Anatomy of a cult

Published April 26, 2022
The writer is the founder chairman of Dialogue: Pakistan, a local think tank.
The writer is the founder chairman of Dialogue: Pakistan, a local think tank.

“AND so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,/ And then from hour to hour we rot and rot,/And thereby hangs a tale.” That, in the words of the Bard, is the story of life and the world.

It is certainly — as the country moves from convulsion to convulsion — the story of Pakistan. With every change of government, we ask ourselves: will there at last be some respite? Of course, there will always be naysayers, prophets of doom, assuring us that if things were intolerable before they are not necessarily going to be rosier in the present. The intractability of the issues he faces, such as that of the oil subsidy, aside, the present prime minister has been, for instance, damned for being ‘dynastic’ almost before taking office.

Read: The Khan myth

Polarisation is not perhaps — at least not quite in such blanket fashion as is being claimed — the single ill of the hour. Nor is the critical state of the economy. Those are fairly obvious givens of the national predicament. There is no doubt that much damage has been done by the previous incumbent and his equally inexperienced crew and that the present prime minister’s job will be essentially one of damage control.

The facts, along with their reasons, should not, however, be ignored. At the time of his own assumption of office, Imran Khan was a mere political novice with little more than goodwill and an outstanding record of social work to offer the people by way of credentials. And the PTI found itself from the start confronting a rather unusual situation where it was expected to dismantle existing systems and deliver new ones overnight. As a result, Khan and his men were forced into the somewhat bizarre position of becoming revolutionaries without a cause except —notably — that of retaining power.

Cultism militates against human liberty.

Good or bad, there was a reality and credibility to the old order —that of the Bhuttos and the Sharifs — whereas the new order was a mere myth, which had to be concocted on the spur of the moment to woo the people. ‘Naya Pakistan’ had no more substance than that of the PTI’s high-sounding manifesto but nevertheless struck a chord with the disillusioned masses. Inevitably, then, the country was faced with an impossible vacuum of power, with worse to follow.

Read: Naya Pakistan report card — The hits and misses of PTI's clipped term in power

Given the unpopularity of the two traditionally entrenched parties, the PPP and PML-N, Khan settled, with native cunning, for an ingenious theatrical solution. The cricketing icon, adored by millions for his game, decided to play the role of ‘Nemesis’ of the ‘high and mighty’ of the country and also become, as he later did, the ‘Saviour’ of the people.

Accountability became the new shibboleth and was, as a departure from tradition this time round, ‘for real’. The ploy was masterly, without a doubt. NAB was vested with more sweeping powers than ever before. The populace and disgruntled elements in civil society alike crowed at the spectacle of the Bhuttos and the Sharifs and their party stalwarts being interrogated, incarcerated and humbled on a virtually daily basis.

Punitive measures against political opponents are not uncommon in Third World countries. But, besides gagging the media and plunging a knife into the heart of social relations, Khan had nothing very much to offer the country except for — against a bleak perspective of soaring inflation and a downgraded rupee —entirely nebulous promises of a better future.

Read: Muzzling the media

Populist ploys such as the Single National Curriculum and fairly primal anti-Western rhetoric, especially in the wake of the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, did not expressly breed greater nationalism but, instead, merely added to Pakistan’s sequestration from the global community while speaking of Khan’s own growing solipsism.

Fascism is a political aberration with which our fragile democracy is ill-equipped to cope. To allow it to take root and grow and become a pressing inner need will be to threaten the very life of the state. The proclivity is one that exists anyway in what Jung refers to as the collective unconscious and surfaces, for instance, in the shape of mass hysteria in times of war. Khan’s followers should understand that cultism, taken beyond a certain degree, merely militates against human liberty and dignity, besides running counter to the spirit of Islam and Pakistan. When a matinee idol acquires a messianic status, it becomes something of a matter for concern.

Khan will have only himself to blame if is party is outlawed. Comparisons with the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto will not hold. Neither was preaching a doctrine of hate. Their capacity for drawing crowds of a magnitude such as Pakistan had never before seen can be said to have been due to their electrifying presence and a clear and cogent message for the downtrodden of the country. Their call was not just for political and social emancipation but for freedom as a deeper, psychical phenomenon.

The writer is the founder chairman of Dialogue: Pakistan, a local think tank.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2022

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