Amidst chants of “Wazeer-e-Azam Nawaz Sharif”, the former (and now jailed) prime minister addresses a seminar in Islamabad on April 17, 2018. In attendance are political leaders of smaller democratic parties: Awami National Party’s (ANP) Mian Iftikhar Hussain, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl’s (JUIF) Fazlur Rehman, and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party’s (PkMAP) Mahmood Khan Achakzai.
Occasionally switching into folksy Punjabi, eliciting laughter from the audience, Sharif’s demeanour remains self-effacing, soft-spoken and non-threatening — almost. “The purpose of this seminar can be summarised in four words,” he says, gently removing his glasses from his coat’s front pocket. “It’s a short phrase, but for millions of Pakistanis, it has become the most important one.” He puts on his glasses, getting a clearer look at the audience: “What is it?”
The audience roars back, without hesitation: “Vote ko izzat do! Vote ko izzat do! Vote ko izzat do!”
Following his disqualification and subsequent arrest, amongst assertions of political victimsation and conspiracy, these four words – “Vote ko izzat do” (Honour the vote) – have become Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PMLN) rallying cry in 2018. They were heard on campaign rallies and television advertisements leading up to the election; by supporters as they went to cast their vote on the day of the election; and by the thousands who had gathered to receive their fallen leader’s arrival in Lahore on July 13. Some loyalists had the words etched on placards; others had it painted on their bare backs. One of the party supporters present, Chaudhry Kashif, says that he did not “become a PMLN supporter, but was born one,” as his entire family has supported Nawaz Sharif since his military-backed Islami Jamhoori Ittehead (IJI) days. “The success of ‘Vote ko izzat do’ is because people realise that – until there is civilian supremacy – there won’t be progress,” Kashif explains.
Such slogans and songs are inseparable from the election campaigning process. In a democracy where citizens have to be persuaded to come out and cast their votes on the day of the elections, slogans hold meaning and promise: they echo the aspirations of voters, and reflect the issues of the time they are created in. Some highlight the party symbol; others seek to create unity along ideological, ethnic or religious lines; nearly all create a cult of personality around their leader. Many fail to catch on, while only a handful endure long after the campaign ends. Here are the life and times of a few of Pakistan’s most memorable political songs and slogans, focusing on the three most popular political parties: Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), PMLN and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
1970 – 1977
Perhaps the first political party to understand the importance of populist sloganeering to appeal to public consciousness was the PPP with “Maangta hai har insaan, roti kapra aur makaan”. First used by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto around the time the PPP’s manifesto was drafted in 1966, it helped Bhutto win the 1970 elections in West Pakistan.
The Pakistan that Bhutto rose in was overwhelmingly rural. According to the central statistics office, in 1972, nearly 85 per cent of the population lived in villages. Inspired by what was termed Islamic socialism – a political and intellectual trend in the Muslim world in the 1960s and 1970s – Bhutto offered a shift in power and resources from an elite minority to the vast poor majority.
This purely materialist sloganeering – as opposed to the moral sloganeering of right-wing parties (“Pakistan ka matlab kya? La ilaha illala”) – appealed to the masses that had to struggle for these basic necessities: peasants, labourers, and the working class. It also attracted politically engaged, leftist students and the urban youth. “During the days of Ayub Khan, socialist and progressive organisations were crushed: trade unions, literary societies, student unions. Those were the days of the Vietnam War and Mao in China, and there was a revolutionary upheaval all over the world,” recalls Taj Haider, one of the founding members of PPP.
For many, Bhutto’s unapologetic attitude and strongman persona also enlivened the country after the loss of East Pakistan (Bangladesh). Noor Muhammad was just a boy living in Keamari when he witnessed Bhutto tear up the Polish Resolution calling for a ceasefire between India and Pakistan at the United Nations Security Council. That moment converted Muhammad into a lifelong jiyala. “Roti, kapra, makaan is what all citizens need, but Bhutto articulated it,” says Muhammad. During the 1970 elections, he would attend every rally he could. “There was the slogan ‘Daal roti khaiyen gey/Bhutto ko laiyen gey’ [We will eat simple fare/but we will ensure Bhutto wins]. And also, ‘Note bhi deyen gain/vote bhi deyen gey’ [We will give our money/our vote [to Bhutto]. Every child would shout these slogans.”
