Fantastic Lies: The Battle of Political Narratives In Pakistan

Fantastic Lies: The Battle of Political Narratives In Pakistan

While commenting on PTI’s stunning victory in the recently concluded Punjab Assembly (PA) by-elections, almost all analysts agree that a narrative engineered by the former prime minister and PTI chief Imran Khan played a major role in giving the party a decisive electoral edge in the election. 20 PA seats were up for grabs in the contest. These were all won in 2018 by PTI and its allies. But Punjab’s largest party, the PML-N, was expected to win a majority of these seats because this time the ‘military establishment’ was in no mood to rig an election. PML-N could win just 4.

Khan’s approval ratings had plummeted by the third year of his prime ministership. In April 2022, the opposition parties managed to oust him through a vote of no confidence. Khan, almost immediately, began to build a narrative to explain his ouster. In fact, once convinced that he had lost the military establishment’s support, and electoral traction, he had already started to weave the narrative weeks before his dismissal.

In a nutshell, the following was/is the narrative: Khan’s ouster was planned by the US because he wanted to strike stronger relations with Russia, and he refused to allow the US to set up military bases in Pakistan. So, with the help of opposition political parties, the US enforced a regime change. The opposition parties obliged because Khan’s regime was perusing corruption cases against them. 

At first, this narrative was not taken seriously by most because it was riddled with contradictions and unsubstantiated claims. Unable to contain his anger and the humiliation that he felt for being dismissed by the Parliament, Khan began to wag his finger at his former patrons in the military. He accused them of siding with ‘corrupt’ politicians who had worked against the country’s interest by aiding enemy countries to throw him out.

Khan’s previous narrative, or the one that he had built before coming to power, had painted all other parties as a corrupt bunch of ‘looters’. This narrative, shaped with the help of his backers in the military establishment, airbrushed him as being the only leader untainted by corruption, willing to crush it, and turn Pakistan into an ‘Islamic welfare state’ (Riyasat-e-Madinah).

But what he actually ended up creating was an incompetent administration, remote-controlled by his favourite set of generals, and fantasies of turning Pakistan into a one-party-state. And when the incompetence and inexperience of Khan’s regime began to really hurt the economy, and also degrade Pakistan’s relations with its main donor countries such as the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and China, the military establishment began to quietly move away from him.

In his new, post-ouster narrative, he compounded his previous corruption mantra against his political opponents by adding to it a corruption that was treacherous because it had now conspired with enemy powers to oust him. The new narrative’s earliest takers were a group of prominent TV anchors who had worked hand-in-glove with the military establishment to help shape the image of Khan as a heroic politician who will eliminate corruption and restore Pakistan’s pride in the community of nations.

They felt disoriented when Khan was ousted. They stopped receiving ‘instructions’ from Khan’s erstwhile backers and, for a while, found themselves isolated and confused. Then emerged the feeling of being betrayed. They felt as humiliated and unappreciated as did Khan. Naturally, they lapped up Khan’s new narrative and ran with it.

Khan is ousted

In multiple cases of sheer irony, TV anchors who had aided the establishment in handing out (or taking away) certificates of patriotism, and who, at the drop of a hat, used to accuse anti-Khan politicians, activists and journalists of committing treason, suddenly turned ‘anti-establishment.’ Some even began to fancy themselves as revolutionaries, albeit very rich ones.

This is when Khan’s narrative began to permeate upper-income and middle-income groups who had largely voted for him in 2018. It also galvanised overseas Pakistanis residing in the US and in European countries and in oil-rich Arab countries. This was ironic again. Because, the anti-establishment bit in the new narrative was actually usurped by Khan from its original mainstream source: PML-N chief, Nawaz Sharif. In October 2020, Sharif had decided to directly attack some figures in the military establishment for engineering his ouster as PM and then bring in Khan through a ‘rigged’ election.

Sharif’s outburst managed to draw widespread support from people who weren’t happy with an incompetent ‘hybrid regime.’ This left the military establishment feeling flustered. The pro-Khan anchors and his supporters lashed out at Sharif for being a traitor and shaming the military in the eyes of the country’s enemies. But now, those who had painted Sharif as a traitor for this, hailed Khan for ‘standing up to the establishment.’

