Thursday, October 30, 2014

The rhetoric of discontent in Pakistan

It is a good content driven piece separating practical outcomes from rhetoric.  I'm pleased to share it with the Dallas Pakistanis, Pakistani Americans and here at
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By Qaisar Abbas

Pakistanis have been watching a new kind of reality show on TV channels for the past two months, with uninterrupted coverage of fiery speeches at protests outside parliament, along with spectacular music and dance performances on a daily basis.

The "sit-in" which started from Lahore on August 14 has just ended in the federal capital of Islamabad without achieving objectives that included resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his elected government.

Beyond verbal insults and shallow arguments, the media coverage never came up to the level of analyzing serious issues like the real objectives of the agitation, demonstrators' social formation, their rationale to participate in the agitation and political rhetoric of protesting leaders. 

The two firebrand leaders, Imran Khan - a popular cricket player turned politician - and cleric Tahirul Qadri employed carefully selected themes of political rhetoric invoking religious, patriotic, rebellious, and emotional appeals to the sit-in audience on a daily basis. Both were successful in masterfully exploiting the growing public discontent on social, economic and political issues and unexpectedly sustained the protest for a longer period. 

Revolution was the magical mantra for Tahirul Qadri, who was trying to convince the public that once the elected government is gone and he comes to power everything will be fine. By citing daily hardships of the people including power shortage, price hikes, terrorism and corruption, he was trying to transform public frustrations into a mass unrest. 

Rightfully calling the system as corrupt and elitist, he promised a new social order based on justice and equity for all. How he would achieve these objectives through what kind of process was the real question left for everyone to ponder. The whole rhetoric was emotionally charged and extremely hostile with little details of the promised revolution. 

Because the social formation of most of his audience was middle and low middle class religious devotees, he invariably provoked their religious sentiments in his daily sermons by skillfully playing with his followers' beliefs. 

Patriotism, being an easy slogan to be exploited, became another consistent theme of his rhetoric where army was symbolized as the only patriotic, honest, and professional institution while political leadership was rejected altogether as corrupt and inefficient. 

Imran Khan, on the other hand, was embellishing his popularity to reconstruct his image from a talented sportsman to a successful political leader. First, he reinforced his image as a successful player by using familiar cricket terms and repeatedly referring to himself as the "captain" who had never lost a match in his cricket career. By doing this he was projecting himself to his male fans as a dependable catalyst for change and a qualified bachelor for his female followers. 

Khan, ignoring the real issues of provincial autonomy, terrorism, freedom of expression, minority rights and gender equity, continued complimenting the armed forces and even raised expectations by declaring that the "umpire" would soon come to the rescue. 

The resolution of political, social and economic issues, "freedom" from the current leadership, and building a "new Pakistan" - with Khan as the new prime minister - were his major recipes. Beyond these catchy terms, however, nobody knew what he actually meant. 

While the social formation of their followers was fundamentally different, both leaders worked together to achieve the same goal of dismantling the current government. For Qadri's followers, the sit-in was a religiously motivated ritual commanded by their spiritual leader where not only the family patriarch but the whole family was following the leader as a sacred duty. 

Imran Khan, on the other hand, banking on his fame, was appealing to the urban, educated youth who is frustrated by the prevailing status quo. This middle class youth was searching for its role in the "New Pakistan" that Khan was promising to them. 

By challenging the status duo, he was also trying to convert the public to a solid voting bloc in his favor for next elections which he failed to build in the last polls. Knowing that the frustrated youth also forms a large proportion of the Pakistani society, he was strategically positioning himself as their savior. 

Both leaders also devised inspirational rituals to engage their followers throughout the sit-in. While the cleric was trying to involve a religious audience with spiritual rituals and prayers, the captain was entertaining his cricket fans and the youth with music, dance and fiery speeches. 

Besides the political rhetoric, participating men and women were in fact loyal followers of the two leaders who were already convinced and needed no ideological reinforcement. Apparently the participants were being used as street power and the real target audience was the general public out there watching the reality show on TV screens. 

The prolonged agitation lost its credibility among the public when another senior leader of Imran Khan's own political party, Javed Hashmi, exposed the whole drama as a well-planned conspiracy hatched in London a year ago, ostensibly sponsored by the armed forces. 

Although the political rhetoric terribly failed in achieving its goal of toppling the elected government, it successfully sustained demonstrations for comparatively a long period which signifies the public discontent over the inefficiency of the government in resolving their genuine issues. 

It looks the agitation campaign has also been successful in unleashing a wave of political activism across the nation by several political parties effectively building a momentum for large public rallies. Both protesting leaders and other political parties are now holding large rallies in different cities. 

Besides the validity of this extraordinary political drama in Pakistan, the real question is: Would a genuine leadership in the future be able to transform this public discontent into a real struggle for social change? 

Qaisar Abbas PhD, is a university professor/administrator, media analyst and political commentator based in Maryland, United States. He has worked as a News Producer for Pakistan TV and Information Officer in the province of Punjab. 

(Copyright 2014 Qaisar Abbas)

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