IT is not unprecedented in Pakistan’s history for a government to blame internal crises on external forces. Yet Prime Minister Imran Khan’s claim that the no-confidence move against him is a foreign conspiracy is novel and builds upon a rhetoric that can only be described as self-obsessed.
Usually states craft propaganda to cover their weaknesses or hide the facts; they rarely believe in it themselves and see it more as a means to secure their own interests. In most cases, power elites generate such propaganda for the public’s consumption. Power elites think that a positive narrative is essential to project a good image of the country and to boost the confidence of its citizens. But such glowing narratives are aimed more at safeguarding self-glory, which outside powers are seen to threaten.
Many in Pakistan think that such a belief in one’s own glory can be safeguarded and sustained through a charismatic leadership, which would protect not only the ideological foundations of the country but also the interests of the Muslim world. According to their logic, the public must believe that such leadership remains the victim of international conspiracies.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken the idea of ‘positive narrative’ to another level altogether, in order to build up his image as the victim of an international conspiracy. This is a tricky move, and one that neither the opposition nor the establishment can debunk outright as a fallacy, because to do so would lead to them being labelled as collaborators in the conspiracy.
The prime minister has taken the idea of ‘positive narrative’ to another level altogether.
He may gain some political capital through such a move, but it can have adverse consequences, mainly for the country’s relationship with the US and the West. Nor will such a move help the prime minister hide the PTI-led government’s failures in managing the affairs of the state. Such statements may not please the friends of Pakistan either, such as China that assesses the attitude and behaviour of the leadership very carefully, and might have already noticed that our leaders can put bilateral ties at stake for temporary political gains.
The irony is that the faulty narratives of state institutions, crafted and promoted for boosting the image of the country, become counterproductive when not used delicately. For one, militants and extremists exploit the same narratives for their own gains and to malign the state. They thrive on conspiracy theories and use their version of religion to justify their violent cause against democratic institutions, in the belief that the whole world is against what they stand for. It is a situation where the establishment supports their religious narrative against democracy, but the militants consider the establishment to be a major hurdle in the way of their cause.
Weak economies suffer more because of their vague conceptions of governance, the economy and diplomacy. They believe in simplistic solutions; it is instant charisma, rather than the road to reform, that attracts them. Superstition and conspiracy theories stay one step ahead of rationality. Charisma thrives on notions of superiority. Societies have various levels of superiority complexes, which remain less harmful until they start breeding narcissism. In the case of an individual, this can cause more damage to societies as they start believing in their own indispensability.
Externalisation is another related phenomenon. It springs into action when all other strategies fail. Such approaches can provide an escape from responsibility but cannot remedy the problems that bad policies generate.
The PTI government claims it was pursuing an independent foreign policy, which is a utopian concept in an interdependent world, where interests matter and affairs are settled on the principles of give and take.
The prime minister is trying to project that the no-confidence move against him stems from his independent foreign policy. Foreign policy experts believe otherwise. Many assert that our foreign policy today faces its worst hurdle ever in the history of Pakistani diplomacy. CPEC is slowing down. Relationships with Riyadh, Ankara, Tehran and other important capitals are not as cordial as they once were.
It is interesting how the prime minister is trying to build his political capital on a weak diplomatic wicket by externalising his failures. His address to the nation on Thursday can be seen as an exercise in political narcissism and an attempt to divert attention from the real issues of the day. There can be no doubt that the public persona of leaders matters, and people and nations prefer one leader over another. But it cannot be called charisma when it relates more to self-glory and not true public interest.
Donald Trump had a tricky profile and as with other countries he had a liking and a dislike for Pakistan, depending on the situation. Mr Khan was comfortable with him. But President Biden is not Trump and he kept the prime minister waiting for his call. This would have certainly contributed to his anger towards the US. A lot is available regarding America’s interference and its favourites and non-favourites in Pakistan, but the nature of bilateral relationships is always different because often both sides find common ground for cooperation, despite conflicting interests. During a public interaction with the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton some years ago in Islamabad, a woman described America as Pakistan’s impossible-to-please mother-in-law. This argument amused everyone in the hall, but it also explains a lot about the complexities that exist in the bilateral relationship.
However, Prime Minister Khan’s overplay with a diplomatic cable is purely political and an indication of his future course of agitational politics. It may not exacerbate the already tense bilateral relationship with the US, but it can strengthen narratives based on conspiracy theories and intensify extremist tendencies, which thrive on such narratives of external interference, in society. His anti-US politics in future will be more damaging to the establishment as it will highlight the latter’s role in national politics and foreign relations.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2022