Running parallel to Khan’s new narrative is the ever-evolving image of him being entirely honest and untainted by corruption. This image had begun to be shaped from 2011 onwards. Today it is complimenting the new narrative. This is why the narrative is able to undermine the impact of the many recent scandals that have appeared involving Khan and his cronies. To his supporters, these scandals, too, are part of the ‘conspiracy’ against him, because, apparently, he is incapable of indulging in any kind of corruption.

Political narratives do not appear from a vacuum. They are mostly dramatic and animated summations of sentiments that are already present in a society. A single event can generate various narratives

Fantastic Lies

Political narratives are an effective means of simplifying complex situations into chains of events (S.R. Shenhav in International Political Science Review, July 2006). Moreover, political narratives are largely constructed from certain perceptions of reality and not necessarily from reality itself. They don’t deal in data or in ‘cold facts.’ Instead, they deal in perceptions and emotions. They operate in a framework of a particular worldview. If a worldview is widespread, the narrative is then likely to find more takers. Imposing the ‘narrative structure’ on reality is a way to moralise events (H. White in On Narrative, 1980).

Pro-TTP graffiti

In 2015, the military and government of Pakistan emphasised the need to build a ‘counter-narrative’ to deal with the threat posed by the militant Islamist group that is commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). It was believed that the state was struggling to come to terms with the TTP because the latter’s narrative was seeding confusion in Pakistani soldiers. For decades, an anti-India and ‘Islamic’ narrative had been instilled in the soldiers. They were now being asked to fight an enemy which wasn’t Hindu, but Muslim; which wasn’t foreign, but Pakistani; and which was using almost exactly the same Islamic symbols and rhetoric of jihad as were the soldiers.

TTP’s narrative was simple: Pakistan was not an Islamic state because it had secular/Western systems of law and justice and relations with ‘infidel’ nations. Therefore, the people were being corrupted and subjugated through unIslamic laws, policies and ideas enacted on the behest of the secular/Christian West. Only an armed jihad can eliminate the state’s false Islam and address the polity’s deviation from true Islam. 

There were many takers of this narrative, despite the fact that ever since the mid-1970s, the state has been ‘Islamising’ various political, economic and social aspects of the country. These were good enough to appease mainstream/non-militant Islamist parties, but are seen as an eyewash by outfits such as the TTP. But the tricky bit is, TTP’s extremism in this respect wasn’t emerging from a separate place. It was emerging from within the discourses that the Islamisation process generated.

For example, in 1974, the state gave itself the constitutional right to define who was a Muslim and who wasn’t. Then in 1986, it gave itself the power to severely punish blasphemy (or what it considered was blasphemy). These inadvertently encouraged various segments of the polity to start doing the same. Groups within the Islamic sects and sub-sects residing in Pakistan spent a lot of their effort and emotions in determining who was a true Muslim and who wasn’t. The post-1986 Blasphemy laws also came in handy as a weapon during battles between the sects and sub-sects.

Now, political and economic influence could be gained through accusations of blasphemy or by ‘proving’ that an opposing sect or sub-sect was heretical. Reality in this regard had more to do with using religion to gather economic and political benefits, but the narrative framed by different groups around this is about saving Islam from secularism and heresy.

The TTP’s narrative was just a more extreme variation of narratives of Islamist and political groups that were already in circulation. The state’s counter-narrative was built on the perception that the state’s Islam was tolerant, inclusive and more mindful. Later, this narrative was bolstered by framing the TTP as mercenaries hired by Pakistan’s enemies to create chaos in the country. Both narratives are riddled with contradictions and fallacies.

Political narratives are constructed to appeal to specific worldviews that have little with reality. A politician sharing data, facts and figures will never be able gain any traction from the people in which a worldview weaved from a curious mixture of illusions, delusions, paranoias and utopian claims have been instilled.


The Battles

In January 1966, Pakistan’s military ruler Ayub Khan signed a ceasefire agreement with the Indian PM to end a war. Ayub’s young foreign minister Z.A. Bhutto was not happy with the ceasefire. After he was eased out by Ayub, Bhutto launched a tirade against his former boss. He claimed that had the ceasefire not been signed, Pakistani forces would have won the war. He said that Pakistan had lost on the negotiating table what its forces had won on the battlefield.

