As things get bleaker on various fronts in Pakistan, those responsible for stemming the tide have become jokes that write themselves.

For instance, a provincial minister of health inaugurates a large fast food outlet in Peshawar. A ‘showbiz’ personality and lifestyle liberal is invited by the Anti-Narcotics Force to destroy hundreds of bottles of alcoholic beverages. The president of Pakistan shares a YouTube video on Covid-19 which is removed by YouTube for spreading disinformation. And the prime minister blames vulgarity as a prominent reason for rape, and is scolded by one of his former wives.

Silly antics and outrageous statements are largely a thing with populists. This also includes blurting outright lies. And the lies are not only vocal, they can be acts as well. In 2019, the British author Catherine Fieschi wrote, “populist lying is designed to be seen.” According to Fieschi, “liberals have virtue signalling, populists have outrage signalling. This is the politics of appealing to the gut over the brain.”

Read: Populism and Pakistan

Populists want to portray themselves as being ‘authentic.’ Of course, authenticity in this regard does not mean being truthful. To populists, it means ‘being like the common folk’. If so, then does this mean that common folk too are silly, ignorant and not very truthful? Populists certainly believe so. Is this perhaps why, despite all their blunders, lies, gaffes and silly antics, populists are still adored by a lot of people? 

Conventional politics and political norms seem distant and too impersonal to most people. This distance is perceived by some as a suspicious quietness, an indication that something is being hidden from the public. As a consequence, various sources of ‘information’ emerge. They claim to have ‘exposed’ all that was being hidden. This is what caused a boom in the conspiracy theory industry. 

The existentialist crisis of the largely apolitical generation that grew up under Musharraf’s regime can only be addressed through opportunism — a conjoining of their amoral impulses with moral pretensions

Before Donald Trump’s presidency, conspiracy theorists were largely understood as ‘nuts’, existing on the fringes of society. But the nuts began to turn up in their thousands at Trump rallies. Indeed, the classic conspiracy nuts did exist on the fringes. But the more disconcerting revelation was that there were many who actually lived normal lives and did not wear aluminum hats. Classic or not, nut or normal, most of them saw in Trump an ‘authentic’ person. Someone who had disturbed the sinister quietness of conventional politics.

Many of Trump’s supporters saw themselves in him: brash, suspicious, anti-intellectual, outrageous. Things they were or, on most occasions, secretly wanted to be. However, when populists do manage to come to power, they feel restrained, because now they have to do some actual work. Boring work. Unable to fulfil their outrageous promises, they end up behaving in a sillier and more outrageous manner. And their lies become even whiter.

Over the last decade, this has happened in various countries. In Pakistan, a whole generation had grown up between the late 1990s and late 2000s that was largely apolitical. In one ear of this generation, a feel-good military regime (Gen Musharraf’s), continuously demonised politics and politicians.

In its other ear, were sermons of the growing numbers of equally feel-good Islamist evangelical groups, instructing how one could continue to receive the fruits of amoral economic and social activity without compromising one’s ‘spiritual’ and moral obligations. For this generation, amorality and morality were conjoined. 

No wonder then, when Imran Khan finally stepped on to the big stage, the aforementioned generation could see itself in him. Khan’s rallies were attended by lifestyle liberals and ‘moderate’ youth. At Khan’s rallies, there would be song and dance. Then Khan would appear. He would spend the first minutes reciting verses from Islam’s sacred scriptures, projecting them all back on his ‘great mission’, of course. He would explain this mission as a sacred calling. A disc jockey (DJ) at the rallies would slip in some operatic music to add background atmospherics. 

Then song and dance would break out again during the actual speech, with the DJ now punctuating the speech with funkier stuff. Khan would speak like a loud, all-knowing uncle, surrounded by young people in a drawing room, all in awe of the man’s knowledge.

The knowledge bit, however, never went beyond the usual stuff spread across standard Islamiat and Pakistan Studies textbooks. Knowledge was also about ‘exposing’ the existence of sinister ‘mafias’ ruining the country’s economy and moral fibre.

Another intriguing thing that began to happen in Pakistan (as well as in India) was the enthusiastic manner in which showbiz celebrities began to hail ideas that can be easily turned against them. Rabid Hindu nationalists in Modi’s India are actively playing the morality card against Bollywood. But the more this card is played, the more Indian celebrities become vocal in their praise for Hindu nationalist shenanigans. 

In Pakistan, celebrities, most of whom were avowedly apolitical, suddenly began to portray Khan as some kind of a messiah. Of course, they had little or no clue about the country’s politics and history. Their fields and professions did not require it. They learned politics and history primarily from Khan’s speeches. On numerous occasions, Khan has proven that politics and, especially, history, are not his strongest points. But it was the aforementioned conjoining that Khan offered, which attracted the celebrities.

As expected, Khan began to slide too much to the right. From a dashing crusader against corruption, he became a finger-wagging moralist. Many celebrities decided to follow suit. Let’s take the most recent ones.

A ‘handsome’ middle-aged actor gladly attended that ridiculous annual ritual of dumping alcoholic beverages, but then conveniently attended a showy New Year’s bash.  A ‘daring’ model started to wear the hijab and fire tweets against ‘Westernised’ women, only to become daringly dressed again and claim she didn’t know who was running her Twitter account. It is as if Khan’s government and celebrities are now part of a theatre of the absurd.  

Most of today’s celebrities belong to the aforementioned generation. Their existentialist crisis, it seems, can only be addressed through amoral intents punctuated with moral pretences, and utter opportunism dressed in the most clichéd notions of idealism and patriotism. The conjoining.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 9th, 2022

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