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Guest post: Understanding the PTI’s Populism

Guest post: Understanding the PTI’s Populism

This is a guest post by Ammar Rashid (twitter: @AmmarRashidT, email: ammar dot rashid at gmail dot com), an independent researcher in Islamabad. An earlier version of this piece was published in The News on Sunday.

In the ‘The Rebirth of History’ (2012), the French philosopher Alain Badiou attempts to contextualize the unrest and uprisings occurring across the world today by referring to them as characteristics of what he calls an ‘intervallic’ period of history. For Badiou, an intervallic period is one of contradiction, crisis and revolt albeit with a critical distinction – it is a phase where the revolutionary alternatives of the previous period (in this case, socialism) lie dormant as a result of internal contradictions and external attacks and have not yet been taken up by a new sequence in their development. Thus, while the intervallic period is rife with discontent and rebellion, it lacks a shared and universally practicable Idea of emancipation, resulting in a politics of rebellion that is essentially negative (Down with Mubarak) rather than ideologically positivist and a politics of reaction that renews its emphasis on the ‘natural order of things’ (The End of History). For Badiou, the early-to-mid-19th century was another such phase, in which the revolutionary republicanism of the 18th century lay ‘discredited’ and church-sanctioned liberal monarchy sought to reassert itself as the ‘natural’ and dominant organizing principle of the age.

In Pakistan, no phenomenon straddles the intervallic contradictions of the age between the status quo and revolt as finely as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf. Held up by its fervent supporters as the harbinger of revolution, Imran Khan’s PTI has been variably derided by its critics as vacuous, anti-politics, reactionary, elitist, an establishment tool and, of course, populist.


Pakistan’s most prominent political purveyor of ‘change’ has been possibly the most discussed political party in the country over the last two years. However, as is the case with much of political debate in Pakistan, most of the discussion has taken the form of polarized and partisan argumentation between the party’s supporters and detractors, replete with considerable moralization from both sides. Less effort has been expended (with some exceptions) on a socio-historical contextualization of the PTI or on efforts to understand why the phenomenon takes the discursive and practical shape it does. That the party and its leadership are urban-centric, middle-class-focused and populist appears to be the general consensus; less of a consensus exists on the questions of why this form of populism is emerging in Pakistan in the manner that it is today and what it tells us about the shifting contours of Pakistani society. The answers, as one might expect, are complex and multi-dimensional and they require both an interrogation of the idea of populism as well as an exploration of the socio-historical context in which the PTI has emerged as a potent political force.
Though the incidence of populism is nearly as old as recorded history (Caesarian populism being a prominent historical example), modern understandings of the term generally conceive of it as a phenomenon associated with the nation state and tied to the cyclical contradictions of capitalist growth. The contemporary theoretical consensus on populism (embodied in the works of theorists like Laclau, Jansen, Meny and Surel, among others) understands it as a distinct type of political logic that seeks to protect the interests of ‘the people’ which it sees as being in antagonistic opposition to an ‘institutional elite’. This is done through the use of what Laclau calls ‘empty signifiers’, ideas like ‘Freedom’ and ‘Justice’, which act as the template for creating an equivalence between the varied demands that populism seeks to represent. Importantly, populism is also characterized by emotive and affective investment in popular symbols in the course of mobilization, which distinguishes it from the more ‘rational’ and institutionalized political modalities of the existing mainstream.

The reason populism is understood as a universal category is precisely because its disparate variants tend to be so remarkably congruous in their manifestations across societies and historical periods. An examination of the incidence of populist movements around the world reveals that the phenomenon is tied to a number of distinct social, economic and political conditions that underpin its emergence.

The emergence of populism connotes firstly a crisis of representation. It appears when the legitimacy of formal political institutions in society is under question and when the political economy arrangements underpinning those institutions have left a critical multitude of social demands unfulfilled. There is little need to elaborate upon why this is true in the case of Pakistan. Pakistan’s representative institutions have historically suffered from tenuous legitimacy after years of interrupted democratization, direct military rule and a parallel, informal system of political distribution. The current phase of nominal democratic rule, commencing in the midst of serious global and domestic economic crises and full-blown insurgencies, has done little to bolster the credibility of political institutions that have (justifiably so in most cases) shouldered much of the blame for the economic and security woes of multiple social groups in the country, particularly the now sizable, yet squeezed and insecure urban middle class. While the popular de-legitimization of civilian political institutions has occurred earlier as well, this may be the first historical period since 1971 that the military has also, for a number of reasons, been the regular target of public ire. This, as well as the emergence of an inter-dependent center of power in the Supreme Court, has contributed to the weakening of the military’s earlier legitimacy as a governing alternative, clearing the space for the PTI’s populism to emerge as a professed alternative to the politics of patronage.

Populism is also understood by theorists as being associated with a breakdown in the symbolic framework of hegemony governing society. This is evident in Pakistan, where the state has seen an erosion of both its monopoly over violence and its control over the national narrative in recent years. The military-dominated state’s hegemonic framework of Islam, National Security and Jihad now exists as a space of severe contestation, from actors as varied as Deobandi militants, the electronic media, the US, ethno-nationalists, progressives, Barelvi Sunnis and Shias, among others. In the frontiers of postcolonial states, the weakening of the hegemonic framework connotes separatism and insurgency – closer to the center, it tends to precipitate populism. Crucially, populism tends to recognize and bemoan the breakdown of the hegemonic order, while expressing a desire to reconfigure it within the comfort of continuity (rather than complete insurrectionary rupture). The PTI’s discourse as well can be seen as an attempt to ‘re-imagine’ Pakistani nationhood through radical investment in the signifiers (‘Insaf’, ‘Dignity’) created in the course of the popular phenomenon but ultimately within the original parameters established by official statehood, which encompass a continued affinity for national security and the primacy of Islam (albeit an interpretation of it rhetorically differentiated from the majoritarian Deobandi Islam of the prevailing hegemonic framework). Appeals by Imran Khan to the lost ideals of ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’ are reminiscent of what Taggart would refer to as populism’s commitment to an imagined metaphysical sense of a ‘heartland’, usually located in an idealized blend of national tradition and progress.

A constitutive societal ingredient critical to the emergence of populist movements is a heterogeneous social terrain. Populism tends to thrive in societies tending towards increasing social and economic heterogeneity, or increased differentiation of identification amongst social groups. Pakistan, which has witnessed considerable socio-economic fragmentation in recent years due to rapid urbanization, an absence of sustained industrial growth, and an increasingly services-based economy with large levels of informality and disguised unemployment, can be said to contain a distinctly heterogeneous urban social landscape where the traditional unifying homologies of class, caste, clan or ethnicity are increasingly unable to adequately represent the totality of the differentiated social demands that remain unfulfilled in an economic slump within a skewed, informal system of political patronage. In the case of Pakistan, this inadequately representative milieu is exacerbated by years of the suppression of popular and left-wing parties and groups by the state and the cooptation of multiple subordinate social groups within the politics of state patronage. Hence, amidst increased, differentiated disaffection and the concurrent weakness of traditional bases for political organization, the need arises for the creation of a popular symbol that creates a unifying link between these heterogeneous demands in order for them to be represented politically. This heterogeneity of the PTI’s support base reveals itself in the results of its recent intra-party elections as well – the victors range from landlords and industrialists to small farmers, mechanics, carpenters and teachers.

This characteristic heterogeneity of populism’s support base also has an impact on populism’s ideological character, which, with few exceptions, tends towards emptiness. Populist movements the world over commonly point towards the ‘corruption’ of parasitic groups in positions of authority, rather than situate the cause of the prevailing crisis as a structural problem of the socio-economic system itself. The PTI is no exception – it describes Pakistan’s primary social antagonism as the consequence of a moral shortcoming of the political elite (and its collusion in what it sees as an immoral war) and posits policy prescriptions more ‘technocratic’ and ‘reformist’ than radical. While some understand this as reflecting the conservative milieu and capitalistic affinities of the middle class core of populism, it is also a reflection of the heterogeneity of the cross-sectional demands that populism coalesces. Given the vast and differentiated multitude of interests and demands suffering from inadequate representation (ranging, in Pakistan, from disgruntled large business owners to informal wage labor), the popular project is compelled to divest itself of ideological coherence and particularism and embrace the emptiness of nebulous signifiers like ‘Change’ and ‘Justice’. In this way, one can understand the ‘vagueness’ and ‘imprecision’ of populisms like the PTI as a function of the very differentiated social reality they emerge from. (A comparison with Bhutto’s somewhat more ideologically-focused populism in an era of relatively greater social homogeneity and a left-leaning global ethos would be instructive here but would also require a separate essay.)

Finally, the emergence of populism represents a breakdown in the institutional logic of society, or the differential framework of incentives and relationships that binds together various groups and interests within a social system. In the words of Laclau, ‘the less a society is kept together by immanent differential mechanisms, the more it relies on the supposed transcendence offered by populist phenomena’. The role of the leader at such an impasse becomes crucial – as the differential framework deteriorates, the popular leader often comes to represent the very ground of the popular singularity or the equivalential chain linking the series of disaffected groups/demands together. The mechanisms of this process are best explicated by Freudian crowd theory. For Freud, if the distance between the ego and the ‘ego-ideal’ (or the inner image of oneself as one wants to become) of the populous increases (as would be the case amidst rising disaffection and deprivation), the populist leader begins to serve the very role of ego-ideal for the populous. Khan, for his ardent supporters, serves as an example of a role model worthy of emulation and a human antidote to what they see as the evils corrupting society and limiting themselves. Needless to say, there is much that can be gleaned from the support for Khan about the aspirations of upwardly mobile classes in urban Pakistan (or at least Punjab and KPK), for whom questions of identity, religion and modernity are hugely significant in a post-911 world, with Imran Khan perhaps providing hope of conceptual and sociopolitical synthesis between those spheres.

In sum, the PTI has, increasingly successfully, created a popular equivalential chain between a heterogeneity of social groups and demands coalesced together through the use of its signifiers of ‘Change’, ‘Justice’ and ‘Dignity’ ensconced under the rubric of an assertive, cultural-nationalist re-articulation of Pakistani nationhood. This acknowledgement of success has to be tempered, however, by recognition of the PTI’s geographical limitations – the party remains predominantly located in urban spaces in Punjab and KPK, still failing to find a base for its populism within the ethno-nationalist-dominated peripheries of the Pakistani state, where many remain suspicious of centralizing nationalist narratives.

While alarmism about the PTI’s potential for fascism seems largely unwarranted (the party has consistently, more than most others, rhetorically affirmed its commitment to the protection and welfare of marginalized and minority groups), wariness about the transformative potential of its populism is less so, as history and theory are wont to remind us. The emphasis on moral corruption makes a substantive transformation of exploitative structures unlikely beyond the punitive sentencing of some of the ‘corrupt’. The indifference to structural critique makes possible alliances with the very groups and institutions that preserve the exploitative political economy of mass exclusion. Furthermore, the heterogeneity of populism’s support base brings with it inherent tensions of conflicting interests that impinge on its reformative success – many, though not all, populist phenomena dissipate in the midst of internecine conflict within the populist coalition. And crucially, populism’s innate hostility to formal representation often results in the loss of popular legitimacy when it becomes associated with formal institutions of power, something that the PTI will undoubtedly have to cope with in the instance of electoral success. There is also the perennial threat of personalization of authority associated with populism, which, to its credit, the PTI may have diluted through the creditable institution of substantive intra-party democracy.

All such concerns, however, should not be taken as reasons to dismiss the phenomenological significance of the PTI. In an increasingly heterogeneous, post-industrial world in the midst of institutional and economic crises, where social identities are being rapidly contested and reconstituted amidst the backdrop of relentless capitalist accumulation and the disaffection of multiple social classes and groups, such populisms represent large arenas of socio-political reconfiguration whose dimensions are likely to expand and thus, deserve serious attention and engagement. That the social conditions in Pakistan are uniquely amenable for such phenomena is evident in the organizational success of not just the PTI, but even impermanent populist mobilizations like Tahir-ul-Qadri’s ‘movement’ for electoral reform.

Finally one shouldn’t forget that, for all the cynical Machiavellian manipulation it can disguise, populism represents a collective yearning for a more visceral and ‘real’ form of politics, one that is non-cynical and transparently representative. As Laclau might say, it is something central to the very ontological constitution of the political itself, a political event that can generate its own rules and modalities. The response to it has to involve a collective self-reflection about the fault-lines and contradictions that generate the popular phenomena, for understanding and engaging with them is necessary for anyone interested in the possibilities of genuine people-centric transformation in Pakistan and beyond.

About Ahsan Butt

Assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason.

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