The Politics Of Populism In South Asia: How Khan Emerged As A Populist Leader – OpEd


Populism is considered an antagonistic ideology that pits ‘the people’ against the “elite”. The definition of the people depends on the nature and historical context of a society in which populist ideology emerges, whereas elites can be categorized as political, economic, or bureaucratic elites who run the system.

Populism is a political ideology carved and carried out by a charismatic leader against the existing structure, ideas, and values through the support or general will of the people. This implies that charismatic leadership is pre-requirement to be a populist to gain the support of the people. Populist leaders are efficient orators and can control the sentiments of people for their political gains. They pretend to speak up for the people, but deep down they prioritize personal interests over public interest. They create a binary among the people, an example of ‘the haves’ and the have nots of Marx, where the ‘have nots’ (ordinary masses) are pitted against ‘the haves’ (ruling elites).

The world has witnessed the global rise of populism in the post-modern world andmore rapidly in democratic states. Europe (Tayyab Erdogan, Emanuel Macron, Victor Orbán, and Georgia Meloni), South Asia (Modi and Khan), and America (Trump) are glaring examples of right-wing populism. Populism emerges where the established system is already in turmoil, as “some degree of crisis is a pre-condition.” The trend of emerging populist leaders in democratic states sheds light on the fact that democracy in those states is exposed to some sort of political, economic, or social crisis.  The populist leaders took advantage of these crises to pit antagonistic homogenous groups against one another. Populism’s nature and morphology depend upon the historical context of the society where it erupts. European populism European populism, for instance, often exhibits strong nationalist tendencies, leading to the enactment of xenophobic and anti-immigration policies. American populism, on the other hand, has roots in racism and the belief in white supremacy, historically tied to the legacy of slavery.

In South Asia, religion and nationalism has always been the dominant paradigm whose horizons are expanded from culture to political ideology. The populist politics of religion played by Khan in Pakistan and Modi in India are reflection of the culture and history. The rise of populism in Pakistan can be attributed to the shortcomings of previous governments, which failed to effectively address social injustice and inequalities within society. Imran Khan, the former premier of Pakistan, used these as a trump card to gain the support of the ordinary masses against the ruling elite. Imran Khan is often labelled as a charismatic leader who excels in crafting narratives and framing rhetoric that resonates with the common people. There is no doubt for him to be a charismatic leader, he is a master of making narratives and framing rhetoric, raison d’être popular among the ordinary masses. His traction to populism lay in the fact that he gave his anti-establishment narrative in religious packaging to incite support among the masses.  

Khan whipped exclusionary political ideology against the corrupt mafias and dynastic parties. After his disposal from the premiership, he changed the direction of his gun toward the military establishment. His slogan of change ‘Naya Pakistan’ proved a pipedream that only pushed people into a pit of despair. When he failed to materialize his slogan for change, he moved to an anti-American and anti-military narrative to retain his support among the masses. His political ideology cannot be solely termed as exclusionary because he is also very vocal about including the ignored strata of society and provincial peripheries to be part of mainstream politics. Again, being realistic, it comes into one’s mind what has he done for their inclusion in his tenure of 42 months.

Khan’s politics of cultism succeeded because of his charisma and fan following. People think that his personality cult is because of his legacy of the only Cricket Captain who has won World Cup and a philanthropist who opened a non-profit cancer hospital. This is not enough; Khan has strengthened cultism by effectively using social media platforms to deliver his political rhetoric. Khan has strategically shaped a politics of cultism by presenting himself as the sole ‘messiah’ who will rescue the people from the clutches of a corrupt elite. This narrative has been ingrained in the minds of his followers, reinforcing the belief that he is above the law and not accountable to state institutions.  The events that unfolded on 9th May, following his arrest are the sequel of politics of cultism.  This implies, the politics of cultism erodes the rule of law and rupture the state institutions, which jeopardizes the democratic system. 

What concerns everyone is that populists pose long-term threats to the existing system and society. It creates a permanent split in the society; divides them on ethno-religious lines. Later, these cracks are exploited by extremist outfits to destabilize a country. This also creates a lack of tolerance in the masses, which vandalizes the democratic values of peace, tolerance, and freedom. Populism does not alter the democratic system; it makes it weak and dysfunctional which is more lethal than authoritarianism. For example, in an authoritarian regime, there is a centralized authority to maintain the rule of law; whereas, in a dysfunctional democratic regime, there is no central authority to maintain the rule of law. Pakistan has become an example of dysfunctional democracy where democratic values are eroding slowly but surely, and Khan cultism has increased the pace to this eventuality. 

The role of populists in democracy is a complex and debated topic. Populists can both add value and pose a threat to democratic values, depending on how they approach governance and engage with the system. Populists promote direct democracy and try to eschew the system of checks and balance. In a democratic state, a leader represents all the factions and groups, whereas a populist leader represents selected people based on socio-economic inequalities or affiliation to an ethnoreligious group.  A populist leader is a one-man show who promotes authoritarianism to attain absolute power. On the contrary, the sunny side of a populist leader is that he brings up the legitimate grievances of the people and talks about social equality and rights. They bring up social issues into the limelight and unearth the manipulative and exploitative forces. They mobilize the support of the people, which is considered revitalizing for democracy, unless they are in opposition. 

Lastly, how to deal with a populist leader is a question that pops up in everyone’s mind. It is a strenuous task to beat the charisma and personality cult which they have built over the years. It is more difficult to tamp down followers who have blindly believed in the framed narratives and rhetoric of radical change. Countering their half-baked narratives requires the development of concrete and compelling counter-narratives that address the concerns of the people. There is a need to opt for a wise approach to dealing with populist leaders because keeping populist leaders at bay from politics is not a durable solution, it only agitates its supporters.

Similarly, the solution to Khan’s populism is to inculcate him in a democratic process of dialogue and consensus. Under the umbrella of the doctrine of necessity, the government and establishment should hold table talks to save Pakistan’s sinking political and economic ship.  Pakistan is becoming a worst-case scenario of political polarization.  The country needs general elections more than ever to bring political stability. This could not be done without inviting PTI to table talks because dialogue is not a reward rather it is the necessity in the present circumstances. By embracing dialogue and consensus-building, there is a better chance of finding durable solutions and charting a path towards political stability in Pakistan.

Umme Farwa

Umme Farwa is a Researcher at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). She is pursuing MPhil degree in American Studies from Quaid-I-Azam University, Islamabad.

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