Fandom and Pakistani Politics

Syed Sharfuddin

Fandom is a social identity theory that relies on a set of ideas used by social psychologists and anthropologists to understand how people behave in like-minded groups. Fandom shares many features with tribalism without its harmful effects. It gives people a sense of belonging and space to share their ideas freely without the fear of being told off or disagreed with. It gives people the assurance that their convictions will be respected and not ridiculed when shared publicly.

Fandoms protect themselves by guarding their territory jealously. Their membership is often by application and requires members to follow the admin rules and respect shared ideas. Violation of this agreement results in the non-conforming person removed from fandom by unfriending or muting. A negative side of staying in the company of like-minded people and sharing only what they want to read or hear is intolerance for the alternate view. Fandoms treat criticism and questions as an unwelcome intrusion into their space.

The phenomena of people admiring public icons such as sportsmen, war heroes, showbiz celebrities and religious icons is deeply rooted in human nature. It is natural to be wanting to have success, fame or power, and if these can’t be personally attained, then at least to be associated with those who have it. Success has many fathers but failure is an unwanted orphan. In politics too, people want to remain associated with the political party that wins elections. They want to be a part of their leader’s success story. No one likes losers, those who do are nuts.

Fandom is a term which was introduced in 1903 to describe a community of fans. Fandom originated from the word fanatic which means a person or group of persons filled with excessive or single-minded zeal or unreasoning enthusiasm. Fandom shares common ground with kingdom. It has a domain and a jurisdiction. It has people who are rulers, subjects or cheerleaders. Fandom has a physical, cultural or cyber space where fans get together for conferences and conversation. Fandom captures human impulse to belong to a group of like-minded people. Being a fan of yourself can be a challenging and sometimes dangerous thing. It can lead to Narcissism. But being a fan of someone else is not an oddity. Once a fan joins a fandom, he enters a safe place. It give him a community where people can share their enthusiasm without being challenged.   

Fandom is not automatic. It is built. Political leaders hire public relation companies to build fandoms around them. Benazir Bhutto hired Sachi and Sachi in her early political career. Other leaders built a mystery around them, sometimes at a reputational cost, to create public interest in their personalities. Imran Khan came to politics from the sports field where he had already built a large fandom. Bilawal and Maryam have worked hard in the last five years, at times becoming objects of ridicule for their naivety and slippages in the delivery of public speeches, to make space in their respective fandoms.

Fandom has its own language. In football, fans associate themselves with their teams so much that the barrier between them and their players disappears. If their team wins, they say: “we won”, if their team loses, they say: “we lost”. In this equation fans do not need to be physically present on the football field to join their team players. They can be sitting anywhere but they are with their team players. This also works in politics. A political leader may be holding a public meeting in a distant city attended by a couple of thousand audience, but his fans can join his meeting from their homes on TV and webcast, or even from foreign countries, knowing that at election time they cannot vote for him. If that political meeting is attacked by militants, fans sitting far away feel as if they have been physically attacked. If the meeting cheers its leader, they cheer their leader from their drawing rooms. Fans can support a political party without being its members or even without their names on the voters’ register.

In fandom language, this phenomenon is called the ‘categorised we’. This ‘categorised we’ can be extended to the icon from anywhere but not in all situations. If a political leader is injured in an incident or is arrested, his fans don’t say: “we were injured” or “we were arrested”. They say: “he is injured” or he is arrested” using the third person pronoun. On issues of mass interest such as economy, war or sports, the “categorized we” comes back in fandoms when fans say: “we have an ailing economy”, or “we will not go to war again” or “we will win the world cup this year”.

Fandoms become more visible in adverse or hostile times. The largest media coverage and social media hits were observed when Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from politics in 2018, or when Imran Khan was shot in the leg in live fire at his Wazirabad rally in 2022. Fandoms use acronyms to describe their feelings. ‘Birging’ is a condition that stands for ‘basking in reflective glory’. When ‘Birg’ happens, everyone celebrates. PTI celebrated when it formed the government in 2018. PDM celebrated when they ended the government of Imran Khan through a vote of no confidence.  

