On January 27, 2022, former prime minister Imran Khan alleged that the co-chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Asif Ali Zardari, had hired assassins to kill him.
Outside Khan’s hardcore group of followers, very few treated the allegation with any seriousness, even though, understandably, the PPP was not amused. Ever since his ouster in April last year, Khan has been churning out one bizarre claim after another in his daily addresses and press talks.
Of course, being a classic populist in the mould of Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Khan hardly ever provides any compelling evidence to back his allegations. Like his populist contemporaries, he too is more interested in remaining in the news and in Twitter trends. The other reason is to deflect the media’s attention away from the plethora of scandals involving his immediate family, his party personnel and himself.
These scandals have begun to engulf him, now that he doesn’t have the kind of protection that he once enjoyed from the military establishment and the judiciary when he was PM. The scandals have dented his self-styled image of being ‘incorruptible’.
By delivering speeches almost on a daily basis that are studded with sensationalist claims and allegations, Khan is using what has come to be known as the ‘dead cat strategy’ or ‘deadcatting’. Both these terms were first floated in 2013. They are derived from a theory of a political strategist who has a history of working for right-wing parties. This is also the reason why deadcatting is often seen as a strategy that has mostly been applied by right-wing politicians and contemporary populists.
Many politicians regularly resort to exploiting sensationalist issues in an attempt to draw the public’s and the media’s attention away from more pressing concerns. But few do this better, or more vociferously, than Imran Khan
Both the terms are associated with the Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby. Crosby strategised the British populist Boris Johnson’s campaign for the 2008 London mayoral election that Johnson won. Crosby was first appointed by Johnson’s Conservative Party (CP) during the 2005 parliamentary elections, which the party lost.
But after working successfully with Johnson during the 2008 mayoral election, Crosby became the CP’s central strategist. In a 2013 article for the Daily Telegraph, Johnson excitedly explained Crosby’s strategy. He wrote that one of Crosby’s tactics included, (figuratively speaking) throwing a dead cat on a dining table on which people sat talking about an issue that was detrimental to the interests of a politician. So, once they see the dead cat, their attention is drawn away from the issue and towards the dead cat. Now the dead cat becomes the issue.
‘Dead cat issues’ are thus sensationalist, formed to draw the people’s and the media’s attention away from the issues that have become increasingly problematic for a politician. Johnson continued to apply this strategy when he was appointed PM in 2019. As PM, he went on deploying dead cat issues to divert the media’s attention away from the many holes that he kept digging and falling into.
But deadcatting has its limits. There are but so many dead cats one can throw on the dining table. In 2022, becoming increasingly controversial, Johnson was forced to step down as PM by his own party. The media had stopped talking about dead cats.
In 2019, the populist president of Mexico Andrés Manuel López held a press conference to announce that he had written letters to the Pope and the Spanish government, demanding that they should apologise for invading Mexico… 500 years ago. This out-of-the-blue declaration surprised many. Why was a president who had vowed to resolve Mexico’s many problems, now suddenly talking about a 500-year-old invasion?
According to the British political journalist and author Andrew Scott, López had made a sizeable number of promises, which included introducing widespread land reforms, poverty alleviation and the elimination of Mexico’s deadly drug mafias. Failing to deliver on any of the promises, López deployed the dead cat strategy. The ploy was absurd, but it did catch the media’s attention.
However, not everyone was impressed by the president’s ‘bold’ initiative to get the Pope and the Spanish government to deliver an apology for a centuries-old invasion of Mexico, whose main victims were the country’s indigenous Indian communities. The famous Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa suggested that the letters should have been delivered to López himself, because he had done absolutely nothing to better the conditions of the impoverished Indian communities, except churn out populist slogans and display meaningless stunts.
In the early 1980s, when India’s Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) was largely a fringe far-right Hindu nationalist outfit that had no mentionable economic programme, it started to encourage groups who had begun to plan building a temple on the site of a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya. The BJP turned the mosque into a ‘national issue’.
This was BJP’s dead cat that provided it mainstream traction. And so are the claims by the current BJP government, which uses these to keep the media’s attention focused on the so-called existentialist ‘threat’ to India from Pakistan and by India’s Muslims.
Imran Khan has been deadcatting ever since his government started to unravel from 2020 onwards. Some of the favourite dead cats of Pakistani politicians are ‘issues’ of morality and faith. As a PM who was struggling to deliver the grandiose promises that he had made, and facing increasing criticism, Khan decided to declare himself as the leading crusader against Islamophobia.
He started to write letters to the United Nations and other leaders of the ‘Muslim ummah’, urging them to facilitate his idea of formulating a blasphemy law which could be applied internationally. His ministers jumped in, claiming that he was fighting an international ‘jihad’ against Islamophobes and should be hailed for this.
When this dead cat could not distract the media enough, Khan threw in a bigger dead feline, by claiming that the US was conspiring to oust him from power. After being shown the door by a no-confidence-motion in the parliament, he’s been tossing dead cats with increasing frequency.
Recently, one also saw the current finance minister, Ishaq Dar, deploy the dead cat strategy after being castigated by the media for failing to stabilise the economy. He had been brought in as a miracle worker, but his performance has been rather dismal.
Being a Pakistani, he of course began to tweet verses from Islam’s holy scriptures, indirectly suggesting that the failing economy was due to the mysterious ways of cosmic forces. Ironically, rather than diverting attention, this dead cat ended up magnifying his failings.
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 5th, 2023
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