Pakistan Has No Need For Macho Men

Pakistan needs a more thoughtful brand of political leadership - someone who can provide a healing touch and respite from the violence and thuggery that has become endemic to our political system. Macho men are not what we need right now.

Pakistan Has No Need For Macho Men

Bilawal Bhutto is the complete opposite of Imran Khan: Khan was aggressive as a political leader, at least when he was a free man. Bilawal Bhutto firmly criticizes his opponents in his speeches, but he demonstrates no signs of aggressive behavior. Imran Khan used to deploy abusive and threatening language against his “enemies” in his speeches. Bilawal Bhutto is soft spoken and never uses threatening language. 

Imran Khan’s rhetoric was full of utopian day dreams, which he repackaged in his promises to the Pakistani masses. Bilawal Bhutto’s speeches hint at a desire for serious debate on public policy. Imran Khan exhibits signs that his politics has broken free from the political and constitutional norms that the political elites of the 1970s had framed for our polity when we held the first general elections in the country. That’s why attacking military installations was a trivial matter for him and his party. 

Bilawal Bhutto, although he belongs to a younger generation in our society, has proven that his politics is a continuity of the constitutional and political norms, which are the only guarantee against the centrifugal forces tearing our society apart. That’s why he always punctuates his speeches with references to the 1973 Constitution. On the other hand, Imran Khan’s style of politics indicates that he wants to take our society back to the polarization of the 1970s and 1990s. Bilawal Bhutto, in complete contrast, seems to demonstrate that he knows the norms of parliamentary politics, where you sometimes have to make compromises with your opponents on policy matters. 

For Imran Khan, politics is akin to tribal warfare, where opponents are enemies and the contest is akin to a do or die situation. The traditional style of politics in our society has turned parliamentary democracy into an arena for the tribal warfare style of politics, where political opponents are treated as enemies. In parliamentary democracy, there are no enemies. For Bilawal, other parties are opponents, not enemies. Honest disagreement is not only acceptable, it is considered healthy for the strengthening of our political system.

For Imran Khan, politics is akin to tribal warfare, where opponents are enemies and the contest is akin to a do or die situation.

In his public statements, speeches and address to the parliament he is emerging as a serious politician. In his public utterances, he never indulges in non-serious gossiping—which is the foundational personality trait of a large number of Pakistani politicians. They crack jokes and hurl insults against their opponents. Bilawal Bhutto does none of these things. His public and political assertions are purely political and serious in nature. Rather, his statements could be described as part of an ongoing policy discourse, which is a rarity in Pakistan’s political debates.

It has remained a tradition in our society to fashion a macho image of political leaders. Imran Khan’s publicists have taken pains to engineer Khan’s reputation as a macho man. The PTI media campaign projects Imran Khan as a strong and as a traditionally masculine personality. PTI’s official Twitter accounts often release photographs of Imran Khan walking in the midst of a crowd of people with a swollen chest. In this crowd, he is made to stand out while the rest of the crowd is simply providing a background for the great leader. 

Political leaders are often seen making crude statements or threats against their opponents. Imran Khan used to do it quite often. In his public speeches, during the infamous dharnas, he often threatened political leaders, police officers and even a female judge. Political leaders are often shown to be physically and mentally strong—personality traits that indicate a desire to crudely dominate others. Bilawal Bhutto on the other hand, never threatens anyone in his speeches. He is soft spoken. He doesn’t have a macho reputation, and his style and body language are not crude. He doesn’t walk with a puffed out chest. 

The machos in our history have produced violence, social and political strife, tensions and conflicts. We as a society have more than enough macho men, and the toxic masculinity they embody has given us nothing but crude social and political attitudes. We need a softer touch, a healing touch — a person who is more thoughtful, whose personality does not tend towards using violence to solve every problem, who can intellectualize about how to unlock our social, political and economic potential.

When Imran Khan’s supporters clashed with police and paramilitary forces in front of his Zaman Park residence in March 2023, I started to predict that Imran Khan would turn towards violence to achieve his political ambitions. He was seemingly afraid of arrest, as his claims that he would surely be tortured after arrest or may be killed or taken to Baluchistan indicate, so he assembled the most militant of his supporters, most likely unemployed youth, around his residence in Zaman Park and pushed them into hand-to-hand combat with the Lahore Police. 

In the background, Imran Khan’s statements that he was ready for any sacrifice and he would go to any extent to serve his cause provided the backdrop of this drama. Imran Khan was addressing a larger audience: at stake was his image as a winner, an invincible larger than life persona, a political macho man who, as far as his cause is concerned, is not ready to bow his head even before the mightiest forces in the land. 

The machos in our history have produced violence, social and political strife, tensions and conflicts. We as a society have more than enough macho men, and the toxic masculinity they embody has given us nothing but crude social and political attitudes. 

The imaginary constructed around his persona is aimed at portraying him as infallible, and the most powerful. Therefore, in such a situation, his charged cadre of core supporters found it acceptable, rather heroic, to use petrol bombs, slingshots and stones as projectiles to attack the police which had come to arrest him. Imran Khan was not only harassing the police with his newly acquired street power, he, in fact, apparently made an attempt to bully part of the judiciary while using the space provided to him by another part of the judiciary. 

If media reports are to be believed, his militant supporters who accompanied him to the gates of the Judicial Complex where the District and Session Judge of Islamabad was holding his court, heralded Imran Khan’s arrival by pelting stones on the heavily guarded Complex. So, all in all, Imran Khan was successful in retaining his reputation of invincibility as the drama around Zaman Park concluded in March 2023.

When Benazir Bhutto was struggling against the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, part of her family—her brothers to be precise—turned toward violence and took up arms against the military regime. This was the time when Benazir Bhutto made a deliberate policy choice to turn away from violence and to adopt the path of political and constitutional struggle against a brutal military regime as her favored path. Benazir Bhutto’s decision to turn away from violence was a decision not by default. It was a deliberate policy choice, which she remained committed to for the remainder of her life. 

This is the legacy of political and constitutional struggle that Bilawal Bhutto has inherited from his mother, something that should determine his political path for the future. We as a society have just emerged out of a civil war like situation; between 2007 and 2018, we witnessed the onslaught of Pakistani tribal militant groups against our urban centers. Our security forces have been fighting two insurgencies since 2006—one in the north west and the other in south west. 

In such a situation, our mainstream politics should remain free from violence, social and political strife and conflicts. Parliamentary democracy is the answer to our problems, where political opponents are treated as opponents and not as enemies. If your constituency is compelling you to become an enemy of your political opponents and in response you start using threatening language in your speeches, you will be remembered by history as a first-rate opportunist. Pakistan needs a more thoughtful brand of political leadership, someone who can provide a healing touch. Macho men are not the need of the time.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.