The container, again

Published February 19, 2022
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

DID Mandi Bahauddin just witness the launch of official hostilities?

On Wednesday deep in the heart of Sharif territory of central Punjab, Prime Minister Imran Khan picked up his heavy battle axe and took a mighty swing. Standing up there, atop the famed container, the PM seemed like a man unchained from the suffocating limitations of his high office and relishing jumping back into the no-holds barred action of political warmongering. He was back on his hunting ground ready to prey on some big game. Khan the PM had transformed into Khan the scalp hunter.

The same man, the same container and the same narrative. So what is different between then and now? As it turns out, time.

Times they are a changin’, as a famous singer once said. In fact, they have already changed. Someone though forgot to tell the ruling party. Which explains why what made so much sense back then, is struggling to find traction now. Here then are five reasons why the PTI is losing the battle of narratives:

1. PTI is failing to realise that a government mandated to improve the lives of people cannot, after more than three years, make its opponents the focus of its narrative. The tirade against the Sharifs worked effectively when they were in power and Imran Khan was not. They were easy targets and Imran was a fierce attacker. The roars at every jalsa when he tore them to shreds with his words was evidence enough that people were rooting for the underdog against the heavyweights. But now times are different. PTI has to explain what it has done (or not done) with the mandate it got and how it has improved (or not improved) the lives of the people (and if not, then why not). If the PM and his ministers do not pivot back to the reality of what the electorate expects from them, their narrative will start to sputter.

The same man, the same container and the same narrative. So what is different between then and now?

2. PTI is failing to realise that a narrative that seeks to destroy the opponents while in opposition must acquire the ability to build itself up when in government. Among the multiple failures that the ruling party has experienced while in power, the most surprising (and damaging) one is its failure to communicate effectively what its government has done in terms of governance. So focused (and obsessed) has it been with the opposition that it forgot it was actually running the country. It allowed the opposition to define it instead of it defining itself. This is one reason why the ‘incompetence’ and ‘selected’ tags have stuck. The PTI failed to counter this by forcefully and skillfully showcasing its deeds as government (howsoever few they were). The failure will cost the party dearly as it prepares to go into campaign mode.

3. The party is failing to realise the corrosive impact of the growing gap between its narrative on accountability and its achievement. There was a reason why the slogan of accountability of the high and mighty resonated so loudly with Pakistani citizens. They were — and still are — sick and tired of the powerful getting away with blue murder while the average citizen suffers the brutality of law. Imran Khan was supposed to usher in such across-the-board accountability and that is why this narrative found so much traction. But the abysmal failure of this process these last three years has sucked the soul out of this narrative. Not only has the PTI not been able to hold to account those whom it accused of corruption, it has now shown through its own action (and inaction) that it was readily willing to look the other way when it came to holding those to account who are associated with it. The damage this has done to the narrative of accountability is incalculable. If the party now goes to the public with this line of argument — as the PM did in Mandi Bahauddin — it should prepare to see a tepid response.

4. PTI is failing to realise that generic accusations can fuel a narrative while in opposition but when you have been in government for more than three years, people expect you to provide specific evidence to substantiate the narrative. The PM on Friday in Mandi Bahauddin said almost the same things about his opponents that he said on some other Friday in 2017. Or 2015. Or even 2013. Repetition can only go so far. Especially since his government had had all these years to act upon those accusations. The fact that the ruling PTI has come up nearly empty, and that it has to resort to the same old same old accusations, and that it cannot delve into any specifics that could hold up in the court of law, means that the party’s narrative on this issue has begun to run on fumes. It may find traction among its core base, but this base is not large enough in terms of numbers to usher PTI back into power for another term. For that to happen, the party has to attract that part of the electorate which opted to vote for Imran Khan because of the logic heard so often in 2017/2018 that since we have tried everyone else, might as well try him also. Well, now they have.

5. The party is failing to realise that it has nothing new to promise anymore and that is a dangerous vacuum. Everything that it promised all these years has come to naught. Or nearly so. Explaining why you have failed, and finding justifications for such a failure is hardly the stuff that effective narratives are made of. What will the PTI do if it gets another term? If the answer is all those things that it said it would do in 2014, then why could it not do them? System at fault? Opposition at fault? People at fault?

A failure to recognise failure and acknowledge failure breeds a bigger failure.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter:****@fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2022

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