Preliminary elections results show that former cricketer Imran Khan is likely to be the next prime minister of Pakistan. His party, the Tehreek-e-Insaf, which is popularly referred to as PTI, has shown unexpected progress in Sindh province and retained its government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa with a two-thirds majority – this, in a province that has been particularly harsh on incumbents.

The 2018 general elections in Pakistan are being called historic for many reasons. For one, they represent an unprecedented democratic continuity in a country that has seen several decades of military rule since its creation in 1947. Second, the elections have seen the rise of a new party in a country that has been dominated by two political parties for decades.

The elections have also earned the reputation of being one of the most bitterly contested. During the campaign, politicians hurled a series of allegations against their rivals – with “corrupt”, “licentious”, “traitor”, “pro-establishment”, “anti-establishment”, “pro-democratic”, “anti-democratic” being just a few of the terms used. At the same time, a new anti-India rhetoric also emerged, one that many in Pakistan believed had been buried in the past. This rhetoric has been a feature of Pakistani politics since its creation, but it seemed to be losing vigour in the post-2008 political sphere, which saw the revival of democracy in the country after a decade of dictatorial rule by Pervez Musharraf.

Former cricketer Imran Khan is likely to be Pakistan's next prime minister. (Photo credit: Aamir Qureshi/AFP).

Rise of anti-India rhetoric

To be fair, the anti-India rhetoric first emerged during the 2016 elections in (what Pakistan calls) Azad Jammu and Kashmir. At that time, Bilawal Bhutto, scion of the Bhutto family and head of the Pakistan People’s Party that ran the government in that region, began calling Nawaz Sharif “Modi ka yaar”. This was a reference to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who famously hugged Sharif during a surprise visit to Lahore in December 2015.

With Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz ruling the country, it was likely that the party would go on to sweep the elections in that region. Bilawal Bhutto was therefore desperate to retain power there. The elections were also taking place in the aftermath of the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani across the Line of Control, in the Kashmir Valley, which had led to unrest there. Perhaps Bilawal Bhutto brought up Modi to attack his political opponent because he was cognisant of the legacy of his grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose rhetoric against India in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the context of the Kashmir conflict, played a pivotal role in his rise to power in Pakistan. However, this was not the sixties and Kashmir and anti-India rhetoric was not going to have the same kind of emotional impact it had back then. Bhutto’s party lost the elections, while Sharif’s party secured an easy victory.

Fast-forward to the 2018 general elections, and the slogan “Modi ka jo yaar hai, gaddar hai [Any friend of Modi’s is a traitor]” had been appropriated by Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf. With Sharif and his party claiming that the military establishment was against them and promoting Tehreek-e-Insaf in its stead, Khan responded in kind. The former cricketer began claiming that there was an international establishment working with India to ensure Sharif’s victory. What constituted this international establishment was never really specified, but there was no need to. Everybody understood that Khan was referring to the Americans and Israelis, who were believed to be working to please the Indians. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz had used this rhetoric in the 1990s against Benazir Bhutto. It was the same rhetoric that her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had used to get the better of his opponents.

Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif hug in Lahore, in December 2015. (Photo credit: AFP/PIB).

Role of social media

But unlike any previous elections in the country, social media in the form of WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook played a crucial role in promoting this rhetoric and ensuring it reached voters across the country. In April, after the Pakistan Supreme Court disqualified Nawaz Sharif from politics for life, he began claiming that he had been removed from power not for corruption but for challenging the country’s powerful military establishment. His electoral slogan “Vote ko izzat do [Respect the vote]” gained considerable currency in the run up to the elections. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz social media team began an intensive propaganda campaign against the Tehreek-e-Insaf and the alleged support it was getting from the military establishment.

The Tehreek-e-Insaf responded with equal vigor. Sharif’s role during the Kargil operation of 1999 was discussed. His connections with the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan from 1978 to 1988, were highlighted. His sexist propaganda against Benazir Bhutto and her mother Nusrat Bhutto was recalled. Above all, his relationship with Narendra Modi was highlighted. Video clips began circulating that claimed that the Indian establishment was behind Sharif. It was asserted that the elections were being fought between the Pakistani army and the Indian army.

But the Tehreek-e-Insaf was not the only political party that used India for its campaign. Shehbaz Sharif, the new president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, also began referring to India in his political speeches. He talked about how if he was allowed the opportunity to come to power, he would transform Pakistan economically (with the help of the Chinese) and outdo India’s economic growth. India had not featured in the elections of 2008 and 2013, but now it was being evoked by two of the country’s leading political parties.

It was, however, not all India-bashing as far as the Tehreek-e-Insaf was concerned. In his election speeches, Khan often reiterated that he favoured peace with India, but then he would also quickly qualify that he would never sacrifice the rights of the Kashmiri people. Kashmir and India had returned to the centre of Pakistani politics. It seemed as if the democratic process was picking up a thread it had dropped in the 1990s. Yet, this time it was different. In his first press conference after early results indicated that he was on his way to becoming Pakistan’s next prime minister, Khan talked about the need for peace with India.

It is unlikely that anti-India rhetoric will feature in Pakistan in the days to come. But the same cannot be said for the next general elections. A lot will depend on what happens in Kashmir, and how India and Pakistan proceed. Before the elections, I was convinced that anti-India rhetoric had no room in mainstream political discussions in Pakistan anymore. At some level I was right as this rhetoric was accompanied by talk of the need to normalise relations with India. But on the other hand, anti-India rhetoric did raise its head, even if partially. What will the future democratic process hold for Pakistan? Does populism premised on anti-India rhetoric have any future in the country?

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.