This became Bhutto’s narrative with which he carved out an alternative political path for himself. Interestingly, the narrative was able to attract a large number of people (in West Pakistan) due to the collapse of a narrative cobbled together by the Ayub regime. That narrative had presented Ayub as a ‘benevolent dictator’ who was heading one of the strongest armed forces in the region. The ceasefire thus, came as a surprise to most, especially the manner in which Bhutto framed it.

Ceasefire: An unhappy Bhutto

There was no truth in Bhutto’s narrative, though. There was no way, really, that Pakistan could have won the war. A majority of historians and political scientists who have investigated the war have concluded that Ayub agreed to a ceasefire when Pakistani forces began to run out of ammunition. Both the countries fought with US-made weapons and military hardware. The supply of these was stopped by the US to both the countries. But whereas, at the time of the ceasefire, India had greater reserves, Pakistani forces were quickly running out of vital ammunition (S. Wolpert, India, 1991).

A UN-sponsored ceasefire was accepted by both the countries and they settled for a ‘draw.’ India did so due to extreme external pressure, and due to the fact that its strategic aims were modest. It simply wanted to deny the Pakistan army a victory, instead of aggressively capturing Pakistani territory (R. Johnson, A Region in Turmoil, 2005). But most West Pakistanis chose to believe Bhutto.

Then, in 1968, the economist Mahbub-ul-Haq claimed that just 22 industrial families were dominating the economic and financial life-cycle of Pakistan. Bhutto, who had chosen to give his party a ‘socialist’ outlook, pounced on this and added it to his evolving narrative. His narrative now saw him as a man who was confronting a dictator who had signed a ceasefire with India just to serve the interests of a handful of industrialists.

Haq’s claim also galvanised other anti-Ayub outfits, both on the left and the right, and they too added it to their own narratives. For example, ethno-nationalists saw the 22 families as belonging to Punjabi and Urdu-speaking groups who had been subjugating other ethnic communities of the country; and various Islamist groups saw them as lobbies that were bankrolling Ayub’s ‘secular’ onslaught against Islam.

Bhutto’s expanded narrative managed to find a strong foothold in the imagination of a majority of West Pakistanis. Yet, Haq himself later clarified that "the slogan of the 22 families was taken too literally." For him, the 22 families were not the cause, but a mere symptom of the system that created them (K. Haq, Economic Growth with Social Justice: Collected Writings of Mahbub ul Haq, 2017). Despite his clarification, Haq’s 1968 claim continues to be criticised for not being sound enough. To a certain degree, it was too populist for an economist of his calibre to make.

Bhutto ruled Pakistan between December 1971 and July 1977. In December 1976, nine — mostly right-wing parties — formed an electoral alliance against him (The PNA). The alliance accused his regime’s ‘disastrous socialist policies’ that had ‘ruined the economy.’ It attacked him for being a ‘civilian dictator’ who had used violence against his opponents. It also opened a moral front against him by claiming that ‘obscenity’ and alcoholism had become rampant during his rule, and the youth were being encouraged to move away from Islam. It claimed that only a state driven by Shariah laws (‘Nizam-e-Mustafa’) was capable of providing economic benefits, justice and security to the people of Pakistan.

These perceptions were then turned into a powerful narrative. During PNA’s anti-Bhutto movement that erupted in March 1977, newspapers and mosques were used by PNA to proliferate this narrative. It became popular among urban-middle-and-lower-middle-income-classes, traders and industrialists. They now wanted ‘Islamic rule,’ even though one was not sure exactly what this meant. Ironically, even some secular groups who were anti-Bhutto adopted this narrative, as long as it was able to remove Bhutto.

PNA: united against Bhutto for an 'Islamic' Pakistan

There is quite a bit of truth in the perception that the Bhutto regime’s economic policies compounded Pakistan’s economic problems that it inherited after the devastating 1971 civil war in the erstwhile East Pakistan. But according to the political economist S. Akbar Zaidi, those who term the Bhutto years as an era of economic decline "were part of the minority faction that had benefited from Ayub’s economic policies of exploitation."

