Cas Mudde published the Populist Zeitgeist in 2004. The paper demonstrated a new and concise understanding of the word populism. In 2004, the term ‘populism’ was not in practice. The paper did not gain popularity and failed to be a part of discourse in academia. Albeit, passage through ages took a new turn; popular politics in the later decade became the elephant in the room and discourse surrounding it could no longer be discarded.
Similarly, the paradigmatic cases of populism became conspicuous in the shape of Modi, Trump, Orman, Duterte and others. Discussion and discourse in the muddled media has surged since then, with anchors labelling politicians populist on their whims. However, there are some indicators to identify a populist according to Jan Werner Muller who discusses them in his book Populism. By looking into these indicators this article tends to inquire whether Imran Khan is a populist or not.
The critique of a government or governmental policy is a common practice in democracy. It is justified, and rightfully so, under freedom of speech. Although constructive criticism is deemed healthy for a good democracy , populist leaders outdo themselves and get personal. They usually call their opponents corrupt and illegitimate and make a habit of vilifying their political rivals.
The aforementioned traits are displayed by Imran Khan when he accuses Zardari and Sharifs of not only being corrupt and illegitimate but also goes beyond, and ends up abusing them. Furthermore, the populists refer to their supporters as the “ real people” and their tendency to exclude others is another such indicator. For instance, only 52 percent of people voted in support of Brexit in England, and yet some politicians touted this as the triumph of the ‘real people’ . Were the remaining people not real enough?
As is well documented in public knowledge, during a speech in KP former deputy speaker of national assembly whispered to Imran’s ears to give his speech a religious touch; keeping the tradition of his own, IK did actually start on Raisat e Madina.
Same is the case with Imran Khan who raises the slogan of Raisat e Madina (state of Madina) and New Pakistan. Khan often tells those who don’t support him that ” the nation won’t forgive them.” The populists support polarisation which eventually puts democracy in jeopardy.
In addition to that, populists toy with emotions to win popular support, as Herodotus points out that “all major decisions of humans are emotionally driven.” The populists use religion , race, caste or nationality to emotionally attract and polarise people along these lines. As is well documented in public knowledge, during a speech in KP former deputy speaker of national assembly whispered to Imran’s ears to give his speech a religious touch; keeping the tradition of his own, IK did start on Raisat e Madina.
Since populists argue that they represent the real people, what if they lose? According to Jan Warmer Muller, they call the elections rigged or cook up a ‘foreign conspiracy theory’ story instead of accepting failure. For instance, Donald Trump after losing to Biden, alleged that elections were rigged and called upon his followers to storm the Capitol. Imran Khan followed the same approach, calling the vote of no confidence a foreign conspiracy and instigated revolt.
All these indicators bear out the fact that Khan is a populist. But another moot question arises – how to rein in a populist? They are not only a threat to democracy but the welfare of their public. In the past Hitler and Mussolini with their populist narratives and slogans had wrecked a havoc on their respective countries.
Why can’t we tell populists, the demagogues or Machiavellianists apart? As Paulo Freire points out the banking system of education does not allow students to develop replexis ( reflection and action of self and the world ). Students are only passive listeners and teachers are the ones who dump the knowledge; whereas students are unable to develop the art of asking questions, inquiring about their surroundings and indulging in self-reflection.
Falling prey to populist narratives has become commonplace for people with little ability to question and understand their social conditions. There is an urgent need to develop an education system where both teachers and students become active participants, students develop conscientizacao, question vehemently and dissect their surroundings. The behemoth of populism can only be eradicated with revolutionising education.
The writer is a student of History at Government College University Lahore.