Cult Politics, A Common Thread That Runs Through MQM And PTI

Cult Politics, A Common Thread That Runs Through MQM And PTI
As we walked out of the civil services examination hall, my friend Abdul Baqi recalled the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) popularity in 1980s, and said, “Even Altaf [Hussain] Bhai was overwhelmed by his party’s following”.

Baqi (not his real name) did not clear the civil services exams. Disappointed, he took up street politics than a position in bureaucracy. A few years later, Baqi was found in a dumpster, dead and packed in a gunny bag. His party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, could not tolerate his politics.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, previously known as the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, started as a small students’ movement and emerged as a strong populist force in urban Sindh – till the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) overtook the MQM in a battle to gain populism in Pakistani politics.

The MQM broke the myth of politics of inheritance by winning the 1988 general elections in Pakistan. However, after Benazir Bhutto was ousted from the government in 1990, the MQM was forced back into street politics. The party switched loyalties and forged alliances with parties in power for the next two decades, while using the politics of victimhood to mobilize the masses.

Writer Gary Pavela states: “You find a sense of purpose in embracing a totalistic ideology that sees itself in intractable opposition with the ‘evil other’.” So, just like the MQM, the PTI has adopted the politics of agitation and victimhood. Both parties, though clueless when in power, have banked on emotions of young voters based in urban centres. However, the failed and out of steam MQM has currently been reduced to the status of a cult-oriented, pressure group in Sindh.

The MQM evolved into one of the strongest populist forces in Pakistan by rising against the deprivation and suppression of its people. A similar sentiment – of discontent among youth, ambition for tabdeeli (change) -- is being flaunted by the PTI. Imran Khan’s charisma and his slogans have taken him to another level of populism or cultism, which Pavela underlines as, “You strive for the creation or recreation of a utopian society.”

Such vibrant populism was witnessed in the 1970s as well, when the masses perceived Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as an ultimate messiah who could address all public policy issues. But, Z.A. Bhutto and Altaf Hussain failed to live up to their electoral promises, while Imran Khan is yet to be fully tested, though he was unable to deliver during his four-year stint as the prime minister and the party head that has run the Khyber Pakhtunkwa province for almost a decade.
Z.A. Bhutto and Altaf Hussain failed to live up to their electoral promises, while Imran Khan is yet to be fully tested.

The youth, with a memory spam barely spread over two decades, are unaware of Khan’s colourful past. They perceive him as the only option. They buy his shallow emotional sloganeering because they are ignorant about the geo-political, geo-strategic and geo-economic dynamics of the contemporary international system.

The PTI’s politics is devoid of political discourse, driven by emotional narratives then rationality and based on fantasizing about a non-existent utopian political global environment. This could be a terrifying experiment conducted on our nation.

Today’s global politics requires mature outlook that maximizes one’s gains with minimum losses. The fate of such political mobilization has always been short-lived and resulted in disillusionment. History is replete with such examples of political parties raising hopes of their supporters to the level where they become rogue and disrespectful of established norms and institutional processes. In his book, titled The Cult of Trump, Steven Hassan writes: “Playing on ancient human tribal tendencies, cult leaders encourage a kind of dualistic ‘us versus them’ mindset.”

The PTI has followed in the footsteps of the MQM. But will it meet the same fate as the MQM? The MQM could not sustain political maturity. The founders of the party were ideologues while its descendants lacked the same political acumen. Likewise, when Khan’s PTI got into power in 2018, the party ideologues were pushed aside. Leaders who danced to the tunes of DJs at jalsas took the front seats.

Both the MQM and PTI are fascist, populist forces, sharing some common traits of cultism. Commenting on cultist behaviour, Pavela states: “You regard freedom of expression as essential for your opinions, but “problematic” for all others.” Another trait of cult politics “is the refusal to engage in sustained dialogue with those who have opposing views.”

Meanwhile, followers of the Pied Piper of Islamabad are deeply engrossed in their self-righteous, rejectionist ideals, unaware of the path leading to dark waters ahead – as Confucius underlined: “He who know all the answers has not been asked all the questions”.

The writer is a journalist, an academic and former Political Affairs Advisor at the US Consulate General in Karachi.