Pakistanis have been watching a new kind of reality show on television channels for the last two months with uninterrupted coverage of fiery speeches and spectacular music and dance performances on a daily basis. The 80-day long sit-in that started from Lahore on August 14 has just ended — on the part of Tahirul Qadri — in the federal capital of Islamabad without achieving its objectives, including the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government.
Beyond verbal insults and shallow arguments, the media coverage, however, never came up to the level of analysing serious issues like the real objectives of the agitation, demonstrators’ social formation, their rationale to participate in the agitation and the political rhetoric of protesting leaders. The two firebrand leaders, Imran Khan, a popular cricket player-turned-political leader, and Tahirul Qadri, a cleric, employed carefully selected themes of political rhetoric invoking religious, patriotic, rebellious and emotional appeals to the sit-in audiences on a daily basis. Both were successful in masterfully exploiting the growing public discontent on social, economic and political issues and unexpectedly sustained the protest for a longer period.
Revolution was the magical mantra for Tahirul Qadri who was trying to convince the public that once the elected government is gone and he comes to power, everything will be fine. By citing the daily hardships of the people, including power shortages, price hikes, terrorism and corruption, he was trying to transform public frustrations into mass unrest. Rightfully calling the system corrupt and elitist, he promised a new social order based on justice and equity for all. How would he achieve these objectives and through what kind of process were the real questions left for everyone to ponder. The whole rhetoric was emotionally charged and extremely hostile with little details of the promised revolution.
Because the social formation of most of his audience was middle and lower middle class religious devotees, he invariably provoked their religious sentiments in his daily sermons by skilfully playing with his followers’ beliefs. Patriotism, being an easy slogan to be exploited, became another consistent theme of his rhetoric where the army was symbolised as the only patriotic, honest and professional institution while the political leadership was rejected altogether as being corrupt and inefficient.
Imran Khan, on the other hand, embellished his popularity to reconstruct his image from that of a talented sportsman to a successful political leader. First, he reinforced his image as a successful player by using familiar cricket terms and repeatedly referring to himself as the “captain” who never lost a match during his cricketing career. By doing this he was projecting himself to his male fans as a dependable catalyst for change and a qualified bachelor for his female followers. Politically savvy, ignoring the real issues of provincial autonomy, terrorism, freedom of expression, minority rights and gender equity, he continued complimenting the armed forces and even raising the expectations of his audience declaring that the “umpire” would soon come to their rescue.
To resolve political, social and economic issues, “freedom” from the current leadership and building a “new Pakistan” with him as the new prime minister were his major recipes. Beyond these catchy terms, however, nobody knew what he actually meant. While the social formation of their followers was fundamentally different, both leaders worked together to achieve the same goal of dismantling the current government. For Qadri’s followers, the sit-in was a religiously motivated ritual commanded by their spiritual leader where not only the family patriarch but also the whole family followed the leader as a sacred duty.
Imran Khan, on the other hand, banking on his fame, appealed to the urban educated youth that is frustrated by the prevailing status quo. This middle class youth was searching for its role in the “new Pakistan” that Khan was promising to them. By challenging the status quo, he was also trying to convert the public towards a solid voting bloc in his favour for the next elections, which he failed to build in the last polls. Knowing that the frustrated youth also forms a large proportion of Pakistani society, he was strategically positioning himself as their saviour.
Both leaders also devised inspirational rituals to engage their followers throughout the sit-in. While the cleric was trying to involve a religious audience with spiritual rituals and prayers, the captain was entertaining his cricket fans and the youth with music, dance and fiery speeches. Besides the political rhetoric, the participating men and women were in fact loyal followers of the two leaders who were already convinced and needed no ideological reinforcement. Apparently, the participants were being used as street power and the real target audience was the general public out there watching the reality show on television screens.
The prolonged agitation lost its credibility among the public when another senior leader of Imran Khan’s political party, Javed Hashmi, exposed the whole drama as a well-planned conspiracy hatched in London a year ago, ostensibly sponsored by the armed forces. Although the political rhetoric failed in achieving its goal of toppling the elected government, it successfully sustained demonstrations for a comparatively long period, which signifies the public discontent over the inefficiency of the government in resolving their genuine issues.
It looks as if the agitation campaign has also been successful in unleashing a wave of political activism across the nation by several political parties building a momentum for large public rallies. Both protesting leaders and other political parties are now holding large rallies in different cities. Besides the validity of this extraordinary political drama in Pakistan, the real question is: would a genuine leadership in the future be able to transform this public discontent into a real struggle for social change?