SMOKERS' CORNER: WHEN RHETORICAL POWER BACKFIRES

Published August 15, 2021
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

According to a 1972 report in the Urdu newspaper Imroze, a group of factory workers in the town of Piplan in Punjab’s Mianwali district, was arrested by the police for urinating on the graves of some former mill owners of the area.

The arrested men raised slogans against the owners of the factory that they worked in, and told the police that the era of exploiters was over because a pro-workers’ government had come to power. 

 That government was of Z.A. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The PPP had fashioned itself as a populist socialist party, attracting support from students, workers and peasants, especially in Punjab and Sindh. Bhutto’s style of oratory and his rhetoric were a stark departure from how politicians were expected to behave and sound in Pakistan.

Special Report: The Triumph of Populism 1971-1973

Away from the public’s gaze, Bhutto often came across as being a well-read, thoughtful and cultivated man. But he would dramatically transform into becoming an unabashed source of animated populist rhetoric while speaking at public rallies. However, more important than how he spoke was what he spoke. He lashed out at his opponents, describing them as exploiters whose power he would shatter. He used common everyday-Urdu and insisted that, “he was the people and the people were him.”

In his 2007 book, The Labour Movement in Pakistan, Zafar A. Shaheed writes that, in 1972, excited by Bhutto’s inflammatory rhetoric, labour unions in Karachi began a series of strikes, demanding pay increases from factory owners. Ironically, it was PM Bhutto who ordered the police to forcibly break the strikes. 

Political rhetoric is referred to as ‘deliberative rhetoric’, where speakers apply Aristotelian rhetorical tools such as ethos and pathos. One aids them to come across as ethical personalities, while the other paints them as people who are fighting forces of exploitation.

Leaders often fail to anticipate just how damaging their amoral, politically motivated and cynical rhetoric can actually become

Political rhetoric is thus more about certain perceptions that the speaker wants to crystallise in the society’s psyche. One of the perceptions is about the self. People begin to perceive a leader through his or her rhetoric. 

But leaders who manage to come to power can become trapped by their own rhetoric, because staying in power requires pragmatism. Pragmatism demands actions that may contradict previous rhetoric. Nevertheless, supporters of the leader often take it upon themselves to maintain the perceptions triggered by the rhetoric, because it is important for their own interests. This can inadvertently put the leader on the spot.

Bhutto found himself in such a spot when pragmatism demanded that he break the strikes triggered by those who had understood him through his rhetoric. Bhutto also lambasted some central members of his own party for supporting the strike. He called them anarchists. 

Ideas and views of a leader change according to his or her needs. This detaches them from the perception that they had created of themselves. Therefore, the perception of Bhutto being a socialist mutated once he altered his views about the striking workers. Yet, the original perceptions survived and, on occasions, saw some segments of the society acting them out.

Read: What goes around: the movement against Bhutto

There was an increase in violence against minorities, women and among Islamic sects during the Gen Zia dictatorship in the 1980s. After taking over power in July 1977, Zia had positioned himself as being the harbinger of an ‘Islamic state’. But in truth, he was a pragmatist. He set out to monopolise a variation of political Islam that he wanted to use according to his political needs. However, this did not stop certain segments below from exercising violence motivated by the perceptions that Zia had weaved through his deliberative rhetoric. 

In 1986, when some members in Zia’s handpicked National Assembly wanted to table a bill to add the death penalty in the country’s blasphemy laws, Zia saw the move as coming from outside the theological domain that he had monopolised.

It is likely that, at the time, he didn’t see any political dividend coming from this. He had continued to add years of imprisonment and fines to the blasphemy laws, but kept dodging the introduction of the death penalty demanded by the ulema and political circles that his rhetoric had cultivated. Now trapped by his own rhetoric, he eventually allowed the bill to be tabled when a member of the assembly said “God will not forgive the government” for delaying the bill’s passage.

An increase in racial violence in Trump’s America and violence against Muslims in Modi’s India, increasing violence against gay people in Andrzej Duda’s Poland, etc., all bear the signs of deliberative rhetoric that built a perception which various segments of the society saw as a licence to commit certain unsavoury acts.

But often the trigger of such acts, the leader, wants to remain detached from the acts. Instead of confessing that the rhetoric has become problematic, he is likely to put the blame on the over-enthusiasm of some of his supporters, or even suggest that the acts were staged by his opponents to paint him as a fascist, racist or bigot. 

Recently, there has been a visible increase in violence against women in Pakistan. Initially, Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan blamed this on ‘inappropriate clothes’ worn by some women, even though violence of this kind has also been reported against children and women who wear the veil. 

Again, in this case too, it can be assumed that deliberative rhetoric from the top, dished out to attract support from conservative segments of the society, is being perceived by some as a licence to commit violence against women. The PM backtracked from his earlier stance when taken to task by critics. However, despite the fact that he eventually detached himself from his earlier rhetoric, the perception that he had created — of him being empathetic towards the (debunked) idea that rape occurs because of how women dress — had been established and taken forward by those who want to hold on to this perception. 

Not all of them end up committing violence against women, but many have been known to threaten women on the pretext embedded in PM Khan’s earlier rhetoric. 

Many heads of state and government continue to fail to anticipate just how damaging their amoral, politically motivated and cynical rhetoric can actually become. But even when they do realise, they only half-heartedly backtrack, because they don’t want to entirely alienate the constituency which their initial deliberative rhetoric had created.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 15th, 2021

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