OVER A COFFEE : Branding of political parties and challenges ahead — Dr Haider Shah
Whether we are in the Brave New World of Naya Pakistan on May 12, or another party forms the government, the task of change will be a challenging one
Perhaps by tomorrow we will find out which political party’s marketing team was most successful in selling its products to the segmented market of voters, and in return occupy seats of power in the federal and provincial governments.
Just as business organisations create and promote brand awareness, and thereby cultivate relations of loyalty with their customers, political parties also carry a brand with the help of which they attract various segments of society to their products. For instance, in the case of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), its strength lies in its Bhutto brand. In the last five years the brand appears to have suffered as no Bhutto led it from the front while President Asif Zardari has failed to emerge as a charismatic leader. It kept dragging its feet on rationalising discriminatory legislation in all areas of basic human rights. Its slapping a ban on YouTube was an attempt to get a piety certificate from the media Mujahideen. Consequently, the PPP’s liberalism as an integral part of its brand image has also suffered enormously. To the question how much the strategy of relying on local influentials will compensate for the damage to the brand, only the election results will provide a convincing answer.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) brand projects the mainstream culture where religion is an integral part but not the only feature of cultural life. Benefitting from electables, the Nawaz League has popularised itself as a development-friendly party. Despite the addition of some charisma because of Maryam Nawaz and Marvi Memon, the party still has to do more homework to make itself appealing to the youth of Pakistan.
Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam are examples of parties that have branded themselves as religious parties. The Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) take pride in their liberal brand. The credit for working relentlessly to create and popularise a brand image, however, must go to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Many quote Imran Khan’s charisma as the defining feature of the party. But the question is why this charisma failed to work when the cricketing hero was at the height of his popularity. What is different this time is that a very concerted campaign of vilification of politicians in general was launched by various stakeholders ranging from impatient anchors in electronic media to the schemers that work behind the smokescreen. In a successful promotional campaign a business first creates a need for the product through aggressive marketing. The need for a messiah was created first by holding the current political parties and their leaders responsible for all the mess that was generated during more than three decades of military rulers. The PTI brand, therefore, hinges on Khan as a redeemer of the nation. The strength of the brand is its newness. Interestingly, the brand has attracted buyers of all sorts. The ultra-conservative jingoists are hopeful that he would confront the US like the Iranian president and implement shariah that he is increasingly using in his public discourse. Liberal and educated supporters are buying the products offered by the PTI in the hope that Khan is going to develop the country with progressive ideas. The interaction with a wide variety of PTI supporters on social networking sites gives me a feel of Tahrir Square where human rights liberal activists and Ikhwan supporters were together in toppling the then Egyptian government. In Pakistan, whether Ikhwan symapthisers will prevail in the re-energised party or liberal elements will hold sway, we shall soon find out if the PTI shows a good electoral performance. The left-leaning liberals tend to have two kinds of feelings towards PTI. Those who oppose it refer to the vocal support provided by the PTI’s leader to the militant extremists who pose an existential threat to the state and popular culture. On the other side of the continuum are the PTI supporters who believe that Khan has a tacit understanding with the western powers that he would facilitate the peaceful withdrawal of NATO troops and broker a solution that is acceptable to the US and her allies. They argue that he is appeasing the Taliban so that he can play the required role once in power. According to this theory, the US has turned its back on the liberal parties of Pakistan and instead is supporting the rightist parties to deliver in accordance with the strategic priorities in the region. Sounding a bit exotic, there may be some truth in the theory. How a PTI government will deal with the first drone attack during its rule will put the theory to the acid test.
Whoever heads the new government will have to deal with the following issues that I mentioned in one of my earlier articles. One, how will Pakistan repair the serious damage done to its international image because of its entanglement with militant jihadi outfits? Two, and related with the first one, how will Pakistan improve economic growth by increasing its trade with the regional and other major trading nations? Three, how will the rule of law, accountability and transparency be promoted? Four, how will institution building be promoted in place of personality cults? Five, how will the marginalised sections of society such as religious minorities, women, disabled persons, and economically deprived communities be empowered? Six, how will the demon of radicalisation and intolerance be exorcised? And seven, how will civil-military relations will be rationalised so that the civilian government is able to take full control of domestic and foreign policies?
We may love or loathe certain political personalities, but it will be wise to judge the success or failure of the new government on the basis of these seven questions. Whether we are in the Brave New World of Naya Pakistan on May 12, or another party forms the government, the task of change will be a challenging one.