Cult Of Charisma

The charismatic prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto delivers a stirring address from a public rostrum, emblazoned above with the kalma and below with the slogan ‘Aaj bhi Bhutto jeetay ga’ in the mid-1970s. - Photo courtesy: DEMP Islamabad
The charismatic prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto delivers a stirring address from a public rostrum, emblazoned above with the kalma and below with the slogan ‘Aaj bhi Bhutto jeetay ga’ in the mid-1970s. - Photo courtesy: DEMP Islamabad

ON a Sunday night in an unusually warm Ramazan, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) supporters poured out onto the streets on the call of Imran Khan, the party head and former prime minister. The size and the mood of the April 2022 protests took nearly everyone by surprise.

A politician from the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) recounted a conversation with a colleague regarding what gathering a crowd means for their own party: call the MNA, who calls the MPAs, who then push the ones below them to get the people out. Busses have to be rented and paid for and so on. “Would we be able to issue a call and then just sit back,” one of them asked the other.

It was not just the opposition that felt under pressure. A PTI leader from Punjab said his constituents questioned him because they had not seen any pictures showing him facing the police or being teargassed during the long march. He was pointedly asked whether or not he was there to support Imran Khan.

There is no shortage of such stories these days. Is there a genuine movement for democracy that we see, or just a privileged and vocal Imran Khan fan club in action?

How Pakistani leaders arise from the crucible of economic change. They may not command an electoral majority but every one of them has had an outsized impact on the national polity.

In an effort to understand the PTI brand of politics, we have used and misused political terms. He is a transformational or charismatic leader for those who admire him, and a cultist or populist for his critics. Yet, if we take the value judgements out of those descriptions, what are we left with? A leader with a popular support base.

The phenomenon is easier to understand if, instead of the leader, one were to focus on the support base: why it exists and what brings it about. This is an approach that can and has helped make sense of the periods of change in the subcontinent from the time of Mohammad Ali Jinnah to the present.

Instead of leaders creating popular support, it is, in fact, the people who mark their leader. The real transformation is the socio-economic one, which then shapes politics. This is why Hamza Alavi is still relevant for having pointed out the link between the ‘salariat’ and the emergence of Pakistan.

He argued — unlike others, who focussed on the religious motives — that the salary-dependant class of Muslim government servants, the ‘salariat’, led the movement for Pakistan because they thought to gain from it. This educated class, which was dependant on state jobs rather than inherited land or physical labour for a living, was initially created as a result of the colonial state. But as it was also dependant on the state for its future, the fear that it would lose out on its fair share of jobs pushed it to support an independent country for the Muslims of the subcontinent.

This is not to say that religion was not a factor; it was. But it was socio-economic change which created a new class of citizens, who then backed the movement for a separate state and found in Jinnah a leader who could lead it to success.

That Jinnah was once the greatest proponent of Hindu-Muslim unity, or that he left the Congress because he was not in favour of populist politics, or that he was more comfortable in English than the languages spoken in Bengal or Punjab or even by the would-be Karachiites were side issues. He personified the change brought about by colonial rule and was best placed to stake claim on behalf of all those who had a dream for a separate homeland. Once Jinnah decided to lead the movement, he was savvy enough to understand the importance of optics. Hence, the decision to exchange Savile Row suits for a sherwani, and speeches in Urdu even if he was not fluent or comfortable.

He eventually led a minority to independence and a new country, creating history in the process. In doing so, he seems to have set a pattern for politics in Pakistan: in purely electoral terms, those who emerge in the land of the pure as popular leaders tend usually to enjoy the support of a minority. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was perhaps the only exception for he led a numerical majority in East Pakistan against a powerful minority in West Pakistan. But this was an exception, not the rule.

By and large, the trend that has propped up again and again in Pakistani politics entails socio-economic change which is followed by urban protests, and a popular leader is chosen by the people, who may not necessarily be supported by the majority of the voters.

The populist Bhutto

It took 25 years after Jinnah for Pakistan to experience the second popular wave brought about, again, through socio-economic changes wrought by a regime far from being democratic and legitimate.

The rapid economic transformation under Ayub Khan’s government led to considerable socio-economic change. Industrialisation and land reforms led to the emergence of industrial workers, a peasantry and left-wing students who not only felt empowered enough to want a better life, but also marginalised within the status quo.

