By Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Democracies—flawed, weak or robust—allow freedom of expression to varying degrees since it ensures political participation of competing groups and actors. Over time, the tools of communication available to political parties have undergone a transformation. The development of electronic and social media platforms, with increasing access and national coverage, has eclipsed the conventional media like newspapers and magazines. The competing television channels by necessity allow opportunity to all types of stakeholders to engage in political and social conversations. The social media outlets that are free and mobile have democratized political communication, empowering people to access information from diverse sources, and allowing them to express their opinion. The new media has drastically changed the way political parties and leaders used to propagate manifestoes, defend their record in power or attack their political opponents. In many ways, politics is more open today, though this does not imply that the political players around the world are more truthful, forthcoming or less deceitful. They hire spin doctors or bring them into their faction since such individuals are good at the art of manipulating facts and weaving narratives to suit the interests of their respective parties and top leaders.
Politicians and parties facing massive corruption charges, court cases and accountability drives, much like those in power, have adapted their political style to the new realities of communication. Their politics is about self-image and carefully crafted messages that are mostly rolled out through electronic and social media platforms. The emergence of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the positioning of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party as the “third force” prove that narratives really matter in winning the hearts and minds of people. But there is another important thing to consider: Not all narratives have the same strength, and not all of them are easily embraced by suspecting populations. Trust matters, especially while selecting one’s leader.
One common thread among all opposition factions speaking from different party podiums is their aggressive attack on Imran Khan’s credibility as they highlight his inability to deliver on his promises made before he came into power. They understand that the prime minister is in big trouble as he raised people’s expectations too high by making fantastic and unrealistic promises. What may lend credence to the opposition’s claims is that things have not improved for the common man, as inflation and unemployment have increased and very little investment has been made in new industries. The global pandemic and slow pace of reforms due to structural roadblocks—high cost of energy and problematic investment environment—work in favor of the narrative that the prime minister has failed to bring about the change he had committed himself to.
The narrative of change that brought Khan into power may also work against him, if people do not see enough evidence on the ground that he has actually accomplished much of what he had promised. Whether his third year in office sees an improved pace in reform and progress is yet to be seen, but the opposition is aggressively challenging the record of his performance of the last two years. The prime minister and his cabinet members keep talking about their successes and achievements, though they also become defensive at times and hide behind the global effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The jury is still out as the government has not even finished half of its tenure. But let there be no doubt that the narrative of change—or no change—will play a crucial role in influencing public opinion in the lead-up to the next elections.
Legitimacy, competence and experience are three important themes that have dominated the narrative of opposition parties since the outset of Khan’s tenure. Even before the election results were announced, opposition politicians had started using the term “selected” for him. The expression is still being employed quite frequently to question the popularity of the prime minister and the genuineness of his political support base. Similarly, administrative incompetence and political inexperience have long been the sticks opposition leaders have used to beat Imran Khan with.
The problem of politics is that there never is a single political truth. There are bound to be multiple truths as every side is capable of presenting its own story. Politics is not fair game, as it is driven by ambition for power and survival instincts. The oldest school of politics, composed of realists, argues that the game of politics has to be judged by its own moral principles, not by other ethical standards. Pakistan’s political players today, or in the past, have never missed an opportunity of practicing traditional power politics. They can be compared to the best anywhere in the world.
(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).Twitter: @RasulRais