When Muhammad sees politicians speak today, or hears anyone from a marginalised community demand their rights – the manner in which they speak, the causes they espouse – he sees Bhutto in them. “Bhutto Sahib taught us how to speak, he gave us a voice. Till then, there was no concept of speaking up for oneself, for demanding one’s rights.”
Bhutto was hanged on April 4, 1979 by (the self-appointed “Mard-e-Momin, Mard-e-Haq”) Zia-ul-Haq, but the promise of a truly representative people’s government – the promise of “a better Pakistan, a greater Pakistan” – did not die with him. The establishment and opposition were never quite able to exorcise the ghost of Bhutto from Pakistan’s politics — “Bhutto” became its own slogan, with strong meaning and association (“Jeay Bhutto”, “Naraye Bhutto”). With his hanging (and subsequently, his daughter’s assassination) something else entered the party’s propaganda machine: the language of martyrdom and sacrifice. Slogans like “Kal bhi Bhutto zinda tha, aaj bhi Bhutto zinda hai” and “Tum kitne Bhutto maro ge? Har ghar se Bhutto nikle ga” being the most recognised.
“One of the greatest assets that PPP has is the martyrdom of its leaders. It gives us strength and acceptance from our workers: it shows them that we are ready to die for what we believe in. So much folk literature has been written, so many poems. People link it with the shahadat of Karbala, which is part of our culture,” Haider concludes
1988 – 1997
In the late 1980s, Pakistan witnessed the emergence of new realities in the political landscape — new parties, manifestos, songs and slogans. There was a sudden vibrancy, noise and chaos as different parties competed for power after “Bhutto ki Beti” returned to mammoth crowds in 1986. Cassettes of various party songs inundated the market. Jubilance, music, and dance followed PPP to its victory in the 1988 elections, with the Balochi-titled Dilla teer bijja. When PPP’s sword (‘Zulfikar’) symbol was banned by the Election Commission of Pakistan, the party chose the next closest object: the arrow. “When the party symbol is changed, it takes a while for people to understand that it’s the same party, so it helped us to have songs on the arrow,” says Haider.
Other slogans at the time included “Charoun souboun ki zanjeer, Benazir Benazir” , “Mashriq ki beti”, and “Benazir aati hai, inqilaab laati hai”, but it is Dila Teer Bijja which remains the most used, sampled and copied song in politics, even played at weddings and non-political events. It’s a song of victory against the opponent, but also of love for Benazir, referring to her as the peoples’ ‘daughter’ and ‘sister’.
In the late 1980s, as the Cold War was coming to an end and neo-liberal, right-wing politics dominated the global stage. Pakistan, aligned with Western powers, aided in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. By the time Zia died in a plane crash in 1988, after 11 years in power, he left behind a far more radicalised society: the judiciary and education curriculum were ‘Islamised’, and thousands of religious seminaries were opened. There was an influx of refugees into the country, and new wealth was being created through legal and illegal means.
Zia also left behind a protégé: the son of a wealthy industrialist, an economic minister in his cabinet, with a personal vendetta against the Bhuttos. As one of the most prominent leaders in the military-backed, nine-party alliance, IJI – and previously with the other nine-party opposition alliance, PNA – Nawaz Sharif also spoke of martyrdom and carrying on a legacy: that of Zia’s. One of PNA’s slogans had been: “Nau sitaare bhai bhai, Bhutto teri shaamat ai”.
