Narratives – how nations construct their ideas, shape their identities, and weave them together to understand world phenomena – have become an invaluable tool to navigate through myriad shifting political realities.
Throughout history, political actors have developed various themes and values to pursue their political objectives. These deliberate and well-crafted ideologies are termed narratives – to either maintain a rules-based political system or to challenge the state’s power apparatus. A national narrative is a strategic imperative for a nation as it helps establish a resilient state architecture through identity construction, political maturity, economic prosperity, religious harmony, and good governance.
Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has been looking for a comprehensive national narrative that suits the fabric of its society and brings internal stability. However, weak political institutions, civil-military imbalance, feeble governance, and flawed international approach have led Pakistan not to construct a master national narrative. At the same time, the political narratives that have been built have faltered due to socio-political fissures and staggering economic growth.
Moreover, with the ever-changing geopolitical landscape, Pakistan’s national narrative has undergone significant shifts with every civil and military regime. Consequently, political leaders and stakeholders have often lobbied for the perspectives that help achieve their idiosyncratic interests. Defining Pakistan’s national narrative, thus, has long been an issue of contention.
Political Narratives in The Early Years
History shows that Pakistan’s several narratives have either appeared suddenly or have developed over a considerable period. The father of the nation, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, for instance, in his famous speech to the Constituent Assembly on 11th August 1947, promoted the notion of a secular and democratic Pakistan.
Following Jinnah’s death, the Constituent Assembly under former Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan adopted the Objectives Resolution in 1949 that laid the foundation of the Pakistani polity based on Islamic principles with the incorporation of modern democratic norms and electoral process. In 1958, General Ayub Khan took over as the first military leader of the country and pushed for an anti-corruption narrative.
Later, in 1968, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) with the narrative of democracy, socialism, and Islam. However, although Bhutto tried to implement certain features of socialism through nationalizing industries, he faced severe sociopolitical resistance. Eventually, in 1977, PPP adopted the narrative of ‘roti, kapra, aur Makan, which won the party’s general elections.
After, General Zia-ul-Haq toppled Bhutto’s government, he pushed for the shariah narrative through the Hudood Ordinance of 1979. General Zia used the state apparatus to enforce conservatism and religious orthodoxy during a time in international politics when Afghan Jihad had hit its peak, which afforded Zia a long and strenuous rule.
New Narratives in the New Century
Over the next decade, power shifted between PPP’s Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif of PML-N, with both having a similar anti-corruption, clean governance narrative. A similar narrative was adopted by General Pervaiz Musharraf when he assumed power in 1999. In the next decade, Pakistan found itself in an arduous alliance with the United States due to the 9/11 attacks – the political narratives of the country, more or less, remained the same.
When PML-N won the elections in 2013, they did so with the narrative of ending electricity load-shedding. However, Nawaz Sharif was ousted during his third term in office under corruption charges. A significant player in the ousting of Nawaz Sharif was Pakistan-e-Tehreek Insaf’s chairman, Imran Khan.
Khan’s government has sailed through several narratives since he came into power. What started with the slogan of ‘Naya Pakistan’ and ‘Riyasat-e-Madina’ ended with the narrative of the US conspiracy against the regime carried out by local political traitors – PPP and PML-N, respectively. However, Khan’s manifesto, which combines the Islamist vision with the ‘catch-all’ promises of improved governance and economy, remains a real political force posing a grave challenge to other political actors in the country.
Shifting Narratives in the Contemporary Era
While Khan is viewed as an anti-corruption messiah who has been wrongfully removed from office, his opponents identify him as a populist force whose government does not follow democratic norms. Consequently, the Pakistani nation is polarized – between the followers of traditional political parties and Khan’s supporters, the supporters of Western democracy and those with Islamist vision, and between the proppants of the military and those against it. Thus, internal discourse on Pakistan’s master national narrative remains the same – is Pakistan a democratic nation-state, or is it part of a more significant Pan-Islamic movement in the global polity?
On the other hand, Pakistan’s poor political and economic performance is simplistically attributed to plundering by corrupt political actors. Whereas little to no attention is given to inadequate tax collection, low literacy rate, gender wage gap, low agricultural and industrial productivity, and technological underdevelopment as possible reasons for the socio-political crisis and halted economic growth of the country.
This long-lasting and ever-increasing shift in Pakistan’s national narrative is why the country finds itself taking one step forward and one step backwards. Pakistan’s salvation lies in adopting a narrative that goes beyond slogans and false promises and implements definite bottom-up measures to improve the state and social apparatus of the country – particularly the one that aligns with Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan in spirit and practice.