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Imran Khan And The Art Of Public Speaking

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Awais Saleem analyses the content of Imran Khan’s first speech at the United Nations General Assembly, how it has been received by the domestic audience, and how it could have catered to the international audience.

Imran Khan has delivered his first UN general assembly speech as the prime minister of Pakistan. The address couldn’t have come at a more crucial time in the wake of India’s decision to abolish article 370 in Kashmir and holding the Kashmiri population, majority of them Muslims, hostage in their homes since August 5 this year.

​Prime Minister Khan appeared at the UN platform having declared himself an ambassador for the cause of Kashmir and made an impassioned appeal to the global community not only on behalf of Kashmiri people, but also other subjects that are closer to his heart. Yes, you guessed it right. Corruption and money laundering were on the menu as well.

In the times of extreme political polarization in Pakistan, if there is anything that can garner bipartisan support, it has to be the plight of Kashmiri people. It is understandable then why ​Imran Khan is being applauded for his aggressive stance from behind the podium in the UN general assembly. For his supporters, anything that Khan does is always “unprecedented” and historic” and the UN address is no different. 

His critics, albeit reluctantly, are also adding their voice to the chorus. But was it really his best performance yet? Let’s sit back, take a deep breath, and try to scratch the surface.

We, Pakistanis, are emotional and loud people. We love to the core and hate to the hilt. We proudly claim that we can sacrifice our lives for those who are closer to our heart and can take a life for those who we hold in contempt. We like films where Sultan Rahi can take on the village chieftain and kill the entire battery with a gandasa, even though it may defy logic. We long for talk-shows where the anchors yell and abuse at the guests, who in our opinion have looted and plundered, even if we can’t remember any substantive points discussed during the conversation. In that very spirit, we always want a leader who can challenge the enemy with adrenaline-pumping rhetoric.

Imran Khan, in his UN speech, delivered all of that and more. He blasted Indian prime minister Modi and his evil designs. The adjectives he used to drive home his message made the majority of his audience back home fall in love with him all over again. He was clearly emotional about the subjects he was talking about and it resonated with his fanbase. But was it an opportunity to reassure the domestic audience about where Pakistan stood in this crisis? Or was it a moment to win over the International audience and make them understand the gravity of the situation? That’s where I think he drifted off the kilter just a little bit.

To start with, he spoke for almost fifty minutes which was way more than the allotted fifteen minutes. Several global leaders go into overtime during UNGA, so this was nothing unusual. However, his decision to speak extempore resulted in unnecessary dragging and repetition of points.

If we break down the components of his speech, he started with climate change before moving on to debt accumulation and money laundering for five minutes each, without really explaining how Pakistan’s debt was a UN problem? We know of course that none of Khan’s speeches can be complete with mentioning “everybody else before me was corrupt”, UN or no UN. 

For the next fifteen minutes, he spoke about Islamophobia and how it was all a fault of the West. He did take a dig at Musharraf’s enlightened moderation during this part, leaving once perplexed as to how this related to anything UNGA was convened for? For the next three minutes, he lamented how the US ditched Pakistan and the militant groups after the first Afghan war. He did claim that after he assumed power, his government, with support from all political parties, decided to go after “whatever remained of” the militant groups. Just one factual problem here. The decision to go all out after militant groups was taken in 2014 after the Army Public school attack in Peshawar. That when the all parties conference, including PTI, convened by the then government had passed the National Action Plan. He spent the next five minutes on how Modi didn’t respond positively to his peace efforts before going on to school the UNGA members about the history of Modi and RSS in Gujrat. The first actual mention of Kashmir was in the 33rd minute of his speech, when he spoke about Pulwama, whereas the focus on Kashmir’s current situation was only in the last twelve minutes of his speech (when he had already spoken for a good 38 minutes).

In the last part of his speech as well, his main thrust during the twelve minutes was on warning the world leaders about threats of radicalization and a nuclear war. If he started with an effort earlier in his speech to quell Islamophobia, the latter half came as a contradiction of sorts. If PM Khan thought that he could scare the world community to spring them to action, I am afraid that strategy would prove counterproductive. He would’ve been well advised to keep the spotlight on the humanitarian crisis in Kashmir and what could have been done practically to avert it. These tangible steps (lifting curfew, releasing prisoners, and right of self-determination) appeared only in the very last minute of his speech.

Did he really think that he needed to give history lessons to the world leaders assembled in the UNGA hall? Did they not know about Modi’s past and what he did to Muslims in Gujarat? Were they not aware of his journey from being banned from entry to United States to “Howdy Modi” and the reason behind it?

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When no Muslim country, other than Turkey, doesn’t even mention Kashmir in their speeches, and majority of those countries whom the ummah looks up to for leadership prioritize business interests with India, Pakistan’s forewarning about 1.2 billion Muslims possibly taking up arms doesn’t hold much weight. 

Even Imran Khan failed to mention the Palestinian Muslims, and the Muslim population in China that has become a kind of Achilles heel for him lately. When you pick and choose based on your own list of priorities, how can you stop the world from doing the same?

​Rather than declaring others at fault for everything (money laundering, islamophobia, Afghan crisis, Kashmir) in his speech, why he didn’t take that opportunity to introduce Pakistan’s newly introduced tourism and investment opportunities to the assembled countries is beyond one’s imagination. He could’ve also used part of his time to address the West’s concerns about Pakistan’s security situation and terror financing, e.g. steps taken in line with the requirement of financial action task force (FATF). Instead, he ended up raising some of the red flags for them again. A jalsa speech back home is different from global platforms that may require special preparation.

​Khan’s supporters think that he spoke from the heart, and it hit a chord with them. That’s why it ticked all the right boxes. The problem with raw emotions is that when you get swayed by them, it isn’t always possible to remain rational. Had the world listened to and admired the purity of the heart, global diplomacy would’ve been such a piece of cake. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Resultantly, the fandom keeps swinging from one extreme (Khan charmed Trump and Melania in the very first meeting and won the world cup) to the other (lamenting Trump for attending “Howdy Modi” in Houston) within the span of a couple of months.

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There is enough evidence in communication research that we “like” what we “want” to hear. Followers of a cult process the actual content only peripherally and primarily focus on the personality. Therefore, whatever the person they like utters is always “great” and the differing viewpoint is always “marginalized.” The same holds true for staunch critics as well. Neither side can analyze anything objectively wearing a colored lens. 

​The Prime Minister’s speech was indeed great if one listens to a it from the Pakistani stakeholder’s perspective. The Pakistani contingent in the hall and their invited guests in the visitors’ gallery were vehemently applauding it as well. Just one small impediment. He didn’t need to travel to New York to make them start drooling over oh-the-charmer-khan once again. His audience were diverse, their prerequisites were different, and the delivery needed to match those requirements. Khan hoped that emotions would serve the killer punch.

George Shultz, who served as the US secretary of state in the Reagan administration, famously used to say that “hope is good, but it can’t be a policy.” Let’s see how this hope manifests in the case of Imran Khan and his ardent followers. 

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