People across the world hunger for political leaders who can do miracles but Pakistanis are hungrier than most. Although the country’s founders gave it the two-nation theory, they provided no road maps or further directions.
After rough weather and stormy seas battered the country for three-quarters of a century, a nation adrift saw two miracle men arise. Separated by 50 years and endowed with magical personalities, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Imran Khan set the public imagination on fire by challenging the established order.
After Bhutto was sent to the gallows, many PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) jiyalas self-flagellated, with several immolating themselves in despair. Till their fiery end, they believed in a feudal lord’s promise of socialist utopia. Similar horrific scenes occurred after the assassination of his charismatic daughter. That the father was instrumental in the break-up of Pakistan, and that during the daughter’s years Pakistan fell yet deeper into a pit of corruption, left jiyalas unfazed. Today’s Sindh remains firmly in the grip of a quasi-feudal dynasty and the Bhutto cult.
But still worse might lie ahead as Imran Khan’s cult goes from strength to strength. Writing in Dawn, Adrian Husain worries that a matinee idol with a freshly acquired messianic status is skillfully exploiting widespread anger at corruption to sow hate and division among Pakistanis. Fahd Husain evinces alarm that PTI’s flag-waving ‘youthias’ can see no wrong in whatever Khan says or does. He wonders why even those with Ivy League degrees put their rational faculties into a deep sleep. Conversing with PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) supporters, says Ayesha Khan, has become close to impossible.
Khan taps both into widespread social grievances and into the weak reasoning skills of his devotees.
What enabled these two men to command the senseless devotion of so many millions? Can science explain it? Forget political science. The dark secret is that this isn’t really a science. So, could neuroscience give the answer? Although this area has seen spectacular progress, it is nowhere close to cracking the brain’s inner code.
Messiahs and sceptics
Instead, one must turn to the animal kingdom. Gregariousness and suppression of individuality help protect members of a species because leaders give direction in a difficult environment. But there is a downside. Herds of sheep are known to follow their leader over a cliff and self-destruct. Human groupies have done similarly.
Specific social attitudes — groupthink and its diametrical opposite, scepticism — explain why some societies crave messiahs while others don’t. At one level, everyone is a sceptic. When it comes to everyday life — where to invest one’s life’s savings, what food to eat, or which doctor to see for a serious health problem — we don’t simply believe all that’s told to us. Instead, we look around for evidence and are willing to let go of ideas when contrary evidence piles up. But in political and religious matters, open-mindedness often turns into absolutism.
Absolutism has made Pakistani politics less and less issue-oriented and more and more tribal. It is hard to tell apart PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League (N)) or PPP from PTI on substantive matters such as the economy, foreign debt, or relations with neighbouring countries. The only certainty is that the government in power will blame the previous government for everything.
This absolutism makes most party supporters purely partisan — you are with us or against us. Zealots willingly believe accusations aimed at the other side but dismiss those aimed at their own. A rational PTI supporter, on the other hand, will entertain the Toshakhana as possible evidence of wrongdoing just as much as Surrey Palace or Avenfield Apartments. He is also willing to admit that all Pakistani political leaders — including Khan — have lifestyles at odds with their declared assets and income. Rational supporters who can say ‘yeh sub chor hain’ exist but are few.
Instead, a culture of intellectual laziness feeds upon wild conspiracy theories coupled with an unshakeable belief that political destinies are controlled by some overarching, external power. The ancient Greeks believed that the world was run by the whims and desires of the great god Zeus. For the PTI zealot, the centre of the universe has shifted from Mount Olympus to Washington.
In the zealot’s imagination, an omnipotent American god sits in the White House. With just the flick of his wrist, he ordered Imran Khan’s (former) military sponsors to dump him and then stitched together his fractured political opposition into organising a no-confidence vote. Of course, everyone dutifully obeyed orders. And this supposedly happened inside one of the world’s most anti-American countries. But we know that pigs can fly, don’t we? (Incidentally, America’s severest critic for over 60 years, Noam Chomsky, has reportedly trashed Khan’s claim of a regime change conspiracy.)
Fortunately, not all who stand with a political party, PTI included, are zealots. They do recognise that the country’s entire political class is crass, corrupt, self-seeking, and puts personal interest above that of the electorate. Knowing this they choose a party that, in their estimation, is a lesser evil over a greater one. Democracy depends on this vital principle.
To see this, compare the mass hysteria generated by Khan after being voted out of the office with the calmness that followed France’s recent elections. Though despised by the majority of those who voted for him, Macron won handsomely over Marie Le Pen, his far-right, Islamophobic opponent. To her credit, Le Pen did not attribute the defeat either to Washington or to a global Islamic conspiracy. That’s civilised politics.
A culture of dogma
Why democracy works for France but has had such a rough time in Pakistan is easy to see. It’s not just the military and its constant meddling in political affairs. More important is a culture where emotion and dogma shove truth into the margins. What else explains the enormous popularity of motivational speakers who lecture engineering students on methods to deal with jinns and other supernatural creatures?
Pakistan’s education system stresses faith-unity-discipline at the cost of reason-diversity-liberty. This has seriously impaired the ordinary Pakistani’s capacity to judge. Even in private English-medium schools for the elite, teachers and students remain shackled to a ‘madressah mindset’. Why be surprised that so many ‘youthias’ are burger bachas? Unless we allow children to think, the yearning for Miracle Man will continue. It will long outlast Imran Khan — whenever and however he finally exits the scene.
The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and author.
This article was first published in Dawn on 30 April 2022 and it has been republished here with permission.