According to a survey conducted by the Paris-based research firm Ipsos in November this year, a majority of Pakistanis believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Analysts are interpreting this as an indictment against the performance of the PTI-led coalition government.

The economy is in shambles, inflation is in a runaway mode, and political polarisation has intensified. An air of uncertainty has engulfed politics. The government, the opposition, and the military and judicial establishments, all seem to be have taken a position of self-preservation, not knowing exactly who stands where and with whom. 

There is no element of surprise in the results of the survey. Even before they were published, many voters who had cast their ballot in favour of Imran Khan’s PTI, had begun to confess that they had made a mistake. These included some prominent TV journalists as well. 

Read: Rule without governance

Despite the signs of the downward trend in matters of governance and economics appearing just months after the formation of Khan’s regime, these gentlemen were vehemently defending Khan till only recently.

Various political commentators had understood Khan’s rise to power as a fanciful experiment, initiated by the military establishment with the aid of the judicial establishment. Indeed, it won’t be far-fetched to suggest that Khan was a product of the rising tensions between the above-mentioned segments of the statist elite and the civilian ruling elite, made up largely of the centrist PML-N and the PPP.  

Ironically, even though aided by the statist elites, Khan — like most populists — positioned his party and himself as crusaders against all kinds of elites, which he described as ‘corrupt mafias’. Yet he unabashedly allowed the entry of so-called ‘electables’ into his party, during the 2018 elections. Many of these were hardened members of the ‘corrupt’ electoral politics which Khan despised. Many were also part of parties which Khan was denouncing as mafias. 

Most of the time, truth and trust go hand in hand. But during times of crises, truth and trust can become two different entities, and people tend to believe the trusted populist leader, who could well be lying to their face

On the other hand, aware that Khan and his party lacked federal experience in matters of governance, the establishment provided a plethora of technocrats to him. This move did not work because it suffered from a contradiction. Populism has an inherent suspicion of technocrats. To populists, technocrats are the worst kind of ‘elites’ and they scoff at technocrats for being dispassionate opposites of the impulsive and emotional extroversion of populism. 

Many recent episodes from around the world, in which populists succeeded to come to power, have provided ample evidence to conclude that populism can be an effective tool to gather impulsive political traction and even a cult-like following. But once in power, and faced with the realities of governance, populists stumble.

Populists put a lot of effort into shaping a ‘heroic’ image of themselves. But the tactics that they use for this, such as optics, fiery rhetoric and ‘revolutionary’ posturing, are completely at odds with what is actually required to run a competent government. Therefore, the result of this (for populists in power) is a daunting existential crisis. 

This is especially true for PM Khan and his PTI, who became part of a so-called ‘hybrid system’, in which they had to follow the lead of statist elites and technocrats. Unable anymore to continue flexing their populist credentials, PTI has slipped into an identity crisis. It has no clue what it stands for anymore.

PTI’s incompetence as a ruling party stems from its reluctance to formulate ways through which it can make its populist image come to terms with the sobering realities of being in power. The populism that the party still tries to retain now seems like an unintentional self-parody.

What Khan and his party misses the most is how easily they were once trusted — mostly by the urban middle-classes. But how did they achieve this? A recent study by Joseph Marks and Stephen Martin posits that, in times of political or economic crises, people tend to trust ‘hard messengers’. 

According to Marks and Martins, there is a difference between trustfulness and truth, at least in this context. Their study demonstrates that, in times of crises, “the messenger becomes the message.” What this means is that, even when a politician is lying and people impacted by a crisis know this, they still trust him because of his rhetorical flourish, passionate demeanour and charisma. The messenger becomes the message.

Marks and Martins derived their findings from how supporters of pro-Brexit leaders, such as Boris Johnson in the UK and Trump voters in the US, formulated their voting decisions. There was always enough evidence to claim that Johnson and Trump were never beacons of truthfulness, yet a majority of their supporters exhibited more trust in them than in their opponents. 

Economic or political anxiety produce this separation between trust and truth. In such a scenario, many people trust a ‘dominant messenger’, even when that messenger is quite clearly not very truthful.

But what if the nature of a crisis is not as intense as required by a populist to achieve a breakthrough? Then it is created. Those campaigning for Brexit turned it into a question of British national identity which, they warned, was being eroded by multiculturalism, migrants and the overbearing policies of the European Union. The deep-seated fear of ‘the other’ in ‘white Britain’ was tapped and brought out. This saw a large number of white British citizens voting to leave the EU, thinking this would revive Britain’s lost glories. The immigration issue was magnified as an invasion of sorts, almost creating a sense of panic in the voters. There was little or no truth in what the Brexit leaders were claiming. Yet, they became the ‘dominant messengers.’ 

Even in the US, similar tactics were used by Trump to create moral panic. Tense ‘culture wars’ helped create this. On one side, an ‘Alt-Right’ emerging from an almost cartoonish potpourri of old working-class political ethos and romanticised yearnings for the happier days of racial segregation. On the other, a ‘left’ that had more in common with the pop culture and relativist postmodernist posturing than with Marx or class struggle. 

Various political economists have repeatedly demonstrated that the economy was recovering rather well during the third PML-N regime. But, in 2014, a perception of a serious existentialist crisis was created by Khan. On a psychological and emotional level, his message was that ‘corrupt political mafias’ were out to fleece the decent middle-classes.

Even though he dished out ‘facts’ and ‘figures’ to substantiate this, these were constantly debunked. But many of his supporters were unmoved. Truth was not important. Trust was. And he looked trustworthy, even if what he was saying was largely gibberish.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 5th, 2021

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