THERE is something simmering underneath the political crisis unfolding in front of our eyes. Let’s do a deep dive.
Imran Khan’s supporters can see no wrong in what he says or does. We have witnessed this phenomenon unfurl itself like a lazy python these last few years, but more so with greater intensity during Khan’s pre- and post-ouster days. On display is a textbook case of blind devotion. Such devotion entails a deliberate — or perhaps subconscious — suspension of critical thinking. Only mass hysteria can explain absolute rejection of facts and a willing embrace of free-flying rhetoric untethered by verifiable information.
And yet, does this really make sense?
Bounce this explanation off actual people around you — friends, families, acquaintances — and you start to feel uncomfortable with the laziness of the explanation.
On your left, for instance, is the professor with a doctorate in natural sciences from one of the top universities in the world, someone whose entire educational foundation and career is based on the power of empirical evidence and scientific rationalism — and here he is hysterically arguing why the PTI deputy speaker’s violation of the constitution is no big deal. On your right is the top executive of a multinational company with an MBA from an Ivy League school, someone whose training and practice of craft is based on hard data crunched with power of sharp logic — and here he is frothing at the mouth in delirium while yelling that the Joe Biden administration actually conspired with the entire top leadership of the PDM to topple Imran Khan.
These are rational people, you remind yourself. You have known them for years, and admired them for their academic and professional achievements — perhaps even been motivated by their pursuit of success — and yet you see them experiencing a strange quasi-psychedelic meltdown in full public glare. It just does not add up.
What we are witnessing is a seminal moment in our political evolution — progressive or regressive is a matter of personal perspective.
It is not just these metaphorical persons — resembling many real ones in all our lives, as it so happens — but hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis from all walks of life locked inside a massive groupthink spurred by sweeping generalisations dressed up as political narrative. No argument, no logic and no rationale — no, nothing makes sense, and nothing is acceptable or even worth considering if it does not gel perfectly with their preconceived notions.
What we are witnessing is a seminal moment in our political evolution — progressive or regressive is a matter of personal perspective — and this moment is situated bang in the centre of a social and political transformation so impactful that it could define the shape of our society for the years ahead.
In an acutely polarised environment, it is easy to pass judgement on those sitting across the fence. Most of us yield to this temptation. When we do, we help reinforce caricatures that have little resemblance to people around us, and these fail to explain why people believe what they believe.
So why do such a large number of people believe what they believe even when overwhelming evidence points towards the opposite conclusion? In our context, this may be due in part to the visceral politicisation of the national discourse and the deep personal loathing of rivals that the PTI has injected into what should otherwise be a contest of ideas and ideologies. At the heart of this is the revulsion against the system because it has not really delivered what it exists to deliver: improving the lives of citizens through protection of rights and provision of services. It is therefore easy and convenient to blame the system, and in turn all those institutions that constitute the system as a whole.
Imran Khan has modelled himself well as the anti-system crusader. He insists very persuasively that he has neither been co-opted nor corrupted by the system; that when he says he wants to change this system, it implies that there is nothing sacrosanct about the system, or for that matter, about the exalted institutions that make up the system. He has been able to establish this narrative successfully because the central theme of his narrative is, in fact, true: the system has not delivered.
But the argument is only half done here. The other half is perhaps even more crucial — diagnosing why it has not delivered. It is here that Imran Khan goes off tangent. And he does so not just in terms of his solutions, but his own shockingly weak performance as the prime minister who had it all but could not do much with it. In fact, after nearly four years in power, and having precious little to show for them, Imran has for all practical purposes joined the long line of those who are, in fact, responsible for the sad reality that the system has not delivered.
But someone forgot to break this news to the PTI supporters.
In essence then, if Pakistani society wants to row itself back from this stage where the electorate is at war with itself on a battlefield littered with semi-truths, partial facts and outright lies, it will need to face up to a bitter fact: what we see unfolding in front of us is the contamination of decades of social and educational decay injected with deadly and potent steroids of propaganda, brainwashing and ‘otherisation’ of anyone who looks, speaks, acts or believes differently.
Those social studies books you read in school and thought you would outgrow — well, now you know how wrong you were?
In this cesspool, everyone points fingers at everyone else when no one really has the right to do so. Seven decades of wrong governance laced with wrong priorities and fuelled by wrong policies have led us to a stage today where traditional parties cannot stomach the aspirations of a new generation, and new parties cannot digest the requirements of what constitutes governance, statecraft and institutional equilibrium within a democratic society.
And you thought holding elections was our biggest problem today. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
The writer is a journalist & political commentator.
Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2022