Zaidi adds that before the separation of East Pakistan in 1971, the economy did better because the former West Pakistan benefited by getting cheap raw materials from East Pakistan, which was also the key market for products made in West Pakistan. Bhutto’s policies also helped the development of the middle-class, and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) which created demands for the products made in factories (Zaidi quoted in Dawn, 15 April 2016). Then there was also the case of an unprecedented oil crises from 1973 onwards when the price of oil saw a drastic increase around the world, impacting global economies, big and small. Pakistan was no exception.

But the perception of Bhutto having an authoritarian disposition cannot be argued against. By all accounts, he was an egoist who could not tolerate dissent, within or outside his government and party. The moral dimension of PNA’s narrative, however, was just plain sententious drivel

When General Zia-ul-Haq toppled the Bhutto regime in 1977, he almost immediately adopted PNA’s narrative. On the other hand, Bhutto and his party began to weave together a narrative around his ouster. This was the narrative: Bhutto’s ouster was planned by the US because Bhutto had refused to rollback the country’s nuclear programThe US government dished out millions of dollars to fund PNA’s movement against him and then facilitated Zia’s coup.

Pakistan’s relations with the US during the Bhutto regime were elusive. Bhutto was on friendly terms with US President Richard Nixon (1968-74) and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. However, this was not the case when Jimmy Carter took over the US Presidency in January 1977. Carter pressurised Bhutto to halt his country’s nuclear programme. On Bhutto’s refusal, Carter decided to maintain the US arms embargo on Pakistan that was actually placed by Nixon in 1971. In April 1977, when US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance suggested that the two countries hold talks ‘quietly and dispassionately’ (to resolve the nuclear issue), Bhutto explained this as a sign of US intervention against his regime (The New York Times, 29 April 1977).

This greatly angered the US because there was no clear evidence of US intervention against the Bhutto regime. Indeed, Carter had been vocal about Bhutto’s plans to acquire or create a nuclear device. But this alone became the basis of the perceptions that formulated Bhutto’s narrative. If Carter had wanted to oust Bhutto and replace him with a military dictator, he would have ended the arms embargo on Pakistan. But he did no such thing. In fact, a year after the coup, Carter terminated all aid to Pakistan and imposed further sanctions.

Why would he do that after supposedly ‘funding’ the ouster of Bhutto and then facilitating those who had toppled him? Aid restrictions and the embargo only began to be lifted two years later after Soviet troops marched into Kabul in December 1979. In fact, restrictions in this regard would not be fully lifted till 1981 (almost four years after Bhutto’s removal).

Bhutto accuses the US


A narrative is essentially a story, a term more often associated with fiction than with political science. It affects our perceptions of political reality, which in turn affect our actions in response to or in anticipation of political events. It plays a critical role in the construction of political behaviour. In political narratives, fiction often becomes fact and myths become part of public discourse (M. Patterson, K. Renwick in Review of Political Science, June 1998).

Political narratives do not appear from a vacuum. They are mostly dramatic and animated summations of sentiments that are already present in a society. A single event can generate various narratives. For example, during research for a feature I did for a weekly in the early 1990s on the horrific ethnic clashes that took place in 1986 in Karachi’s Orangi area between the Mohajirs and the Pakhtuns, produced very different narratives from those who were caught in the fighting.

Among the impacted Mohajirs, the fighting was started by the Pakhtuns who were supposedly being allowed to settle in Karachi in large numbers (by the state) to undermine the city’s Mohajir majority and its economic influence. According to the Pakhtuns who experienced the violence, the Mohajirs treated them like savages and were willing to kill them to maintain their economic monopolies.

"It’s a conspiracy," claims Khan

There is no one truth about the event. There are many narratives. Yet, truth can be found if one was to more objectively study the social, economic and political impact of industrialisation, population growth and infrastructural challenges of the city from the 1950s onwards. But Karachi’s history and present are often manifested through political narratives formed by different vested worldviews held by the city’s ethnic communities. Narratives simplify the understanding of the complex issues of Karachi, but since they are formulated more through perceptions and sometimes outright fibs, they end up polarising the diverse population of this port city. Emotions outweigh facts in political narratives (A. Hoschschild in American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 2006).

Imran Khan is portraying the event of his ouster as a conspiracy and moralising his response as a sacred struggle. He is using rhetoric and symbolism to evoke an emotional response in a polity that has already been instilled with narratives that romanticise its national and religious impulse, and in which paranoia is encouraged if it is to remain intact as a national whole.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.