As one account puts it, “... two groups of people were affected considerably: disenchanted landlords, who suffered relatively compared to the industrialists … and a new petty bourgeoisie, mainly professionals, and a fairly large middle peasant, who raised their expectations under the Green Revolution of the Punjab … It was in this background that Bhutto formed a new alliance of landlords, petty bourgeoisie and young radicals …”

That Bhutto was able to become the face of this changing society, even though he had not been the one to set the ball rolling, was a sort of parallel to Jinnah’s story in the sense that they both left their former leanings and shifted to the other sides; from Congress to the League, and from pro-Ayub to anti-Ayub. In doing so, Bhutto formed the Pakistan People’s Party, to fill the void that had been repeatedly pointed out by left-leaning individuals and groups.

Just as Jinnah’s time in the Congress had given him a stature and profile that the others lacked in the League, Bhutto’s time under Ayub before he became his harshest critic had given him a kind of stature which perhaps the more ideologically committed people lacked.

Like Jinnah, Bhutto wooed and won over a minority in a larger nation, leading to a fracture and a redrawing of borders. But whereas Jinnah ensured an independent state for his minority, Bhutto formed a government because the majority, led by Mujib, seceded and formed its own state.

Bhutto did not live for long, but the people whose dreams and aspirations he gave voice to continued to hope and believe in him. Aitzaz Ahsan tells the story of Shukardin, a landless peasant from Gujrat. During the 1977 election, Ahsan and others were discussing how to counter Chaudhry Zahoor Elahi, who in a recent jalsa in Gujrat had attacked Bhutto, among other things, for being privileged and using a plane while he claimed to speak for the poor. Shukardin tried to interject, but was shushed each time. Finally, when Ahsan turned to Shukardin and encouraged him to give his point of view, he said, “Bhutto san awaaz diti ae, shanakht diti ae” (he has given us a voice, an identity). No one heard our voice before, but we can now stand up in front of the deputy commissioner and the commissioner, he added. For the poor man, this was enough to vindicate Bhutto and counter any criticism of the politician. A short story which encapsulates those times and Bhutto’s place in them.

This belief in Bhutto led his daughter, Benazir, to three more victories in Punjab, though in the midst of this, the socio-economic changes brought about under Gen Ziaul Haq, another military dictator, led to the emergence of another leader.

An unlikely leader

Nawaz Sharif, like Bhutto, cut his teeth in politics during a dictatorship — but unlike him, he was not the obvious choice as a popular leader. Initially part of a motley crew of politicians and parties brought together in 1988 as a counterforce to the PPP, he was eventually able to emerge as the one man capable of challenging Benazir’s popularity in Punjab. Uncomfortable in the limelight, a poor speaker and with none of the charisma one associates with the Bhuttos, he was an unlikely contender; though, like those who came before him, he too first swung into power despite not having won over a majority.

Over time, he found his groove and became the face of the force opposing Benazir and her PPP in the biggest province of the country. He was able to do this because, once again, rapid development under a military dictator had changed Punjab, and its newly emerging classes found a leader in Nawaz.

Coupled with the development was the impact of the oil-rich Gulf states, which had attracted labour from Pakistan. The growing Islamisation by Zia, funded to a large extent by the money flowing in from the Gulf states, as well as remittances due to labour migration, led to the emergence of a conservative, religious merchant class. This formed the support base for Nawaz and his faction of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), squeezing the space for the PPP.

Nawaz’s leadership remained more limited than Bhutto’s or even Imran Khan’s, for it never really crossed provincial borders and was concentrated around GT Road. Was this because of his party’s initial self-identification as Punjabi to counter Benazir, or because of the sheer numbers in central Punjab, which made it complacent?

For Umair Javed, who teaches at LUMS, “Nawaz’s social popularity originates from his social conservatism (Muslim, but in a very culturally grounded way that appeals to lower middle-class voters), latent Punjabi ethnic nationalism, and the perception that he knows how to ‘manage’ the public bureaucracy.”

Nawaz never really towered over the national landscape in the same manner as did the Bhuttos, and consequently was more comfortable forming alliances with smaller, nationalist parties.

Around the same time, the country also witnessed the rise of another populist: Altaf Hussain. The flamboyant speaker captured the Urdu-speaking vote in Sindh’s urban areas and in time became a key player in national politics. His hold on his followers was closer in a sense to that of Bhutto. He was a leader chosen by a people who felt threatened socio-economically, and felt they deserved more. If the Ayub period had shifted the capital away from Karachi, setting off their fears of alienation, the quota system introduced by Bhutto and the Sindhi Language Act had added to their sense of deprivation.

Altaf was able to not just give voice to their fears, but also convince them that ethnic cohesion combined with an aggressive posture would lead to a better future. Altaf, like Bhutto, mobilised the students on politically active campuses. Between Altaf and Nawaz, the PPP was faced with a new political leadership that would make the 1990s as much their decade as it was Benazir’s.

