By Mushtaq Gaadi
POPULISM is the new cloak of right-wing politics in Pakistan. As elsewhere, this emergent rightist populism is constructed upon the pillars of hyper-patriotism, xenophobia and rhetoric of anti-politics.
Its manifest target is the incumbent government, but it potentially threatens the ongoing democratic transition and the institutional edifice of parliamentary democracy.
Populism typically thrives when the prevailing power structure is subject to internal contradictions. The subsequent struggle for hegemony between various contenders for power allows space for populist rhetoric to acquire more weight than might ordinarily be possible.
Whenever an old or new faction in the power bloc finds it hard to impose its hegemony, it may choose to directly appeal to `the people` against the existing political order.
This is exactly the strategy the new-right populists in Pakistan are pursuing in order to maintain their diminishing control over state discourse and public policy.
Up until recently, there was little challenge to the hegemony of the right-wing in Pakistan. For the past few decades, right-wing groups and state elites have remained close allies and built on each other`s strengths. However, two major political changes in the recent past have put the survival of this hegemonic alliance at risk.
First, the war on terror has created a major rupture in state discourse and policy that makes it increasingly difficult for state elites to maintain their open association with militant rightists. Therefore, it has been necessary to reinvent the old right-wing into a more palatable populism. Secondly, the hegemony of the holy alliance has been challenged by a vibrant and assertive parliament in the after-math of the 2008 general election.
Not only has the present parliament restored constitutional democracy; it also ousted Musharraf, reinstated the judiciary, put the peace dialogue with India back on track and formulated a consensus policy against terrorism. These are no small achievements given the divided mandate and diverse representation in the elected Houses. The growing sway of parliament is reflected presently in the deliberations over the thorny issue of the creation of new provinces.
The rise of new-right populism should be understood in the backdrop of the fragmentation of the erstwhile unitary structure of power and the ensuing struggle for hegemony.
Tellingly, the strategy of right populists against the democratic transition pivots around the subversion of some axial ideas of constitutional democracy, particularly the notion of the people and fundamental rights.
Although the ideas of the people and fundamental rights occupy central positions in democracy, they are just as easily emptied of their substantive meanings. In post-modernist terms, these concepts are floating signifiers without specific referents. They can be invested with diverse and indeterminate meanings.
Both populism and constitutional democracy have contrasting approaches towards the question: what constitutes the people? Populism conceptualises the people as a homogenous/monistic body invested with popular sovereignty. Therefore, populists demand direct and unmediated power to the people.
On the other hand, the logic of representative democracy presumes plural interests and factional divisions in society. Hence, it emphasises participation, representation and democratic accommodation.
Several scholars of political studies are of the view that populism has potentially dangerous consequences for democracy. In democratic regimes, both the identity and the will of the people are subject to constant reinterpretation.
Temporary and mediated construction is necessary given the diverse and ever-changing needs, interests and beliefs of citizens. Parliament assumes great significance in this regard because it allows the expression of difference as well as the construction of political unity through diversity.
On the contrary, populism defines the sovereign rule of the people-as-one. Consequently, it divides society into two extremely antagonistic and homogenous groups, namely `the pure people` versus `the corrupt elites` Populists contend that `the people` are the real sovereign but corrupt and incompetent political representatives have stolen power from them. They claim to embody the will of `the people` and vow to give power back to `the people` Populism has become the pet strategy of new rightists in Pakistan, mainly because of its thin-centred ideology as well as its potential to cultivate disenchantment with politics and the new democratic order. Not surprisingly, new-right populist leaders like Imran Khan allege that parliament is merely a rubber-stamp in the hands of corrupt and self-interested politicians. They claim to have simple solutions to all of Pakistan`s complex and historical problems.
The success of new-right populists lies in their alliance with the proponents of judicial activism and sections of the media that have a self-anointed agenda-setting role.
Discussing the alliance of right populists and judicial activists against representative democracy in Canada, Rainer Knopff, the renowned scholar of political science, observes that while populism seeks to move power down, from representatives to the people, the politics of fundamental rights moves power up, away from elected parliamentarians to appointed judges.
The memogate scandal is the ultimate expression of this alliance between new-right populists and the activist judiciary to emasculate the sitting parliament.
Similarly, the media, particularly current affairs anchors, regularly deploy `news frames which indict political leaders for poor governance and disregard for national interests.
Politics is portrayed as a dirty game of power-hungry politicians, a narrative that gives rise to cynical and anti-politics attitudes within the general public. In many instances, the media openly espouses populism and directly makes political appeals to `the people`.
There are, however, certain limits to new-right populism in Pakistan. First, unlike typical populists, this new brand declares war against the corruption and bad governance of the political class while conveniently excusing state and economic elites.
Secondly, they are faced with the challenge of an alternative populist construction of the people as historical and linguistic communities. The condition of ethno-linguistic diversity and rise of nationalist movements in Pakistan make the singular and unifying conception of the people almost an impossible task.
The writer teaches at Quaid-iAzam University, Islamabad.