There is an overwhelming sense of betrayal in former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s spiraling rhetoric. That sentiment is also prevalent among his grassroots support base, mostly made up of bustling clusters of the country’s upper middle and urban middle class segments. It also has traction in lower middle class pockets, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Before we delve into what helps him retain support within these groups — despite his ousted rule being disastrous for the country’s economy — let’s first explore the sense of betrayal that Khan and his supporters seem to harbor.
Khan was ousted by opposition parties following a vote of no confidence in parliament. It was a completely constitutional manoeuvre. Yet, according to him and his supporters, the move was facilitated by the US regime, which apparently wanted him out because its policies were not favorable to US interests in the region.
There were also discussions within his ranks about how he had become an important leader in the Muslim world and was trying to create an anti-Western Muslim bloc. Of course, all of this has so far turned out to be nothing more than populist hogwash.
Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s supporters feel betrayed to have been robbed of their delusions, not their money
But what seemed to anger Khan the most was how his former “friends” in the military establishment decided to retreat strategically from outright support for him. They simply could not afford to continue doing this amidst the mess their man and his regime were creating in the name of economic and foreign policy. Khan sees this as a betrayal. He was reportedly promised a period of a decade and the obliteration of all opposition to his regime.
The opposition, whether dominant like Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F), etc. ., or the activist Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), showed resilience and ultimately some smart political moves. He turned the growing sentiment within broad sections of the regime against the government’s economic mistakes and demagogic postures, as a means of convincing the establishment that Khan had become a liability.
The feeling of betrayal intensified when a leader of the PML-N, Shahbaz Sharif, was elected by the common opposition as the new prime minister. Khan hates the PML-N.
The sense of betrayal is widely present in Khan’s post- ousting rhetoric. And this rhetoric has found its way into that of its supporters. This generates curious scenarios. For example, as Khan’s more than obvious allusions to his betrayal by senior military leaders increase, this is starting to come out more openly by his followers, especially on social media.
It is presented as a stance against military intervention in politics, even if those who have scoffed at such interventions for decades are unimpressed.
They responded by pointing out that the people who suddenly went “anti-establishment” were, until now, willing tools of the same establishment. On Twitter, various human rights activists and journalists who have been harassed, “disappeared” or psychologically and emotionally abused online insist that those who rant against the establishment today are the same people who applauded the human rights abuses that took place under the Khan regime. .
Even those who are more subtle in this regard, but who protest Khan’s ousting, had remained silent when these abuses occurred.
But the contradictions and ironies with which populist politics is often riddled mean little to those who practice or support it. In fact, the mindset that populism fosters has an incredible knack for seamlessly navigating around contradictions (and hypocrisy), simply ignoring them.
They don’t matter, as long as the central message gets through. In fact, in the case of populists like Khan, the man has become the message. His carefully crafted image of being “the only option”, “incorruptible” and a “world famous celebrity”, continues to undermine (among some sections of society) the many disasters over which his regime has presided.
The upper and upper middle classes actually thrived on the unbalanced economic policies of the old regime. Most economists have called these policies “pro-rich”. The middle class, the petty bourgeoisie and the lower classes (which are the majority) have suffered, on the other hand. So why would certain segments of the middle and lower middle classes continue to support Khan?
It seems their economic interests have transcended into an imaginary realm that is still peddled by Khan. It is a surreal mix of “New Age spiritualism”, Islamism, conspiracy theories and post-colonialism.
Like a cult, Khan’s PTI gave the mentioned segments a sense of purpose and produced experiences from the intensity of group dynamics. Indeed, this sense of purpose was woven from utopian promises. And when the government fell, many of them ignored the possible economic and political benefits of the fall and were plunged back into what they had been a part of before Khan came to power.
The anxiety of losing an identity and a purpose in which they had invested their egos and their emotions did not manifest when Khan was at the helm as prime minister. He only slipped in when what they thought was impossible actually happened. He fell.
If segments of the middle class transcend their economic interests in an effort to maintain an identity carved out for them by Khan, so do some sections of the lower middle classes. But for them, the loss of received identity also meant something else.
The identity made them feel (and not be, or be accepted as) middle class. They didn’t have to climb the ladder to be part of the middle class. Instead, they simply needed to support the PTI and attend party rallies, largely populated by a class they aspire to belong to.
Recently, a video went viral in which a young man from a lower middle income group was seen cursing General Bajwa, the army and the opposition for shooting down Khan. He then set fire to a Pakistani flag.
For him, the message was the man, Imran Khan. A man who made him feel like he belonged to the “middle class”. The fall of man therefore meant the erosion of this feeling, of this emotion. The crushing of the economic fortunes of the young man’s income group during the Khan regime did not matter.
Source of concern.
Posted in Dawn, EOS, April 17, 2022