Ruling elites all over the world are adroit at projecting their image as charismatic personalities who have a magic wand that can resolve all the problems being faced by the people within no time. Our politicians are not an exception to this. Almost all prominent political personalities of Pakistan have over the years created an impression among the people that they are the messiah who would emancipate them from the clutches of slavery, injustice, oppression and exploitation.

Some of our leaders claimed to be modernizers, others guardians of faith and a tiny minority laid claim to being progressive and revolutionary. For instance, military dictator Ayub Khan pretended to be a great liberal ruler of the country, ignoring the fact that one of the important tenets of liberalism is individual freedom and democratic rights. The dictator carried out some progressive reforms to burnish his liberal credentials claiming that he was opposed to the forces of obscurantism and religious bigotry. His reforms related to marriage laws in Pakistan are cited by many admirers of the usurper as evidence of his liberal proclivities.

But behind the veneer of so-called liberalism lay the draconian laws that he introduced to stifle dissenting voices and carry out crackdowns against labourers, trade unionists and political opponents. He ruthlessly trampled upon the liberal principles that advocate free and fair elections and democratic rights of the people. He continued clinging to power for years, contemptuously dismissing all norms of the liberal democratic order until he was thrown out in a humiliating way.

The ‘revolutionary’ Z A Bhutto projected his image as the emancipator of the masses. He was shown visiting the huts of poor, low income areas of workers and slums of the wretched. He created an impression that he was from the people and would live for them. But it was during his time that protesting workers in Karachi and elsewhere were fired upon and those who tried to oppose such sledgehammer tactics were subjected to the worst form of political revenge.

The sanctimonious dictator Gen Ziaul Haq pretended to be a simple and humble man. His brigade of sycophants created a saintly image of the brutal dictator, someone who had no time for worldly affairs, mundane business and trivial matters. He was presented as the second Emperor Aurangzeb who loved to lead an ascetic life and despised the very idea of luxury, lust and power. But perhaps the people of this country have never seen such a cunning and power-hungry ruler in their lives. The ‘saintly’ tyrant not only sent Z A Bhutto to the gallows but also employed extreme brutal force to wipe out every trace of resistance against his dictatorial regime. Tens of thousands were persecuted during his dark tenure and jails were stuffed with political opponents and all those who dared to challenge the monster.

The late Benazir Bhutto claimed to follow the legacy of her father but in reality she blindly implemented the policies of deregulation, liberalization and privatization that were introduced by her tormentor Zia. She was the one who brought in the independent power producers, who have not only wreaked havoc with the economy of this country but the lives of millions by plunging the country into a vicious circle of circular debt.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif emerged as the champion of development and progress, vowing to turn Pakistan into a new South Korea or an ‘Asian Tiger’. He embarked upon road network projects and motorways besides launching various transport schemes, ignoring the Railways altogether that could have been improved with a tiny fraction of the money that he was accused of lavishly spending on roads, bridges, underpasses and motorways. This policy strengthened the vehicle import lobby that not only caused the draining of foreign reserves but also triggered a trend of more such projects.

The PTI, the party of change, left everyone behind in the propaganda race. Imran Khan pretended to be a pious politician with impeccable credentials but, from Ring Road to Malam Jabba, a number of scandals kept surfacing right under his nose. In his speeches he appeared to be fighting the international monetary institutions, lecturing people on the horrible consequences of debts and loans but his party’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa sought record loans in the history of the province. The party of this protector of people’s rights recently presided over a ruthless crackdown on teachers who have been merely demanding the release of their salaries. Despite squandering a hefty amount on health, no tangible results can be seen in this sector in KP and Punjab where his party is ruling.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s media team seems to be popularizing the term ‘Shehbaz Speed’. It is not clear what type of speed they are talking about. There is no doubt that the prime minister demonstrated great alacrity in extending favour to the textile industry, subsidizing the rich and continuing the legacy of all rulers who unabashedly handed a subsidy of over $17 billion to the super rich. His ‘speed’ was also noticed in fanning the unbearable inflation that added to the miseries of the people. People were also stunned by his speed in inducting a brigade of ministers, advisers and special assistants in the cabinet with perks and privileges at a time when the rulers were roaming about the world with a begging bowl.

But was such speed also used in extending help and succour to the people? No substantial project that exclusively benefited the masses was undertaken. If that had been the case then Punjab would have been brimming with progress and prosperity but the bitter truth belies the image of Shehbaz as projected in propaganda and advertisement. Most of the over 25 million out-of-school children are from the province where Shehbaz ruled for more than ten years. A large number of Pakistan’s over 60 million poor are also honoured to have the domicile of Punjab. Several urban areas of the province have been without sewage and industrial treatment plants. A large number of workers in the province are kicked out for merely exercising their constitutional right of forming a union in the federal entity. His administration recklessly destroyed the environment of Lahore by chopping down trees and turning the urban centre into a jungle of concrete. The city is now among the top urban centres that have the worst air quality in the world.

It is time our ruling elite gave up this habit of resolving people’s problems through advertisements and propaganda. The country is already under internal and external debts of over $200 billion which might hit a mark of $400 billion in the next two decades. Over 80 per cent people are still bereft of pure drinking water while 67 per cent are yet to have decent housing. Over 44 per cent of children are still facing the risk of stunted growth while emaciated women can be seen not only in the flood relief camps of Sindh and Balochistan but large swathes of the country. Eighteen-hour loadshedding in villages and 12 hours in small towns is still immiserating millions of lives despite all claims of installing power plants. These are the issues that need the attention of our politicians and not propaganda and image building.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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