The foul language
of Pakistani politics

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By Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Name-calling, insults, personal attacks, public humiliation, even murder, torture, abductions and the illegal confinement of political opponents– is as old as Pakistan’s first democratic transition in the early 70’s. It was the time and rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from leading a popular movement against Ayub Khan, to becoming the first civilian chief martial law administrator, and prime minister success. While taking to the streets to dislodge Field Martial Mohammad Ayub Khan, who was then the president of Pakistan, he would turn his political guns of rhetoric and insult on eminent political leaders of competing parties. He would mock them, give them dirty names and often use invectives. He wilfully presented himself as a polemical populist to seek attention and attract big crowds. The bigger the public gatherings he addressed, the greater he engaged in the belittlement of politicians from other political parties. 

Those who thought he would change in power and transform himself from an agitating demagogue to leader of the government were ultimately disappointed. Nothing about Bhutto’s abusive political language changed while he was in office. Verbal abuse coupled with misuse of authority pushed disparate opposition political parties and factions to forming a unified front in the form of the Pakistan National Alliance against Bhutto, crippling his government when the 1977 elections conducted by his government became controversial. In the middle of the political crisis, the military ousted him, and later hanged him on the ‘orders’ of the courts for involvement with the murder of a politician.

Today the language, the political opponents and people in the rallies are very similar under Prime Minister Imran Khan. Interestingly, Khan has picked up some of the insults from the political dictionary of ZAB. For example, Bhutto used to call Mumtaz Daultana, once a chief minister of the Punjab a ‘mouse.’ Recently in Swat, Khan referred to three prominent leaders of the opposition as ‘mice’ that he would hunt down. To call opposition leaders thieves, dacoits, looters, traitors and foreign agents are common in the Pakistani political culture, but Khan’s personal attacks against Maulana Fazalur Rehman, leader of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam have been below the dignity and position of the prime minister.

Prime Minister Imran Khan addressing public gathering in Islamabad.

The tone of the PM has unwarrantedly become worse during the last six months, but the pattern is as old as his public career. The conduct of other leaders is not ‘decent’ or doesn’t conform to best standards of parliamentary politics. It is the way they have shaped the political culture of the country.

Why is political language so dirty and what do politicians gain out of it? There are two explanations—psychological and cultural. For many such leaders, it is arrogance and charisma wrapped up in an aura of popularity. Khan appears too self-righteous to show much respect for opposition leaders whom he brackets as corrupt. By projecting himself as outside of the traditional political box, he indeed created a political space for himself and his party. But with quite a few from the ‘corrupt’ political class within his own and allied parties, the image has become fractured. Without convictions, ‘corrupt’ is nothing but a slur for political opponents.

Leaders of the Opposition, Mian Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari and Fazal-ur Rehman, at a news conference in Islamabad.

The political culture of maligning opponents has roots in multiple sources, like social intolerance, the rise of extremism and political anxiety generated by unprincipled power politics in the country. Pakistan’s political history is a history of conflict mostly shaped by clashing political personalities. But there is another reason; a populist desperation to grab and retain power propelled by ambition more than the public spirit. 

Sadly, our prime minister, like many before him, seems untutored in the etiquettes of the democratic political language– an often underestimated element contributing to a currently vitiated political environment, which will not auger well for stability and political order.

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(The writer 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)