetoric too. Gendered insults, derogatory epithets and scandalmongering have vitiated the political atmosphere. Most parties to some extent are guilty of this at some point or another, especially in the run-up to elections. In a country like Pakistan, with its stunted democratic institutions, personal attacks and character assassination tend to take precedence over substantive, issue-based discourse. However, the PTI has been loath to give up its combative approach even after coming to power. Without detracting from the foolhardiness of the opposition’s latest attempt at vilifying the prime minister, one could even argue they have been goaded into taking this path by the relentless invective spewed by Mr Khan himself against the leaders of the main opposition parties. In fact, his often less-than-restrained fulminations on the container during the PTI’s four-month dharna in 2014 mark the point at which the quality of political discourse in the country took a decidedly downward turn.

Using civilised speech, even while criticising the other side, is not only possible but also pragmatic. Power is ephemeral; today’s incumbents could be in the opposition tomorrow and vice versa. New circumstances may demand across-the-aisle compromises which previously uttered uncouth words and allegations of criminal wrongdoing can make that much more difficult. Also, in the absence of a decisive majority in parliament, the treasury benches often require cooperation from the opposition to enact legislation; the PTI government, which is looking to urgently pass the budget, has a razor-thin majority in the National Assembly. Moreover, politicians should consider how their mudslinging plays out in the court of public opinion. It makes them an object of ridicule, undermines their authority, and ends up discrediting democracy itself. Only anti-democratic forces benefit from this unseemly spectacle.

Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2019