Maryam Nawaz (center) attends an anti-government rally held by the Pakistan Democratic Movement in Multan, Punjab, on November 30, 2020. Another PDM event was held in Lahore on December 13, but attendance was low. Photo: AFP / Shahid Saeed Mirza

George Orwell wrote in his famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” The power to shape and form narratives determines who wins the throne of a nation, or which superpowers lead the world.

In Pakistan, we are witnessing a war of narratives where the opposition parties, the government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the military establishment are all trying to create favorable perceptions of themselves.

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of opposition parties, on Monday in the city of Multan, Punjab province, held its fifth public gathering against the central government and its backers. The PTI government of Punjab had created hurdles and arrested many opposition workers and as a result, the crowd was not as good as was seen in the last few PDM rallies.

As expected, Prime Minister Imran Khan and his team used the Covid-19 pandemic to their advantage and successfully reduced the participation of the common masses in the Multan rally. Meanwhile the PDM apparently has little interest in understanding its responsibility not to spread Covid-19 in a country where the health system is fragile.

So this war of narratives between the opposition and hybrid regime is not only resulting in carelessness about the pandemic but has polarized the country to an alarming level.

There are no rules in this game, and the journalists the intellectuals and the common masses have all become obsessed with this war of narratives and perceptions.

On the one hand, the journalists and intellectuals working on behalf of the government and establishment are trying to persuade their segment of the population that Nawaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari and Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman are all corrupt and traitors and that the movement of opposition is backed by the external hands.

On the other hand, the journalists and analysts siding with the opposition parties wield the narrative of bringing back genuine democracy to the country and that Imran Khan and establishment are the culprits who are responsible for every ill and woe of the country.

Both the mainstream and digital media feed the masses with these narratives around the clock in the name of news and analysis, with talk shows and interviews.

There are two wars going on at the moment. One is waged by the PTI government backed by the establishment against the opposition, and the other is waged by the journalists and intellectuals backing the government and establishment versus the journalists and intellectuals backing the opposition.

There is absolutely nothing more important for the government and the establishment than to save the day and stop the onslaught of the PDM, whereas the PDM seems only interested in somehow dismantling the hybrid regime.

The pro- and anti-establishment segments of the media are part of the game and are profiting through television rating points and the views and clicks on digital publications. The masses, most of whom have been denied the ability to think critically from birth, are the sheep in this game, who have to choose either Khan and his backers or the mainstream opposition parties.

The power elite have high stakes in the game, as they are fighting for the throne, whereas the media, journalists and intellectuals also have stakes in this game in the form of revenues and personnel perks and privileges.

However, what is missing in this game is the seriousness of all the power stakeholders to learn from the mistakes of the past. To be honest, even during the tenures of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), democracy was never really there, as both parties were equally responsible for failing to take on the invisible forces when it mattered the most.

The PPP regime was not able to handle the economy and governance during its tenure from 2008 to 2013, whereas the PML-N was able to revive the economy and installed infrastructure mega-projects but it failed to deliver the fundamental rights of justice, education, health, and freedom of speech to the masses.

For both parties, saving their throne was more important, and in the process, their compromises led to the emergence of PTI. So now Imran Khan is doing the same. His rise to power with the help of military establishment has compromised his integrity and credibility, and with a cabinet that mostly lacks the ability to govern the country, he is only trying to linger on in power.

The establishment also has lost the plot and is busy only in saving its vested interests.

Meanwhile the masses are again made to believe that a revolution is very near that will bring an end to their miseries. A revolution that never was there and that never will happen, as none of the political parties have the ability or interest to change this rotten system, and neither the establishment nor its puppets are interested in the structural reforms that can bring an end to the system – one that was devised by the British to enslave India prior to Partition.

As expected, the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down economic growth around the globe, and a country like Pakistan with a weak economy has a tough time ahead. Thus a populace denied of fundamental rights, basic facilities and genuine information and being hostage to their own set of rotten beliefs is a very easy target for manipulation by the powerful ruling elite.

The instrument that consistently has worked effectively for the political and military elite is the obliviousness of the majority. The more you keep them uninformed, the easier it is to control them. The military elite has the patriotism card and the mullahs have the religion card, and both have played their cards shrewdly. Meanwhile the political elite has the cards of democracy, destabilization and victimization, which are similarly played well by them.

For the last 72 years, it has been all about who will snatch the greater share of power and who will win the throne. While the intellectuals and writers are either dancing to the tunes of the emperors, playing the role of devil’s advocate, or aligning with the opposition. No one bothers to pay attention to the fact that it is our system that needs to be fixed, and that both the military and political establishments are the beneficiaries of the system.

So this futile exercise of changing faces and doing nothing to bring actual reforms and devise a new system where the state at least takes responsibility for its own citizens will only push the country further into an abyss.

Public gatherings, large crowds chanting in favor of their own political idols and an atmosphere of confrontation among the power stakeholders may keep journalists like us reporting or writing about the power chessboard, but in reality, they are of no use for the betterment of the country.

The revolution that can actually change people’s lives and the country will come only when we stop being pawns in the game of narratives between the power players and demand democracy of the cadres of the political parties.

The political elite has ample time to play its power games, and we journalists and the intellectuals have equal time to write and speak on these games, but the country cannot afford the darkness of mental and ideological slaveries and the unjust exploitation of the masses by the power elite.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.