In the hands of a master narrator, carefully crafted narratives, that employ easily understandable and culturally relevant symbols and stories, can mobilise individuals and groups for particular causes. The recently-deposed Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, is trying to establish himself as a master narrator who can mobilise the masses despite his failure to improve the economy and living standards of 220 million Pakistanis. Economic mismanagement, rising inflation, and the concentration of power in the hands of a select few had dissipated support from his erstwhile backers in the military. In response, Khan is crafting a narrative that his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), can deploy to mobilise the masses.
The narrative focuses on the dichotomy between Pakistan’s ideal and current state. The ideal state is presented as one designed along the lines of the first Islamic state established by Prophet Mohammad in Medina in 622 AD. Pakistan’s failure to secure a respected status in the international community since the 1960s is contrasted with the progress made by India which became independent at the same time — New Delhi has earned respect for its refusal to compromise on national interest. The heavy criticism levelled against Khan for his visit to Moscow at a time Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine is presented as evidence. US and European envoys criticised and demanded that Pakistan, notably Imran Khan, not side with Russia. On the other hand, the Indian success story meant that the Narendra Modi government withstood external pressure and asserted its right to purchase oil from Russia at the height of the Ukraine conflict.
Khan portrays corrupt and self-serving Pakistani politicians as obstacles on the path toward true independence. He blames them for pushing Pakistan into a subservient relationship with Western powers. They have pursued conflicting policies, siding with the West to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s and then joining hands with the US to invade and occupy the same country in the War on Terror. The Pakistani media is also incriminated for joining hands with the country’s rulers to prevent Pakistan from realising its true potential.
The portrayal of the ruling elite as willing accomplices of the West in exploiting and subjugating the Pakistani people resembles a neo-Marxist analysis of the world system. “Core” states exploit those at the “periphery” in an exploitative yet collaborative relationship with the ruling elite of the peripheral states.
Rival political parties that collaborated to oust Khan’s regime through a no-confidence vote are accused of working at the behest of the Western powers, especially the United States. The former PM has alleged that the US Assistant Secretary of State, Donald Lu, had warned of severe consequences for US-Pakistan relations if he stayed in power. Echoing the Gramscian idea of a counter-hegemonic struggle to create a new historical bloc, Khan has called upon ordinary Pakistanis to become activists in thwarting the collaboration between the corrupt politicians and the US. The newly-appointed prime minister and his coalition partners are labelled an “imported government” lacking legitimacy and requiring a response from those who stand for independence, integrity, and fairness. The Pakistani youth, which comprises 60 per cent of the country’s population, is allocated pride of place in this schema: They are urged to think about the future they expect and deserve despite all the machinations of the corrupt politicians and the imported government.
Khan has delivered this narrative in simple language easily understood by the masses in a country with a literacy rate of just 60 per cent. He has portrayed himself as a selfless individual who did not need to be in politics but struggled for more than two decades to secure true independence for Pakistan and international respect for it. Repeated by other members of his cabinet and the PTI, this narrative has proved successful. Overnight, those complaining of economic mismanagement and rising inflation have come out on the streets declaring their support for Khan as the true leader and rejecting the “imported government”.
However, this narrative is fraught with danger for Pakistan. It runs the risk of further weakening the cohesion of a society increasingly divided along ethnic, religious, and sectarian lines, between supporters and opponents of jihad, and between the exceptionally rich and poor masses. The defiance narrative is dividing the country between supporters and opponents of Imran Khan — and by extension the PTI. Equally concerning is the fast-emerging public anger against the military and the judiciary as “collaborators” in ousting Khan as the PM. This anger was apparent in responses to a tweet from DG ISPR about the successful launch of the Shaheen III missile on April 9. Congratulatory messages were interspersed with extremely critical assessments of the military’s role and capability to thwart Pakistan’s real threats. According to some reports, dissenting voices are also emerging within the military, insisting on Khan’s narrative as the guiding principle for Pakistan. If the fate of narratives employed by jihadi groups is any indication, once a message has been delivered to an audience, some among the audience attach their own meanings to the message and the ensuing activism does not necessarily correlate to the intended aims of the master narrator(s). Khan’s narrative could also motivate some groups to resort to actions with far-reaching implications for civil-military relations and Pakistan’s stability.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 13, 2022 under the title ‘After ouster, the push back’. The writer is Director of the Centre for the Study of Muslim Societies in University of Western Australia