The public discourse in Pakistan is saturated with politics. On television and social media, there is a constant barrage of discussion and opinion in which highly animated and sometimes agitated partisans draw on apparently inexhaustible reserves of energy and will to trade accusations and arguments pertaining to every issue under the sun. Those who participate in this rambunctious public sphere – be they politicians, celebrities, or regular citizens – do so for diverse reasons; for some, particularly in what is generously called the news and entertainment industry, bloviating self-promotion is practically a professional obligation, others may simply view it as an engaging means through which to be part of an otherwise inaccessible political system, and many may even be motivated by a genuine ideological commitment to propagating their views. Regardless of the intent, what now exists in Pakistan is an overwhelming cacophony of voices generating tremendous amounts of political noise but, ultimately, delivering little in the way of substance.

The point being made here is not that political narratives in Pakistan are biased, or that the internet and social media have facilitated the creation of paradoxically inclusive-yet-divisive echo chambers of thought and opinion; these facts are undoubtedly significant and should be seen as self-evident. What is often missed, however, is that there is very little underpinning the performances that contribute to creating the spectacle of political theatre that is in contemporary Pakistan. Scratch the surface of the ‘arguments’ advanced regarding any significant political question and the chances are that very little will be revealed that could form the basis for deeper and more substantive understandings of the problems the country faces. What passes for public debate in Pakistan is just a bricolage of name-calling, false equivalence, forced binaries, and empty rhetoric.

It is not difficult to find evidence of the poverty of public discourse in Pakistan. The recently concluded by-election in NA-120 is a case in point. In the build-up to the election, partisans of the PML-N and PTI took the airwaves and social media in support of their preferred candidates, with accounts of political martyrdom clashing with narratives about wanton corruption. Discussed in almost entirely personalized terms that focused on the trials and tribulations of the Sharif family, what was missing from the popular discussion of the NA-120 by-election was even the most cursory evaluation of the actual policies, and records of the parties and candidates competing for power. Voters who went to the polls two weeks ago probably had little idea of what the PML-N and PTI actually stand for in programmatic terms, and even less appreciation for the irony of how, despite all the apparent differences, the two parties are not too dissimilar in terms of their broader ideological orientations. Instead, all that was emphasized was yet another unhelpful binary; allegedly corrupt versus supposedly non-corrupt, bad versus good, false versus true. This kind of simplistic reduction of politics to easily digestible dichotomies is great for producing speeches and soundbites, but does little to advance the popular understanding of precisely how Pakistan’s challenges can be understood and effectively dealt with. Necessary discussions about, for example, the enduring inefficiency of the country’s political institutions, the abysmal state of public service delivery, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the increasing insularity of the political elite, simply do not take place.

A similar point can be made about the recent ‘controversy’ surrounding Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif’s repeated assertions that Pakistan needs to get its own house in order with regards to militancy and terrorism. The minister’s political opponents have seized on these remarks to tar him an anti-nationalist brush, accusing him of regurgitating criticisms of the country that have historically been levelled by India and other foreign countries. This narrative has been welcomed and eagerly reinforced on social media, where an entire generation of net-savvy keyboard activists has been conditioned to unquestioningly swallow the kind of nationalist propaganda that is often purveyed by the establishment and its right-wing allies in politics and society. Amidst all the insults and caricatures of the Minister’s position, little space has been left for nuance or even the simple acknowledgment of how issues are not always black and white. It should not be difficult, for example, to recognize the existence of more than one truth at any given point in time; Pakistan’s security concerns regarding India may be justified, but that does not automatically mean that Pakistan has not historically played a role in nurturing, sheltering, and supporting Islamist militants. Pointing out this historical should not automatically lead to cries of treason, but that is unfortunately what ends up happening as a consequence of the shallowness and superficiality of political debate in this country.

The lesson to be learnt here is that the presence of ‘political’ discourse, and popular participation in it, does not, in and of itself, provide any guarantee of greater enlightenment or insight. Indeed, the opposite appears to be the case in Pakistan, with powerful actors in the government, media, politics, and civil society simply capitalizing on appeals to the simplest and lowest common denominator to advance their agendas without having to expose themselves to greater critical scrutiny. Rather than a substantive engagement with questions of public policy and governance, what the people of Pakistan have instead is the illusion of engagement. Heated arguments on television, barbed tweets and status updates on the internet, viral videos of exposes, all suggest the speaking of truth to power while, in reality, masking how power continues to operate unimpeded.

 

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk