Pathos and bathos
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” according to Edward Bernays, the man behind the idea that American war efforts in the World War I were meant to ‘bring democracy to Europe’, and the man behind the philosophy that the choices people make can easily be influenced because they are not rational but emotional. “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
Imran Khan’s recent rise would not have been possible without the support of that “invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country”. The ways in which that invisible government has engineered public opinion in favour of a number of actors over several decades are so typical that they can now be identified in Imran Khan’s media campaign:
The 18-crore argument:
People are persuaded to make a choice because everybody else is making it too. People are told that a particular ideology, party or movement is winning because so many people have joined it that it is impossible for it to lose. This has two implications – one, that so many people cannot be wrong, and two, that if the subject does not join in, he or she will be left out.
This technique has recently been overused by a number of opposition political parties and journalists. Each one of them claims to represent 18 crore people, which is the entire estimated population of Pakistan. That leaves zero supporters for the popular political parties now in government.
Actually, of the 18 crore people who live in Pakistan, less than 8 crore are adults who can vote. About a fifth of them voted for the PPP in the last elections. Imran Khan, investigative journalists, and a politician from Rawalpindi who has lost elections twice in a row cannot represent 18 crore people.
Pakistan’s very complex problems are simplified by being blamed on one particular person or one particular policy. That person is usually the president.
For example, Imran Khan claims the sole and simple reason for corruption in governance is that the man on top, President Asif Zardari, is corrupt. On other occasions, for example when asked why he has welcomed politicians accused of corruption in his own party, he would say corruption is a complex problem and there are no angels. If Imran Khan cannot find honest politicians, how can Zardari?
Imran Khan’s party also claims terrorism will simply end if Pakistan stops cooperating with the United States. Pakistan’s policy of intervention in Afghanistan, the military’s ties with terrorist groups, and sectarian violence in Pakistan are seen as irrelevant.
Ideology of Pakistan:
The Ideology-of-Pakistan technique involves use of words and phrases linked to concepts that have high emotional value. When political premises are linked to such terms as the ideology of Pakistan, honour and sovereignty, they are approved without thinking. That also makes it impossible for political rivals to question the validity of such arguments because they do not want to hurt public sentiment.
Imran Khan says he will make Pakistan an ‘Islamic welfare state’. It is impossible for a popular politician in Pakistan to disagree with that, or to ask what an Islamic welfare state is and what interpretation of Islam and what welfare mechanism he is talking about. He is free to interpret Islam the way it suits him, and anybody who questions his interpretation will be seen as questioning Islam.
A number of popular musicians have recently endorsed Imran Khan, not because they believe any particular solutions he has proposed would work, but as a matter of lifestyle and using such keywords as youth, vigour, passion and future.
What they say in Imran Khan’s favour might as well have been said verbatim about any other political party in Pakistan. A song that says ‘Dehshatgardi Murdabad’ – or death to terrorism (sic!) – is tautological. Another one that says all politicians are corrupt and Pakistanis are fed up can be played at virtually any political gathering, including those in the ruling alliance.
A form of this propaganda technique was used by the PPP when it would call its opponents ‘Zia ki Baqiyaat’ – the remains of Zia. Lately, Imran Khan’s public meetings feature Jinnah and Iqbal on one side of the stage backdrop and Imran Khan on the other, to suggest he is the successor of the founding fathers.
It took Quaid-e-Azam many years to rise to the position where he could claim to be a representative of a majority of Muslims in India, and eventually of all Pakistanis. Somehow, his hard work and shrewd moves were all transferred to Imran Khan, who began his political career as the chairman of the party of which he was the only key member for about 10 years.
What Imran Khan’s rivals in government have not been able to understand so far is, “The best defence against propaganda,” according to Edward Bernays, was “more propaganda.”
The writer is a media and culture critic and works at The Friday Times. He tweets @paagalinsaan and gets email at [email protected]