Question of age

Published August 16, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

UNDOUBTEDLY, it was a big birthday bash. Though Aug 14 fell on Sunday, the celebrations had begun shortly before midnight a day earlier. Apart from the lights and people on the roads, it was also a night of much political activity — the PTI was holding its rally in Lahore, the TLP was holding one in Faizabad, and parliament was also holding a late-night session. In between all this, the prime minister, too, made an appearance for a nationwide address.

There was considerable activity, and perhaps befittingly for the 75th independence anniversary. It was an occasion where less just could not be more. As the commemorations commenced, the images on television did not simply signify celebrations but also competing visuals of political parties and their cultures, underlining once again what is being offered to the people.

Obviously, the most attention was paid to the PTI jalsa, not just because the party itself builds a hype around the number of people it will attract but also because those watching seem to have convinced themselves that each jalsa crowd is somehow going to make or break the plans of those who cannot be named. And between the party’s subliminal messages and our own assumptions, the rather familiar images take on a larger-than-life stature.

But on Saturday night, as the evening progressed, it became about more than just the PTI and its popularity. As the events rolled along on TV screens, it became a smorgasbord of what the various parties offered and how it may appear to the people.

Those sitting in government were not even celebrating with the people.

On the one end was the Lahore jalsa, a rather lengthy affair which ended with an hour-long speech by Imran Khan, in which he said little that was new. But overall, the event was a visual spectacle — colourful, energetic, and quite hip by Pakistani standards.

Songs and the crowd’s energy have now become the mark of PTI gatherings and all of this was on display that night. This is not all. The PTI now makes sure it is a spectacle that plays out in real life and in cyberspace, which holds true for all its people-centric events.

The videos the party unleashes on social media envelop even those who are not there. Interviews of participants, drone shots uploaded on multiple accounts with comments proclaiming the size of the crowd to be the biggest ever, and close ups of cute children and young men and women or the elderly — it is all enough to convince even the sceptics about the size of the crowd, its spontaneity and importance. The music, the flags, the colour add to the sense of exuberance and youthfulness.

Read: Rhetoric and optics

And then the crescendo, Khan’s speech. He may not have anything new or substantial to offer on chronic issues but his supporters believe in him and that is enough. But Khan has upped the game here too, by adding videos. Not for him are just words for his followers.

Like all politicians, he has a dream to sell, but he offers it with special effects. And this was on display on Saturday night. In contrast, what did the others have to offer?

We had visuals of interminably long parliamentary speeches by familiar faces (even more familiar than Khan’s) speaking the way they have been for decades, in a quiet, sombre hall far, far away from the people who were in the mood to celebrate Independence Day. They were either on the roads, or in front of television screens and the latter lot could see where the party was.

There was far too much happening for any of the private channels to provide the feed from parliament with audio, but it didn’t seem as if anyone was interested in what they had to say.

And in the midst of all this came the prime minister for an address to the nation. If the visuals from parliament were a tad dull, the prime minister offered more of the same. Dark sherwani, dark background, dull chair, and overwhelmed by the height of the flags against which he sat — it was not just a serious image but an aged one, which belonged to the decade where we saw the likes of Ishaq Khan speak to the people. If the PTI jalsa was a visual feast, the prime minister’s speech was diet food. (Perhaps we should consider why even American presidents now address the people from the Oval Office where usually the curtains are open to the bright sunlight and open spaces behind or a podium placed amid the greenery of the White House lawns.)

And it was also an image of distance and seclusion. While the PTI had been and was pushing this idea of a leadership and its supporters celebrating Aug 14 together in one giant party, the government’s sombre celebration seemed distant.

The prime minister could have given the same speech in parliament, strengthening the message from his colleagues about the primacy of parliament as well as a sense of unity. But instead, the PDM just appeared to signal a lack of coordination.

In contrast, even the TLP, which didn’t get much media attention, was at least out on the streets on the eve of Independence Day, like the PTI. Those sitting in government were not even celebrating with the people. They were inside, ensconced in their own world and their own celebrations, where there is a stage with performers, being watched quietly by guests. Wonder if the legislators do that on July 4 in the US.

So let me now come to the point of this lengthy account.

The PDM (especially the PML-N) has to get its act together. The message aside, it is losing the war of the medium. Its image, its culture and consequently its message are suffering in comparison with a party which is seen as the party of the youth and offers a compatible culture and image. Why are the rest not moving ahead and, instead, clinging on to the ways of the 1990s? Dare anyone ask this question?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2022

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