Perils of populism

22 Jan 2020


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

FAISAL Vawda is a ‘phenomenon’ that defines Imran Khan’s populist regime. His theatrics on a TV talk show last week may have appeared excessively crude, but were not surprising. The federal minister for water resources has been known for his absurd acts.

Remember his dramatic entry dressed like a cowboy at the Chinese consulate in Karachi while it was under a terrorist attack in 2018? His presence at the spot may have been a nuisance for the security agencies trying to break the siege, but why would he care? It was his way of getting media attention.

Imran Khan, who had promised to bring in new talent to build a ‘naya Pakistan’, chose Vawda to head one of the most critical ministries. Soon after taking charge, Vawda promised to open the ‘floodgates to jobs’ that would even require Pakistan to import labour from other countries. We are still waiting for that miracle to happen. Meanwhile, his expensive sports car and motorbikes remain the centre of media attention.

But Vawda is not the only jewel in the crown of Imran Khan’s collection of talents. He is part of a careless crew piloting a rudderless ship of state. Many of the crew members are quite entertaining and end up providing considerable comic relief in times of crisis. Whether it is the special assistant to the PM on information and her daily pearls of wisdom or the railway minister’s habit of shooting from the hip, it’s all a manifestation of an administration that thrives on absurdity.

We seem to be witnessing a dangerous confluence of populism and occultism.

If this were not enough, the PTI government also has ministers like Shehryar Afridi and Ali Amin Gandapur in its ranks. The minister of state for narcotics control, Afridi is known for his outrageous utterances, including his claim that 75 per cent of female students and 45pc male students in the capital city use drugs including crystal meth and ice. It is such statements, not backed by evidence, which render his remarks pointless. Similarly, his constant reminder that he “owes his life to God” has made him a star in PTI ranks.

For Gandapur, the minister of Kashmir affairs, inflation ‘benefits’ a large section of the population. “If someone is benefiting from rising prices then it is our farmers, they are the ones growing the tomatoes,” he remarked. Going by such profound logic, people should be hailing the hike in prices rather than protesting against it. The list of such knights in shining armour in the PTI cabinet is quite long.

For sure, one cannot forget the great discovery of ‘Wasim Akram-plus’. The star is yet to shine but Imran Khan has not lost faith in his protégé. It is believed that the reason for backing Usman Buzdar, the chief minister of Punjab, has to do more with occultism than political rationality.

Although most of his powers seem to have been taken away, Buzdar’s stay in office, even as a figurehead chief minister, is seen as essential to the survival of Khan’s government. One really feels sorry for the man from Taunsa Sharif who appears helpless, despite occupying the second-most powerful political office in the country. The affairs of the country’s biggest province are now run by the Prime Minister’s Secretariat through the provincial chief secretary and the inspector general of police.

This unique arrangement has thrown the province into complete disarray, raising questions about who is really in charge. The growing rebellion within the ruling party’s ranks and threats by allies to part ways has left the survival of the Buzdar government hanging by a thread. Yet there is no sign of the prime minister changing his original decision thought to be influenced by ‘hidden powers’. Such is the predicament of the leader who rose to power on the promise of changing the country and strengthening institutional democracy.

We seem to be witnessing a new phenomenon in Pakistani politics — a dangerous confluence of populism and occultism. While the government claims to act for the people, it has deviated significantly from even basic democratic norms. The Vawda phenomenon is a manifestation of a culture that negates pluralism and democratic tolerance. It is not surprising that the party leadership has never taken any action against the ministers who routinely display such uncivilised behaviour. In fact, it seems that the top leadership encourages their practices.

While in the opposition, Imran Khan had blamed corrupt politicians, mafias, and oligarchies for having appropriated power from the legitimate owners ie the people. He is using the same mantra to cover up his government’s ineptitude. He has used populism as a political tool to mobilise mass support. But like other populist leaders, he has failed to deliver on his promises. The PTI government’s policy on critical issues is vague and often contradictory.

Imran Khan’s populist slogans had worked because of our chronically infirm democratic process and weak institutions. But that may also go against a populist government failing to reverse the situation. Growing public discontent and increasing dissent in the ranks are a clear manifestation of the perils of populism.

Unlike in other countries where populist parties returned to power with an absolute majority, the PTI government has been in a disadvantageous position, and is dependent on disparate allies and the powerful security establishment. One of the PTI government’s biggest failures has been its inflexible approach, despite being a coalition government. Because of its stubbornness, the PTI has allowed the opposition greater space.

Given the current crisis of governance and ineptitude, the emerging cracks in the coalition are not surprising. Sensing that the government is now on a weak wicket, the allies have raised the stakes and are demanding a larger share in the pie. The situation in Punjab is particularly precarious with the coalition government surviving on a razor-thin majority.

There are ominous signs of the opposition parties, particularly the PML-N, bridging differences with the security establishment. Given the shifting sands of Pakistani politics, nothing can be ruled out. These are the perils of populism. But things become more complicated when this is mixed with occultist tendencies.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2020