Over the past week, the PTIís azadi dharna has witnessed the frightening spectacle of a rhetorically belligerent Imran Khan. He has used words for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the former chief justice of Pakistan that cannot be repeated in polite company.

In the recent history of Pakistani politics, no top-ranking politician has so unabashedly employed un-parliamentary language against political opponents. And there seems to be no end in sight to this incessant explosion of vituperative rhetoric. With each passing day, Khan is only upping the ante. The insults hurled at political opponents, resolute judges and unflattering journalists are becoming more humiliating. The threats being issued from the top of the azadi container to members of the civil bureaucracy have grown more vicious.

The Aithchison graduate, the Oxford man, the person who has all his life kept one foot in British polite society, has now emerged as Pakistanís most impolite politician, its most non-parliamentary parliamentarian and its most uncivil civilian leader.

Unlike what Khanís apologists would have us believe, his rhetoric of irreverence is not inconsequential. In politics, language can never be inconsequential.

Provocative language, when employed strategically in political rhetoric, achieves several objectives: it distils often complex ideas into simple slogans that the public can latch on to; it whips up the party base by focusing attention on a pointed goal; it harmonises internal party leaders and workers around a common objective; and it plies pressure on the political opponent. However, crucially, language is also a powerful tool for the production of cultural attitudes in politics and society. And this is where Imran Khanís contemptuous primetime speeches can cause the greatest harm.

While the spectacle of Khan prowling atop his container, launching verbal assaults on anyone and everyone in his crosshairs might gratify his supporters, it represents a serious danger to the democratic transition Pakistani polity is painstakingly and belatedly undertaking. To appreciate this danger, it is important to separate the political and social consequences of extreme political rhetoric.

That Imran Khanís choice of aggressive rhetoric is political brinksmanship is fairly obvious to most students of politics. Having raised his supportersí expectations to unrealistic heights, he now finds himself locked in a political stalemate. A swift and amicable resolution seems difficult, even if he himself were now to attempt political rapprochement. Yet, the use of charged language has also created another problem that will far out-live the present imbroglio. Imranís verbal assaults are gradually forcing political leaders on all sides to descend into a discourse defined by aggression, slander, intolerance, and derision.

The real victim in this race-to-the-bottom will be the overall tone and tenor of our political discourse. What Pakistan needed was a voice of sanity that would usher in a more enlightened agenda for discussion, expand political debate to previously taboo subjects, and improve public comprehension of complex issues. Instead, Khanís verbal theatrics are depleting the already low quality of political discourse in this country.

While calculated verbal attacks might serve to temporarily energise Khanís mesmerised supporters, their deleterious contribution to political dialogue and discussion is likely to be long-standing. Flip through any television channel during this episode in Pakistani politics, and you will see the effect playing out. Members of the PTI can be found trying to emulate their leader by being overly bellicose towards political opponents. The opponents, in turn, retaliate in kind, and the cycle repeats itself. This self-perpetuating vicious cycle is transforming current political discourse into sheer political claptrap and gibberish.

Not even mature democracies are immune to the dangers of charged political rhetoric. The language of politics in the US over the last few years is proof of this danger. The use of extreme political rhetoric there has contributed to what is effectively a political paralysis on major political issues (ŗ la Obamacare).

Similarly, the rhetorically phrased pro-life camp, and its polar opposite the pro-choice camp, are, for instance, simply unable to meaningfully engage with each other. Such rhetoric stems from a prior self-righteous belief in oneís claims, and a stubborn refusal to subject oneís views to reasoned debate and public scrutiny. But negative rhetoric does not simply reflect such attitudes; it actually reinforces them.

The transitionary nature of Pakistanís democracy further complicates the effects of Khanís biting rhetoric. Transitioning democracies tend to lack the institutional and normative resources necessary for adequately accommodating the political sentiments of all segments of society. The public sphere in Pakistan is only beginning to emerge from the strictures imposed on it by decades-long military rule. It is still not the all-inclusive place one hopes it would become; many voices remain unheard and many grievances unaddressed. In this context, the use of hostile rhetoric by a prominent political icon is highly likely to appeal to those who are excluded; ultimately it will usher in an uncivil political culture. A democratising Pakistan could do well without it.

Some might argue rightly that democratic politics permits free speech, as long as it does not create a clear and present danger to an individual or a group. However, Khanís extreme rhetoric breaches this norm by endangering a vital function of representative democracy in Pakistan: enabling citizens to gravitate towards a reasonable understanding of their individual, as well as public interest.

Sadly, the current language of political agitation adopted by the PTI is classic demagoguery Ė it manipulates and divides the populace, while simultaneously stripping the moderate middle of a voice in politics. In the long run, Khanís choice of deploying negative political rhetoric can seriously undermine the democratic spirit of compromise in Pakistan by encouraging extreme positions and opinions across the political spectrum.

In a democratic Pakistan, political and social space has to be shared by actors and groups with cross-cutting and conflicting political opinions. Surely, the PTIís leadership must be mindful of its role and influence in the democratic evolution of this country. Or perhaps, Imran Khanís Naya Pakistan is to be a one-party, one-leader state, where all opponents are to be verbally assaulted and delegitimised, and only one perspective, one idea, and one individual is to be anointed legitimate?