But what really made Nawaz and his brother, Shehbaz, successful in Punjab – the bastion of power – was a particular brand of Punjabi chauvinism to counter what was perceived as PPP’s Sindhi domination. There was a shift in Punjab’s cultural and intellectual class towards Punjabi nationalism. After losing in the National Assembly by a large margin, IJI was afraid it would also lose the provincial elections. So the very first slogan that announced the arrival of the Sharifs in Pakistani politics was a highly xenophobic one: “Jaag Punjabi jaag, teri pag nou lag gya dagh. [Wake up Punjabi, your turban is stained]”. The Sharif brothers had cemented their presence in large parts of urban and semi-urban Punjab, particularly Lahore. “Lahoris have always had a political romance with Mian Sahib,” says Kashif.
Additionally, they attacked PPP’s ‘socialism’ with the language of ‘economic prosperity’ that attracted Punjab’s traditional (and rising) middle class and urban poor. PPP was presented as “corrupt, inefficient, and anti-Pakistan”. Moreover, they were “infidels”. That socialism equated to godlessness was a common misperception in Pakistan, and the right-wing exploited this sentiment. PPP’s slogan of “Roti, kapra aur makaan” was attacked because it was not the state, Sharif argued, but God who provides “rizq” to his people. Anti-Benazir propaganda blared from loudspeakers in mosques.
Taj Haider thinks religious zeal (as opposed to nationalism) in Punjab played a role in Nawaz’s rise in his early years. “He had no ideology or slogans of his own [in the 1980s]. It was just that whenever progressives stepped ahead, the elite played the religion card.”
After 1990, Nawaz Sharif began to carve an independent identity from IJI. He changed his election symbol to the ‘sher’, which became associated with him and was heavily used in slogans and campaign imagery in all the following elections since. Never mind that the animal is native to Bengal and not Punjab, it symbolised masculine strength, power and flamboyance — and is also a term of endearment (“Sher humara”). Later, as Nawaz would campaign across Punjab in 1993, large crowds gathered to greet him, chanting: “Qadam barhao Nawaz Sharif, hum tumharay saath hain.”
The 1990s witnessed a near-constant battle for power between Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. The two (seemingly) represented opposing dichotomies: left-wing versus right-wing politics, socialism versus capitalism, feminine versus masculine. But in 1996, a new party emerged, one that argued that both PMLN and PPP were one and the same: corruption was perceived to be endemic to politics.
In his first speech to the public, in front of small crowd in Lahore on June 11, 1996, a visibly nervous Imran Khan would apologise repeatedly for his sore throat, let out an embarrassed laugh and timidly request silence each time supporters shouted “Jeevay jeevay Imran Khan” and “Qadam barhao Imran Khan”. The PTI founder began his campaigning with the promise of delivering “insaaf” (justice), “ehtesaab” (accountability), and ridding the country of “corruption”. It would take another 12 or more years before he would finally be taken seriously. In the meanwhile, however, another military dictator – General Pervez Musharraf – launched a coup in 1999. Two years later, the Twin Towers fell in the United States, and Pakistan entered yet another war in Afghanistan.
With Benazir’s assassination in 2007, the music stopped — for a while. Pakistan was gripped with terrorism: 25 bombings claiming hundreds of lives took place in just the four months between Benazir’s arrival and the day of the elections. Music that was played was mournful, such as Bhutto ki beti ai thi”. There was a pervading anger and anti-establishment sentiment. Her husband Asif Ali Zardari was able to quell some of it, particularly in Sindh, with the following words: “Pakistan Khappay”.
Nawaz Sharif also returned to Pakistan from exile in Saudi Arabia. Now a completely different party, in both temperament and ideological leanings, PMLN took jabs at the military general. Naveed, a lawyer who has supported PMLN since that point – “when the party changed its narrative from right-wing to centre-right” – says he appreciated Nawaz Sharif’s newfound “anti-establishment stance”, with the formation of the All Pakistan Democratic Movement and support for the Lawyers’ Movement. “It’s true that he exploited religious and communal sentiment in the past, but he did a lot for Punjab as well,” claims Naveed.
