Defining Moment: So what’s a narrative?

The term narrative has a long history in literature but gained currency in politics not long ago.

What is Pakistan’s narrative? The answer is simple: Pakistan’s constitution that outlines how the country should be governed, which institution does what, and how the citizens must be treated.

Dr. Sadiq Bhanbhro

In recent times, one of the most frequent used words in the political discourse of Pakistan is narrative in English or بیانیہ in Urdu. So, what is a narrative? To put simply, it is a story with a plot, actors, actions, tensions, tragedies, climax, resolution – and the three other story essentials – central theme, chronology, and purpose.

Humans are storytelling animals; thus, we cannot retain hard facts and figures for long but hardly forget stories – especially the stories that have an emotional effect and are concerned with us. There is a scientific basis for this. For example, Paul Zak of the Claremont Graduate University in California researched what stories do to our brains found that once hooked by a story, our brain releases oxytocin. The hormone affects our mood and social behavior. You could say stories are a shortcut to press our emotional buttons. And the politicians are considered masters of playing with the public emotions.

The term narrative has a long history in literature but gained currency in politics not long ago. The British journalist and novelist John Lanchester offers a brief take on this shift from literature to politics: “Back when I was at university, the only people who ever used the word ‘narrative’ were literature students with interest in critical theory. Everyone else made do with ‘story’ and ‘plot’. Since then, the n-word has been on a long journey towards the spotlight –especially the political spotlight. Everybody in politics now seems to talk about narratives all the time; even political spin-doctors describe their job as ‘to craft narratives’.

So, what is Pakistan’s narrative? The answer is simple: Pakistan’s constitution that outlines how the country should be governed, which institution does what, and how the citizens must be treated. So, by political logic, the constitution must be supreme. Though it is not perfect, it can be improved through the parliament. The 18th Amendment is a case in point. However, this does not seem to be the case when each stakeholder has its own narrative and claims that it is true, and their opponents’ is false.

In the current politically volatile situation, three sets of stakeholders, i.e. the current government, the opposition and the establishment claiming to hold their separate narratives. By the logic of narrative building, this is not true as they are the stakeholders in a pie that is Pakistan, which has a well-established narrative – the constitution, in fact, what these stakeholders have the different interpretation of it.

The lens they interpret it is the control and access to power. For instance, PM Khan’s interpretation is power-sharing via a so-called hybrid system and keeping the opposition at bay. Whereas the opposition’s stance is becoming clear, they say supremacy of the constitution but looking for the opportunity to gain power. The third stakeholder is the strongest of all, and their interpretation varies from time to time, sometimes full control, other times more than half of the pie and in the current situation, it seems, yet they are sticking with the hybrid system or looking for similar arrangements.

So, what each stakeholder offers to the public is not a new narrative but an agenda or strategy to maintain the status quo or access political power because the country’s comprehensive narrative already exists. Sadly, the public is the loser in this war of words because the elites have hijacked reality with fiction. For instance, when a father could not provide food to his children, and they sleep empty stomach, this is the suffering, which is real. The government’s reports and rhetoric on corruption are fiction, same as the opposition’s speeches and establishment’s hopes that the country is on track.

So, why not stick to the old guard – the constitution? The fundamental issue is power. No side wants to give it away – especially in the post-truth era; each party has a rented gang of spin doctors, who are good at hiding the reality from the public’s view by creating and promoting a tug of war between narratives. This game is being played to manipulate the public’s emotions. It looks so far, they have found success by dividing and distracting the public with their so-called narratives, but the truth will come out sooner or later because people’s suffering is real and is increasing every day.       

Language matters. Misuse of language is a kind of political corruption and a professional dis-ingenuity. Excessive and unnecessary use of dull jargon offers an undue legitimacy and authority to special interests; without realizing the ramifications, people can become a party to it. Needless, repetitive, and out of context usage of the specific terminology could limit our ability to have a constructive dialogue and debate. Given the growing use of narrative in political discourse, it is necessary to be careful while using the term in its legitimate context. John Lanchester says on this increasing phenomenon that “we no longer have debates; we have conflicting narratives. It’s hard to know whether this represents an increase in PR sophistication and self-awareness or a decrease in the general level of discourse”.

This phenomenon is manifested in daily political talk shows on different media outlets that have emerged as a significant source for political dialogue and debate. In such shows, when the anchorpersons engage with their guests in the so-called ‘narrative’ and ‘counter-narrative’ paradigm, which is common these days, the dialogue is restricted to clarifications or defence and does not encourage constructive dialogue. Open and honest discussion is good for the health of democracy and state institutions. Mutual dialogue among state institutions evaporates misunderstandings, avoids pointless confrontations, and provides a way forward.

The narrative is not a dull and demotic emotional slogan but a serious enterprise with an ideological and logical plan to change the status quo. Political narratives of national concern encompass national interests – are paramount in a parliamentary democracy, but they must come from the people and institutions that have the mandate to craft and control it. In a democracy, it is a standard norm that elected representatives are responsible for constructing the narratives and putting forward dialogue and consultations – of course; all citizens can provide input, including forces and media. A broader consensus is vital to place a narrative into practice. An open and civic debate is critical for a reasonable agreement on a narrative.


About the Author           

Dr. Sadiq Bhanbhro is Senior Research Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University. Twitter: @Sbhanbhro                      



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