However, within a decade, this new, younger generation of leaders gave way to another military dictatorship and another period of rapid growth led by easy money flowing in thanks to troubles inside Afghanistan. By the time Gen Pervez Musharraf was in the twilight of his rule, another spate of urban protests, joined by the burgeoning middle class fostered by his tenure, confronted him.

If Bhutto found support from left-wing students and trade unions, those at the forefront in 2006-07 were young students, members of a growing middle class, and members of the legal fraternity. Once Musharraf was removed, the traditional parties could not offer much to this urban class which in any case had few memories of, say, Benazir for any sense of nostalgia or hope. The old order was not for them.

Return of the familiar

Imran Khan hurls challenges from his container rostrum against the PMLN government during his protest in Islamabad in 2014. (Courtesy: White Star Photo) - Photo: Tanveer Shahzad
Imran Khan hurls challenges from his container rostrum against the PMLN government during his protest in Islamabad in 2014. (Courtesy: White Star Photo) - Photo: Tanveer Shahzad

This left the space open for Imran Khan, a well-known and familiar character critical of the old order and equipped with the communication skills and techniques familiar to the post-Musharraf generation. He was the choice of the urban classes.

He appealed to this emerging group as Bhutto had once done to those disenchanted with Ayub. In both, the people found a leader who was willing to reach out. Bhutto’s oratory skills are often mentioned, but less so is the fact that he travelled extensively all around the country to mobilise people at a time when it was not so routine. Khan, over the years, may have had to improve his speaking skills, but he was the first to realise the importance of social media in reaching out. He used new media to reach out to a generation more comfortable with TikTok than newspapers.

This is a generation comprising the comfortable middle class which wants a more equal relationship with its leadership than one of respectful distance. It includes the young, educated men working in shops and hotels who want to have a better life. If they are educated, they may not have a job; if they have a job, they want a better one. They are the motorbike riders stopped routinely by police as the big cars zoom by.

In cities, such as Islamabad, they are the young men working in small stores whose bosses tend to support the PML-N. Many of them are migrants who have settled in cities, and, hence, are not bound by the biradari or community links which may determine their voting choices.

As Bilal Gilani wrote recently, “The current revolt centres around three key segments of the population: youth (18-30-year-olds), the internet connected, and those with FA or above education. Numerous surveys … show that support for the PTI revolt is significantly more pronounced in these three segments.”

The ecosystem in Pakistan has not delivered to them. When Khan threatens to bring it down, he is voicing their rage. Once again, his support base may not lead to an electoral majority, but then that is what Pakistani history has been about: leaders who ride a minority crest to power.

There are two additional factors working in PTI’s favour. First, The absence of a national-level popular leader since the assassination of Benazir has allowed Khan to fill that vacuum. He is the only one among the current crop who can comfortably address large crowds in province after province, moving from Peshawar to Karachi to Lahore — a feat once limited to the Bhutto family.

Second, recent events have allowed the PTI to sweep KP. The rapid growth in the province, (according to a recent UNDP report, it grew faster than the rest of Pakistan during the Musharraf period) and the brutal assassination of the traditional political elite of the province at the hand of the TTP in the post-2007 period have allowed Khan to capture the province’s imagination and dominate it politically.

Once again, it is the change and the emergence or strengthening of a class which has led to the rise of a new leader, who has then moulded themselves to offer what the people want. That he has no ideology or programme to offer is a global phenomenon. There are no counter-narratives to capitalism, which, at the moment, has few answers itself. Hence, we see the rise of leaders the world over without any strategy or vision or plan, because they provide hope or simply the optics of change to a besieged people looking to just be rid of the old order, which they find inequitable.

That once again it is the urban, educated class which has led to the emergence of a leader is even more evident if one looks beyond Khan. The post-Musharraf period has seen similar phenomena outside of the mainstream as well. The insurgency in Balochistan, too, as has been pointed out again and again, is being led by a young, educated Baloch youth which does not look up to tribal leaders. This is why the violence refuses to end despite state efforts to co-opt the sardars and even the nationalist leadership in the province for over a decade.

Similarly, in what was once known as Fata, it is Manzoor Pashteen and other young, educated men around him, who have provided leadership to a young generation angry at their displacement and suffering. Despite not having gotten the kind of support and patronage provided to PTI, they have flourished because the anger of their supporters is genuine.

If seen as part of a larger trend in Pakistan, what is being witnessed is the change being forced upon an insular political system by its young, urban population which is alienated not just from the political leadership, but the entire edifice, be it economic, political, judicial. The challenge before the state and society is to end their alienation, politically and socially, from Waziristan to Khuzdar to Karachi. The leadership it throws up, whether it is palatable or not, is a symptom —not the problem itself.

The writer is a journalist.

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