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Wages of populism

Those who thought PM Imran Khan might suspend partisan pettifoggery in a time of a global health and economic crisis to forge national unity to confront Covid-19 were letting hope trump experience.

What has IK ever done in the past that would render him liable to such suspicion? IK doesn’t feel the need to bring the country together because he believes there is only one correct way to think about what is right for Pakistan and that is his way. To build consensus one must be willing to embrace diversity and consider different ideas with an open mind.

The similarity between Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and IK makes sense if one reads the monograph by Jan-Werner Miller entitled ‘What is Populism’. Millar says, “populists are always anti-pluralist: populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people. Other political competitors are just part of the immoral, corrupt elite, or so populists say, while not having power themselves; when in government, they will not recognize anything like a legitimate opposition… the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people.”

Miller claims populists abhor diversity and are intolerant of dissent and voices contesting their worldview. He argues that they “try to make the unified (and passive) people in whose name they speak a reality on the ground by silencing or discrediting those who dissent from the populist leader’s construal of the people… And that leads to the final great irony: populism in power brings about, reinforces or offers another variety of the very exclusion and the usurpation of the state that it most opposes in the reigning establishment it seeks to replace.”

Miller seeks to distinguish democracy from populism: “one enables majorities to authorize representatives whose actions may or may not turn out to conform to what a majority of citizens expected or would have wishes for; the other pretends that no action of a populist government can be questioned, because ‘the people’ have willed it so. The one assumes fallible, contestable judgments by changing majorities; the other imagines a homogeneous entity outside all institutions whose identity and ideas can be fully represented.”

He asserts that populism and technocracy mirror each other. “Technocracy holds that there is only one correct policy solution; populism claims that there is only one authentic will of the people. For neither technocrats nor populists is there need for democratic debate. In a sense, both are curiously apolitical. Hence it is plausible that one might pave the way for the other, because each legitimizes the belief that there is no real room for disagreement… Populists should be criticized for what they are – a real danger to democracy (and not just ‘liberalism’).”

In our context, we’ve seen that each time a non-representative institution seeks to transgress its limits, it does so by claiming to speak in the name of the silent majority. We saw Iftikhar Chaudhry’s court anoint itself the “peoples’ court”. We saw dictators claiming to speak in the name of the people, preferring a government of technocrats and centralization through presidential systems. The underlying claim is the same: the only genuine way to pursue the good of the people is the one they are pursuing even if ‘the people’ they speak on behalf of are ignorant of it.

Is it then a coincidence that the PTI and the purveyors of praetorian power look like a match made in heaven? Both believe that only they speak for ‘the people’ as a whole. Both believe there is one authentic view of Pakistan’s best interest and anyone who disagrees with such a view is either not a good Pakistani or an agent of someone or the other. Both believe it is in Pakistan’s best interest to not have their view of Pakistan’s best interest contested by anyone. Both have the messiah complex: it is only they who can save Pakistan from corrupt politicos and their patrons.

Why is there such overlap between the Musharraf and IK teams? Both have been a mix of electable populists and technocrats committed to a certain view of ‘national interest’. Isn’t a dictator-run polity better than a populist-run polity? Some dictatorships are worse than others. But there is no pretension of them being democracies. A populist regime working to create a homogeneous polity ends up being an autocracy. But here rule of law and the ethos of democracy are sabotaged in the name of the people, thus giving democracy a bad name.

Democracy is a system that relies on a tug-of-war between contested views of what comprises the national interest and how it must be pursued. The policy options that such a system aims to produce are consensus-based or compromise-based. But the system is meant to engage all of ‘the people’ and not just one set comprising loyalists and supporters, while demonizing the opponents and critics. Democracies, despite partisanship, are not meant to polarize polities. Populism on the contrary can only polarize because it runs on hate.

For all his criticism of hereditary politics, IK has no stomach for pluralism. Whether as a parliamentarian in opposition or as leader of the house, IK can’t be charged with treating parliament as an institution of utility (but only as a means to the PM Office). Why is anyone surprised at his walking out of the meeting of major political party leaders over Covid-19 after having spoken himself? At least in this regard, IK has been consistent and can’t be accused of a U-turn. He has never cared for contrary viewpoints or exhibited the ability to show them respect.

Here is a man who feels no need to aggregate divergent viewpoints. One often hears loyalists swear how patient IK is in party meetings. To allow those who have kissed the ring to disagree amongst themselves isn’t democracy. Dictators indulge in that extent of debate too. Democracy requires more. It requires a belief in diversity, in the utility of creating a marketplace of ideas regardless of their content, in the value of critical debate as a process to thrash out the merit of ideas. This is what differentiates a democracy from an autocracy or a diarchy.

Once you recognize IK’s populist claim of being the only authentic voice speaking for the people of Pakistan and trying to save the country from itself, his use of the accountability process as a weapon to silence critics from opposition parties and mediums transmitting critical voices makes sense. Our PM has a dogged belief in his own self-righteousness and the vile motives of those who disagree with him. For him the accountability system is serving a larger purpose: shaping a Pakistan where he alone speaks for the people by attacking and deterring all critics.

The PTI’s accountability project included no design to root out corruption from everyday practices of state and society. The focus of the PTI’s accountability drive was on individuals. We were told that fish rots from the head. Once the rotting heads were taken care of, wellness would trickle down across the polity. Even if the corrupt and discredited lot from other parties was joining the PTI, it was nothing to worry about. Those swearing allegiance to IK would be cleansed of their rotten past, as the PTI head was a man of integrity.

IK’s accountability drive was never about holding folks to account for wrongful conduct through a non-partisan across-the-board process based system. It was to penalize those IK believed to be corrupt and their perceived aiders and abettors and sympathizers. He created an accountability body in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with great fanfare only to dismantle it himself as it started to scrutinize officeholders from the PTI. NAB is no different. It is hyperactive when it comes to purging witches of the opposition but comatose when cases involving PTI members come to fore.

Populism sustains itself by silencing and discrediting dissenters. In diverse polities, silencing dissent can be a never-ending project. IK needed Sharif and Zardari arrested. Then he needed Shahid Khaqan and Miftah Ismail arrested as they kept poking holes in his story. He then needed Jang/Geo and Dawn demonized for if you can’t kill criticism you must kill the messenger. But then you need to let loose attack bots on anyone asking questions about any of this. Hence the social media attacks on Klasra etc. This is a long slippery slope we’re on.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Email: sattar@post.harvard.edu

Babar Sattar, "Wages of populism," The News. 2020-03-28.
Keywords: Political science , Political process , Political parties , Political leaders , Political issues , Social issues , Social needs , Social aspects , Economic issues , Economic policy , Economic growth , Democracy , Politics , Imran Khan , Shahid Khaqan , Miftah Ismail , PTI , NAB