The politics of narratives – 15 Feb 2023
As millions of Pakistanis continue to bear the brunt of inflation and poverty, the political elite finds new narratives to fool the hapless people of the country. Both former prime minister Imran Khan and PML-N’s leader Maryam Nawaz believe that their political rhetoric can somehow help the 220 million people who are facing the challenges created by not only the policies of global and regional financial institutions but also the country’s ruling elite.
Khan seems determined to prove that he can help the country tackle the plethora of crises Pakistan currently faces, and blames politicians and institutions for all the wrongs in the country. Maryam asserts that everything could be fixed if Khan is put behind bars. Both leaders do not have any welfare programme that might lift more than the 80 million poor people out of poverty. And they do not seem to care about the threat of large-scale starvation; the poor are already facing acute food shortages. Both seem indifferent to the plight of the over 33 million people hit by catastrophic floods in 2022. The two leaders rarely talk about the displaced flood-affected people.
Maryam’s top priority lies in strengthening her position within the party by apparently sidelining the party’s senior leaders, besides extending support to Finance Minister Ishaq Dar whose flawed economic policies have pushed the country towards a financial meltdown. While Maryam loves criticizing Khan for the Toshakhana case and his helicopter rides’ expenses, she is silent on the swelling size of the federal cabinet that is stuffed with the relatives and friends of the Sharifs and other PDM leaders.
Maryam has every right to ask Imran Khan about his performance, and is justified in raising pertinent questions over the lack of amenities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) where the PTI ruled for more than eight years. But should she not raise questions over the performance of the PML-N in Punjab when her uncle was chief minister? Should she not wonder as to why a majority of the 25 million out-of-school children are from Punjab that remained under her family’s rule for a considerably long period? Should she not answer as to why PM Shehbaz Sharif failed in curbing the monstrous head of fanaticism that is causing incidents like the one that took place in Nankana Sahib over the weekend?
There could be hundreds of other questions for her. But since she may not have enough time to answer all of them, she must at least spare some time to reflect upon the performance of her family-led government. Punjab houses the highest number of poor in the country. Many of its cities do not have sewage treatment plants. Some urban centres in the province are also not equipped with industrial effluent treatment systems. But since a number of industrialists are affiliated with the PML-N, no one can compel them to install these plants. Punjab continues to be the hotbed of the rising religious bigotry while the largest number of crimes against women are also committed in the province.
While the PML-N demands constitutional rights for itself, it denies the same rights to workers, students and minorities. Millions of workers cannot form unions, especially in factories owned by those close to the PML-N. Brick kiln families present a picture of modern slavery; many brick kiln owners claim to be the supporters and local leaders of different political parties. Influential land grabbers from Islamabad to Lahore are also believed to be closely associated with these parties that are known for evicting poor people from slums in the name of anti-encroachment drives, including the PML-N.
Khan, who is known for his political somersaults, is also busy developing a new narrative. First, he accused the US of hatching conspiracies to oust him. Then, the blame somehow shifted to Zardari and Shehbaz and now he is accusing other personalities of orchestrating his removal. Khan thinks the country’s progress does not lie in coming up with a programme to address the existing challenges but in lambasting his political rivals. While he is quick at pointing out the ways he was shown the door, he does not say anything about ‘Project Imran’ that brought him to power.
Even after his ouster as prime minister, he had a chance to serve the people because his party still had governments in Punjab, KP, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir. But he chose to plunge the country into political chaos. He regularly held rallies across the country peddling the false conspiracy narrative, refusing to come up with any concrete evidence to back up his claims. He could have improved the living conditions of people in the four regions, but instead he ran anti-government campaigns. His ally and chief minister of Punjab Pervaiz Elahi appeased the religious right by creating more hardships for minorities. The former CM of Punjab kept taking action against those who resisted the evictions of people to start the Ravi development project.
After miserably failing in achieving his target, Khan got the provincial assemblies of Punjab and KP dissolved. Before the dissolution, his party leaders went to the extent of writing to the IMF, warning it against granting loans to the country. This attitude flies in the face of his claims that he holds the country dear.
Khan talks about poverty and lack of human development. But he is yet to share the number of people who were lifted out of poverty during his tenure. Did the issue of stunted growth witness a downward spiral during his tenure? Were the homeless provided any decent housing? How many schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and basic health units were set up during his time? When he came to power, around 60 million lived in poverty. Now that number has gone up to over 80 million.
It is clear that both Maryam and Khan have no answers to the problems of the people. Both apparently belief that a narrative is enough, but the reality is different. The country owes a staggering debt of over $120 billion. A storm of merciless inflation will be unleashed in the next few weeks by the ruling elite, which may push millions below the poverty line. Extremism has been gripping the country for some time and the situation is likely to exacerbate. In the absence of coalition support fund and US drones, how would this battle be effective against militants?
With the rising cost of doing business, hundreds – or possibly thousands – of major and small businesses are likely to suffer creating more unemployment. Such a situation could plunge the country into a Tunisia-like situation where the death of one poor vendor by suicide inflamed the entire country, triggering the Arab Spring across the region and sending powerful rulers packing.
It is time our politicians came up with plans to address the grinding poverty and rising inflation. They must stop depending on attractive narratives that fail to resolve the existing crisis. The country needs concrete actions, not rhetorical narratives.
The writer is a freelance journalist who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org