Moral visions

Published March 4, 2024
The writer teaches politics and sociology
The writer teaches politics and sociology

IN normal circumstances, a party leading the coalition at the centre and possessing a majority in the largest province of the country would not invite immediate question marks over its future. Yet a great deal of post-election analysis has focused on precisely that as far as the PML-N is concerned.

The outcome of the election, even if one takes dubious official notifications at face value, does not make for pleasant reading for PML-N partisans. The party was expected to win a comfortable plurality at the centre. It did not. It was expected to take advantage of the establishment’s suppression of the PTI, especially in Punjab. Instead, it suffered losses on its home turf. What was presented as an imminent re-coronation of Nawaz Sharif turned out to be a reinstallation of PDM with even shakier numbers.

The post-mortem of its election performance will reveal many factors. Anti-incumbency after presiding over two years of the worst cost-of-living crisis this country has seen was surely one factor. Its core voters — low-income and petit bourgeoise segments of urban Punjab — coming out in smaller numbers was likely another.

But a third one that many N stalwarts will occasionally let slip in public and often mention in private is that they had nothing to take to the Punjabi voter.

In Pakistan’s current space-time configuration, the language of politics has changed dramatically.

The story goes that in 2018 the party had a clear anti-establishment message that they could use to connect with their voters. While pre-poll interference, disqualifications, and the incarceration of the leadership denied them a clean shot at re-election, their voter held firm in the regions that matter most (to them).

This time around, there were no equivalents. The anti-establishment posturing was traded for vague references to future stability, stories about an extremely distant, suppressed dollar, low-inflation past, and a low-effort ‘Nawaz is back, all will be okay’ personalisation of the campaign.

In another universe, perhaps these would have been sufficient. But in Pakistan’s current space-time configuration, the language of politics has changed dramatically. Today, and pretty much every day since May 2022, the language of politics is about morality and moral visions.

A good example of this is PTI’s messaging, which singularly focuses on questions of national sovereignty, good versus evil, resistance against oppression, and culturally grounded notions of dignity in the face of human rights violations. These are visible in Khan’s speeches both pre-incarceration and AI-generated, in the language of its other leaders, and in the content generated by hundreds of thousands of PTI supporters on TikTok and other platforms.

Since its reincarnation since 2011, PTI’s politics largely rests on cultural and moral appeals. In the mould of all populists, its narrative divides society into a compromised cabal of crooks and their supporters versus their victims. Into true Pakistanis and compradors. And to mitigate against sentiments of helplessness, it draws on civilisational examples of resistance and glory, from Madinah to the Ottomans, with a sprinkling of local spirituality and a touch of anti-imperialism.

The messaging is simple and digestible. It touches upon various, pre-existing, religion-inflected versions of the idea of Pakistaniat, and it adapts to current events in fairly creative ways. In other words, Imran Khan, as a politician, provides a theory of both history and the present; one which is disseminated widely, and one that resonates with a large and growing section of the electorate.

One could argue that none of this is new. Khan’s deployed the same script since the mid-1990s. What explains its greater resonance now? For starters, greater reach and a demographic shift in the shape of a new generation of individualised, info-consuming voters is one major explanation.

But closely tied to it is that it works in this moment because it provides a script for people to make sense of all the varied forms of crises — economic, domestic, geopolitical — they are currently witnessing. In other words, this one script helps a large number people makes sense of rapid inflation, shadowy domestic political intrigue, unfettered establishment coercion in the Pakistani heartland, the stark racialisation of global politics first through the ‘war on terror’ and now the Israel-Palestine conflict, and an all-round pervasive sentiment of ‘being left behind’ as Pakistanis. The PTI’s moral script both fits well with and ultimately shapes the moral and cultural needs of a growing segment of Pakistanis.

In 2024, the experience of various crises cannot be emotionally addressed with a list of infrastructure projects. And this list, even if a couple more projects are added to it, will continue to be insufficient if inflation refuses to come down, politics continues to be stage-managed, and coercion refuses to relent.

Muslim Leagues in their various post-1946/ post-independence forms have never had to think about grand moral visions in elections. Being the preferred party of the civil bureaucracy (and episodically the establishment), its bread-and-butter is competent delivery of patronage and legitimacy earned through the occasional spectacle. That CV is increasingly futile in a world where there is less to go around thanks to a stagnant economy, more voters outside of patronage networks, and where sections of the electorate want direct fulfilment of power and of being empowered.

It currently does not have a ready script for the ideal type of citizen and the type of polity that it seeks to represent and create. And it does not have a language of rights and morality, especially not one that others don’t speak more fluently.

Its medium-term prospects with the electorate, then, rest mostly on one thing: a drastic and fortuitous reversal of economic decline, of a magnitude that is not only experienced by a wide cross-section, but one that makes the existing crisis-driven need for moral slogans and explanations redundant. Prudence demands caution while making predictions, but the prospects of such a reversal taking place over the next couple of years look fairly dim.

The writer teaches politics and sociology.

X: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2024

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