Fuelled by PTI’s Political Rhetoric, Abusive Online Behaviour Is Becoming A Norm
A few months ago, Maryam Nawaz did a rally in Mandi Bahauddin. By all accounts, it was a massive rally confirming both her and her party’s popularity in the Punjab’s hinterland. Right when she was talking to masses, there was a twitter trend, “ Randi in Mandi” (Prostitute In Mandi) becoming viral. Needless to say, the PTI troll army was behind it. During last eight years or so, I have witnessed many abusive social media trends by PTI supporters, but this seemed a new low even by their “high” standards.
Disgusted, I wrote a post on Facebook, criticizing the reprehensible misogynist behavior of the PTI supporters. One of my cousins, another diehard PTI supporter, while “condemning” that behavior commented “ What goes around, comes around as Nawaz had done the same to Benazir Bhutto. Allah kee Lathi Beawaz hoti hai. Its punishment to Nawaz by Allah”. He was referring to more than three decades old, incident when photoshopped pictures of Benazir Bhutto had allegedly been dropped from air.
At that point, I realized that my cousin was perhaps pettier than even those who had been behind the aforementioned reprehensible trend as he was actually justifying it by framing it as retribution by God. It was simply lost on him that it was not God, but supporters of his favorite party who were behind the trend and they were not avenging Benazir Bhutto’s alleged mistreatment by Nawaz Sharif , but indulging in a third class act only because of their hatred for his daughter. Even if Nawaz had been guilty for those photoshopped pictures (of which there is no proof), his daughter was in no way responsible. Benazir Bhutto, herself was on extremely good terms with Nawaz at the time of her death as both of them had signed a “ Charter of Democracy” in 2006. I found it odd, that hardly anyone from PPP, was a part of that trend which my cousin was calling “God’s retribution”.
But then, the pettiness of the PTI crowd ( my cousin included) should not have surprised me. The same crowd was doubting Kalsoom Nawaz’s illness, mocking her and when she died, an overwhelming majority of them did not show any remorse. The same crowd regularly mocks Bilawal and calls him effeminate.
They are now mocking Nawaz Sharif’s illness. For many PTI supporters Nawaz Sharif is faking illness as he does not want to face accountability. On social media, astronomical figures of “looted wealth”, some as high as 100 billion dollars, are being circulated by the PTI supporters who are claiming that his illness is merely an excuse to protect this wealth. The fact that such high numbers are nonsensical ( as the current IMF program is six billion dollars, entire CPEC is less than 70 billion dollars and total foreign debt is around 100 billion dollars) simply escapes their imagination. Insensitive memes, mocking his platelet count are also making rounds even though the medical reports confirming his illness were provided by the government’s own medical board.
Whereas a large majority of PTI supporters simply thinks that Nawaz’s illness is a complete hoax, for some PTI supporters, even if Nawaz Sharif is genuinely ill, he deserves the treatment meted out to him as he is a “convict”. In fact, they mockingly claim that he is getting far better treatment than ordinary prisoners. The fact, that he is a political prisoner, put in jail after an expedited and thoroughly objectionable trial, does not even register with them.
I don’t believe in stereotypes, but I think it would be fair to say that by and large an average PTI supporter is more callous, abusive and meaner when compared to supporters of other parties. Any journalist who has expressed a negative opinion about Imran Khan on social media would also attest the extremely vile and abusive behavior of the PTI supporters.
But why is this the case? Why an average PTI supporter is like that?
I think the PTI leadership, particularly Imran Khan himself, is directly responsible for this phenomenon. The supporters, over the years have taken cues from Imran Khan whose narrative has been of hate and division. According to his rather simplified narrative, which has become extremely vitriolic after 2011 ( when he finally came out of political wilderness), his political opponents, particularly leaders of the mainstream parties are thoroughly corrupt and reprehensible and therefore deserve no humane treatment. Not only that, before coming to power, he constantly said “Mein inko rulaon ga, takleef puhnchey gee inhay” (I will make them cry with pain), often to rapturous applause of his supporters. The fact that he hails from educated middle class, is articulate, handsome and above all an “achiever” due to his cricketing and philanthropist past has made him even more effective.
The same attitude of Imran Khan has been gleefully adopted by his close circle and key party leaders including cabinet ministers. In fact, they all have tried to outdo each other in giving rash, petty and hate-filled statements about a wide array of issues and most recently, about the illness of Nawaz Sharif.
The Muhammad Hanif was spot on when he wrote: “Khan has politicized a whole generation, only to deliver it into servitude to Pakistan’s old establishment”. However, unfortunately, Imran has done even more. While politicizing this generation, Khan has infused hatred and consequently instead of democratic outlook, this generation espouses fascist characteristics. Once supporters become like that, the leader also becomes trapped as he is forced to constantly peddle hate-filled narrative and maintain an overly confrontational approach. Right now, the pettiness and cruelty which Imran Khan is showing towards his political opponents is also because this is what his supporters, expect.
Imran Khan and his party leadership are in a reciprocal and mutually reinforcing relationship with their support base. Filled with hatred, Imran is saying what the support base wants to hear and their enthusiastic explicit response is making him, and his ministers harden their already vitriolic tones. Consequently, political intolerance is increasing, and supporters of other parties are also getting embroiled in it. This hate is burning the political and social fabric of the society and will manifest into severe retribution when the power changes hand.
After all, one thing Mr. Khan needs to understand is that power is never permanent and he may end up reaping what he sowed.
The author is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. His research interests are the political economy of development, civil-military relations, and political Islam.