“The root of the problem lies in a milieu where there is no hope, no jobs, no justice and no opportunities of social or political advancement for the educated youth in Pakistan”
With help of social media, a political protagonist has polarised the national political discourse, injecting the poison of irrational hatred in minds, with no sense of responsibility and obligation. Bhutto did that in the 1970s and produced a creature called Jiyalas. These were blind cult-like adherents of Bhutto, even resorting to self-immolation in his love. That creature was pumped with steroids of anti-elite and anti-capitalist narrative, conflating both terms at times into a single object of hatred – in effect, turning it into a weapon of mass hatred. Jiyalas had no sense of duty, discipline, balance and civic obligation, merely hankering for more rights and agitations.
Now another demagogue has created another creature that is equally devoid of reason, rationality, sense of proportion and civic obligation. Undisciplined and angry, this creature is weaned on blind and irrational hatred, calling other names and paying obeisance to the deity of its cult leadership. Hate and irrational anger is not a recipe of success but disaster. Real nations and leaders imbue their followers with a sense of duty, discipline and civic sense that results in nations like Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Phantasmagoric promises of millions of jobs and homes for homeless elicit cult like followership which in turn gets equally influenced by fantasies. When such unachievable fantasies clash with reality, anger flows and engulfs everyone in an all-consuming miasma of hatred. That is our politics nowadays.
Why would these demagogues earn a cult-like following, even though they are simply employing red herrings as logic and making clever use of non sequiturs as diversionary arguments? Cultivating double entendre as an art form in social media conversations, the febrile imagination of trolling experts is used sans any moral strictures to demonise opponents. Why is the narrative of demagogues lapped up hook, line and sinker?
The reason, perhaps, lies in a volcanic load of grievances that this iniquitous social and political system has inflicted upon people. In a country where the top 20% hold 50% of the national wealth compared to a measly 7% held by the bottom 20% of the people (UNDP’s National Human Development Report 2021), it is but natural to look for Messiahs.
Our young and educated population is restive and frustrated due to a host of reasons. These reasons include elite capture of resources, lack of employment opportunities, a poor justice system and a tanking economy. The thing worth noting is that the elite capture alone is not to be blamed for the youth’s frustration and the country’s economic woes. All countries of the world suffer from elite capture in one way or the other, but the nature of that elite capture makes a world of difference. Some countries have a relatively productive elite that generates wealth for their country in foreign exchange, whereas our extractive elite invests only in non-productive sectors like real estate, trading and non-value-added exports.
According to a UNDP report, the rich in Pakistan get more than their fair share of the national pie, with annual subsidies of $17.4 billion going the way of the powerful feudal and corporate elite. A research study by an Islamabad based think tank IPRI points out that the most important reason for frustration of youth in Balochistan is the allocation of government jobs and development funds on political considerations. Pakistan has a flawed justice system, elite-focused politicised bureaucracy and police, and an educational apartheid that excludes a vast majority from employment opportunities. The unchecked population explosion and extractive governance are adding daily to the disaffected and frustrated jobless young people. It is this frustrated and angry cohort that becomes grist for the selfish political interests of politicians big on rhetoric and low on deliverance.
When the PTI came riding the crest of popularity of a cricket hero in 2018, the young and frustrated cohort bought into his rhetoric and promises of socioeconomic revolution. After three years and eight months, when the PTI lost its majority in parliament, a review of its tenure yielded some harsh facts. These ugly truths riled the politically charged sensibilities of PTI cadres, but the fact is that performance of the party on several yardsticks of its own promises was extremely dismal. The promised jobs were not created and the housing target for the homeless was also not achieved. The PTI government, having the full support of the army for three years, could not even make an attempt to prise open the vice-like grip of elite capture. A feeble attempt to undo the police culture of Punjab was abandoned soon after the start, leaving the honorable IG Nasir Durrani no option but to resign in despair.
After failing to achieve any of the concrete objectives of socio-economic change, even the fanatic followers of Imran Khan started having second thoughts about his ability to deliver on his promises. The scenario, however, changed after the vote of no confidence against Imran Khan, when he created a narrative of a US conspiracy – accusing the military leadership of acquiescence to US designs in his ouster. His fanatic fan followers latched onto the narrative of a US conspiracy with the same alacrity as they latched onto his latest volte face disowning his conspiracy narrative. Why did his followers not ask him the reasons for making a false claim of conspiracy after he backed off from his narrative? The answer lies in a milieu where there is no hope, no jobs, no justice and no opportunities of social or political advancement for the educated young cohort of Pakistan, lacking means or clout.
As long as the above conditions prevail, the appeal of the cult would not diminish. As regards the responsibility of the political leaders to instill a sense of duty and obligation in their charged followers, one dare not entertain much hope. Levitsky and Zablatt wrote in 2018 that the populists that come to power through the ballot are more dangerous to democracy than dictators who seize power. The rise of populism is ascribed to either supply-side or demand-side reasons the world over, according to eminent political scientist Sheri Berman in an article titled “The Causes of Populism in West.” In Pakistan’s context, however, both ‘demand’ as well as ‘supply’ side reasons apply. On the demand side, there is a frustrated population suffering perennial bad governance, while on the supply side there is dynastic polity and autocratic democracy that repels people.
Trump’s populism gave impetus to a number of similar populisms around the world. The rise of this American populism was ascribed by scholars like Telford to wealth inequality in the USA, where in 2019 top 1% of elite owned more than the entire middle class of USA. The result was a middle class hankering for a superman with silver-bullet solutions. Pakistan emulated the trend with a pathological affinity towards silver-bullet solutions to its woes. Unfortunately, people in Pakistan have been shortchanged by their cult leaders and populists each time they repose faith in their superman-like ability to deliver them from the clutches of bondage and penury.
To keep their Pied Piper-like hold, these political leaders resort to a focus on the “otherness” of political opponents. Keeping the masses in a constant state of agitated indignation serves their purpose, as political agitation is a dish best served cold like a mafia don’s revenge creed. That is the reason which compels populist leaders to invent fantasies after reasonable intervals to keep their flock in line. The followers are emotionally charged to attack political opponents and any national institution that stands in the way of those attacks. The traits and qualities of critical inquiry and analysis are deliberately discouraged to keep the followers dependent on the inebriating narrative of political agitation. What is lost in the bargain is balance, rationality, discipline and civic sense – especially amongst the impressionable young segment of the population.
Countries like Japan, Germany, South Korea and Vietnam rose like phoenix from the ashes of conflict and exploitation, on the basis of discipline and civic sense. Where is our sense of national discipline and civic responsibility? What Pakistan needs at this juncture of an existential threat to its economic survival is discipline, and messianic civic sense amongst its population. What instead is being encouraged, for transient political gains, is a charged cadre of angry, vitriolic and undisciplined political young activists armed with the divisive power of digital technology to proliferate lies and sow division in society.
Pakistan needs a disciplined young population imbued with the work ethics of indefatigable industry and an altruistic civic sense reflected in the famous Kennedy quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” As to where this social-media-driven flood of mendacity is leading us is anyone’s guess. Since the populists and their cult followers are incapable of extricating themselves from their bubble, the onus might lie on another Deus ex machina to descend from the heavens, so as to emphasise that Pakistan needs discipline rather than cult-driven anarchy.
Note: This article appeared in Friday Times, dated 27 February 2023.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.