SOMETIMES, even a cursory read inhabits a nook in one’s mind. Permanently. In my case, however, it is rarely beautiful poetry or prose with some insights into life but more prosaic political stuff — what else can be expected from those suffering from the ‘ghatiya sahafi’ syndrome?
Hence, in the recesses of my mind, I can still see an article I read decades ago on the election campaign of Boris Yeltsin. This piece was about how Yeltsin’s election victory had been shaped by American men who had secured electoral victories in the US for Bill Clinton, whose election was a landmark.
I didn’t remember many of the details but what did stick was how election campaigns were about addressing the voter’s apprehensions and image-building. For instance, the piece dealt with the campaign’s efforts to change or shape the perception that Yeltsin may be seen as too old to run the government.
Perhaps it was the first time I realised elections were not just an exercise of people’s choice but also a part of the advertising industry where politicians were a commodity to be packaged appropriately for consumers.
Two nights ago, I think I found the article again, thanks to Google. A long investigative piece, it details how a group of Americans convinced Yeltsin and those around him to run the election campaign, American-style in which constant polling and focus groups determined what the candidate stood for or should stand for.
Yeltsin was not popular for a number of reasons, including the poorly performing economy, and the team convinced him that the best way to beat the others was to shape himself as ‘anti-communist’, the man who would make sure Russia didn’t return to communism.
The PML-N and PPP seem to think acquiring a social media team in itself is the goal.
The piece came to mind because in recent times there has been considerable talk about the PTI’s social media team. In the past year, many in government have argued more than once that the party does well because it spends money, which the others can’t necessarily afford.
For some, this money is being spent all over the world thanks to the support of overseas Pakistanis. Some point fingers at the KP government and its hiring while others speak of Imran Khan’s singular obsession with it and how he coordinates with the PTI’s keyboard warriors himself — at the expense of loftier issues such as governance. Whatever the reason, the rest are struggling to play catch up.
And in the midst of this intense discussion, Maryam Nawaz returned to Pakistan as the party’s chief organiser. In her whirlwind trips to various districts, she was seen to be meeting social media teams, or so we were told. It has had an effect, for it seems there is a heavier presence of the party on social media platforms.
This was obvious in the past few days during the clashes at Zaman Park and then in Islamabad, where the PML-N’s version of events can be found alongside the PTI account.
But beyond this battle of allegation versus counter-allegation, the PML-N’s team has no story to tell. This is where Maryam Nawaz is not being served well by her teams.
The PTI has built up this story of one man against the system and it tells it through pictures, popular culture references and soundbites. For instance, a commonly used image is of Imran Khan addressing a jalsa where the camera shot from behind is far more than just a picture — it shows not just the size of the crowd but also reinforces this symbol of one man with the people. This is the story the PTI tells again and again.
After the showdown in Zaman Park, its supporters are sharing the climax of a Marvel superhero film where those fighting have been given titles to depict the Lahore clashes — the lone man (Imran Khan) is joined by the ‘Lahoriye’, ‘burger bachhay’, ‘wukla bhai’ as well as PTI stalwarts (Yasmin Rashid and Murad Saeed) to take on Lahore ‘pulsiye’ (police), ‘Rangers’, ‘water cannon’ as well as others.
Indeed, one can find many such videos and clips which, other than current issues or events, simply tell the bigger story of Khan and the PTI again and again and again. As does Khan in his speeches. That 1996 piece on Yeltsin quotes one of the American experts telling the Russians, whatever it is that we’re going to say and do, we have to repeat it between eight and 12 times.
This bigger story and its retelling is missing on the other side. The PML-N, and for that matter, the PPP, seem to think acquiring a social media team in itself is the goal. There is no story to tell — or if there is, it is too subtle for the likes of me.
Here is an example. Since Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s return, details of her activities, especially her jalsas are posted with the hashtag, ‘umeed e seher’. But the hashtag only provides some excellent images of her political activities. What is the story? Is she the hope (umeed)? Or is it her father? Or is it the party? And what is the message except to refer to the past? The PML-N should know by now that nostalgia or harking back to the past can only take you so far. The PPP is a case in point.
In the PTI’s story, the hero (Khan), the villains (the system) and the people (for whom the PTI chief is fighting the battle) are all there, be it a jalsa or the gathering at Zaman Park. Even the images of PTI supporters follow a checklist — an aged person or buzurg, a young father with a child in his arms, young men and women.
The government or the parties can bombard social media with images and narratives but they also have to find a story to tell. A larger story of hope or salvation. This is not to say elections are fought and won only on the basis of image-building but it can’t be ignored either. You gotta have a sales pitch about what the voters should buy and not just one about what they should avoid.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2023
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