2013 – 2018
Two massive rallies in Lahore and in Karachi announced the arrival of Imran Khan as a serious contender in politics in 2011 — with the promise of “tabdeeli”. The Pakistan that this ‘repackaged’ PTI was able to draw huge crowds in was a land of contradictions, with muddled ideologies. This allowed him to appeal to an assortment of people. There was the apolitical middle class that benefited from privatisation of the education and economy in the 1990s and 2000s; it had little interaction or expectations from the state apparatus. There were overseas Pakistanis who had been exposed to systems that worked. There were the conservatives and nationalists that were drawn to his religious and anti-West stance.
And many were very young, connected through social media and cell phones. In 2013, figures released by the Election Commission of Pakistan showed that nearly half of the 84 million registered voters – 47.8 per cent – were aged between 18 and 35. Part of the repackaging were large rallies that resembled concerts, with an assigned DJ — something not missed by detractors (though later imitated, too). Countless songs have been composed for PTI since, but perhaps the one that really took hold was “Naya Pakistan”.
This generation – crudely, millennials – that grew up idolising Imran Khan as a national sporting legend and successful philanthropist were of voting age around the time of the 2013 elections. This generation did not grow up with the Bhuttos or Sharifs. They were not aware of the early struggles or history of each party, only their failures when they looked around them. Their concerns weren’t “Roti, kapra aur makaan” – they already had these – but “gas, bijli aur paani ki pareshani”.
Maria, a Phd student from Peshawar, says she was in primary school when she started ‘supporting’ Imran Khan: she raised the highest amount of funds for his cancer hospital in her school. “I thought he was an honest person, but I wasn’t interested in politics. My group of friends was more interested in fashion. This changed with the 2013 elections.”
If Bhutto stirred the consciousness of the poor, Imran Khan seemed to have done the same for the privileged. Those who were cynical or apathetic or fed up with the ‘old’ ways saw someone who was ‘clean’ (“saaf chali, shafaaf chali, Tehreek-e-Insaf chali”), and politically untested — so offered reason for hope
Naseem, a doctor from Peshawar, says, “I was disappointed with the democratic system in the country, and the two parties that were taking turns ruling. I believed Imran Khan was an honest person and his core group will make policies that will control corruption and put the country on the right path.” She had voted just once before 2013, during Musharaf’s referendum. “It’s not that I want the army to rule the country, but a benevolent dictator is better than a sham democracy.”
Imran Khan could slip between various identities with ease: one of them being highlighting his Pakhtun ancestry. Astham, a driver from Battagram who came to Karachi for work in 1997, says he was never interested in politics before, and had only once voted in his village in 2008 for a PMLQ candidate. “We just vote for the nawab/khan of our area. So I did what everyone else was doing, what was expected of me.” What appealed to him about Imran Khan was his autonomous stance, whether against the status quo or foreign powers. “Whether it’s America or any other country, we’ll be friends but not slaves. All Pakistanis are nationalist, but Pakhtuns in particular do not bow in front of anyone.”
Perhaps inspired by PTI’s success in utilising catchy songs as effective propaganda tools, and recognising the young vote bank, other parties also released a number of new tracks in 2013. PMLN had the upbeat Dekho dekho kaun aya, sher aya, sher aya and Mian de naray, sung to the tune of Jugni. In 2018, however, the confident, flamboyant sher imagery took a backseat to a more sombre implore: Vote ko izzat do.
PPP continued to rely heavily on old songs and slogans with a few new ones. Despite being seen as unpopular, Zardari has a song celebrating his political prowess (Khatron ka Khilari), which subverts the insult: "Aik Zardari sab pe bhaari”. There are songs written specifically for Bilawal, though none have matched the popularity of the earlier slogans. In fact, most of these new songs speak about Bilawal being a reflection of his mother (“Bibi Shaheed rani ki tasweer Bilawal”) and grandfather (“Bilawal ki soorat main Bhutto nazar aya”).
But, for now, reigns PTI’s "Rok sako toh rok lo, tabdeeli ai re" — a song for the season.
The writer was previously a staffer at the Herald.