Another term, ‘Birf’ stands for ‘basking in reflective failure’. ‘Birf’ brings fandoms together by reducing their pain and making them feel victims. This is what Imran Khan’s fandom felt when he was arrested in the Tosha Khana case and sentenced to three years imprisonment. Fans are happy when their narrative is upheld. PDM parties felt a relief on the conviction of Imran Khan and his disqualification from participating in the next general election, which is subject to the outcome of his appeal against the conviction.

‘Cors’ is another acronym. It stands for ‘cutting of reflective success’. Fans are happy with a win but they don’t like either the manager or they think different players should have been playing. PML(N) was pleased with the straight face role of General Bajwa in the last year of Imran’s government, but as their leader Nawaz Sharif recently said in London, he was not happy with General Bajwa. ‘Cors’ is also like saying: “we won despite our shortcoming”, or “we won despite the absence of a level playing field”. Imran Khan’s fandom believes that despite all the restrictions on the PTI after 9 May, the party is still popular and will beat other parties hands down in the next election. Maryam Nawaz raised the issue of absence of level playing field for her father, suggesting that had this not been the case, PML(N) could have done even better in the 2018 election.

‘Cors’ enables fans to find a justification for the wrong decisions of their leader without accepting that this was so. Imran Khan retaining Usman Buzdar as the Chief Minister of Punjab is never accepted by PTI fans as a political mistake. They point out that it was better to have Usman Buzdar in the seat instead of replacing him with the untrustworthy Aleem Khan or someone else who was loyal to Jahangir Tareen. His fans also justify Imran Khan’s decision to give party tickets to the ‘electables’ in 2018, even though they ditched him at the time of vote of no confidence, because without them he would not have got enough seats in the National Assembly to form a coalition government.

There is creativity in fandoms.  They swap experiences and have different words coined for their rivals. A meta language develops around all fandoms in which fans invent specific names and words to describe their rivals. Fans of Imran Khan have been given the name Youthiyas by their rivals. PML(N) fans are called Patwarees by Imran Khan’s fans. PPP fans have been given the name Jiyalas. Even the heads of political parties have been called by derogatory names. Imran Khan is referred to by his rivals as Ladla and Yehudi Agent. Nawaz Sharif is called Bhagora and Corrupt. The JUP party head is called Diesel. PPP Chairman is called Mr Ten Percent. Shehbaz Sharif is called Showbaz and Boot Polishia. Even the establishment is referred to by different names: Aabpara, Agriculture Ministry, Khalai Makhlooq and Namaloom Afraad.

Fandoms have an alternative universe in which they fulfill their fantasies. This universe runs in parallel with reality. It provides a comfort zone to its fans. Imran Khan’s supporters live in the alternate universe believing that Imran Khan’s party will win the next general election with two-third majority if he is allowed to take part. The alternate universe of the PPP is that it is the largest national party with representation in all the provinces. The alternative universe of PML(N) fans makes them feel that they are the majority party in Punjab with the required numbers to form coalition governments in at least two other provinces.

Fandoms also make use of ‘Canon’ and ‘Fanon’. ‘Canon’ is the original source material of their icons. ‘Canon’ constitutes statements, interviews, press conferences and social media posts and tweets of their political leader. Then there is ‘Fanon’.  It is the interpretation of ‘Canon’ by fans. If the ‘Canon’ is ambiguous or lacking in substance, fandom fills it up with what was originally lacking. Political talk-shows on TV are an example of how a ‘Canon’ is perfected by ‘Fanon’ as most TV anchors and political analysts can be easily identified with political parties and their leaders they support.

When a lot of fans speak around a ‘Fanon’, it becomes ‘Fan-Fiction’. This is a narrative written and inserted by the fans in an ongoing conversation. In Pakistan’s political narrative a lot of what is circulated and discussed does not conform to reality. Most of it is hearsay and often leaders have withdrawn from these positions when they realised that the narrative did not serve their interest anymore. After the 9 May incidents, Imran Khan and all PTI leadership denied that they were responsible for instigating their fans. Nawaz Sharif has directed his party stalwarts remotely on what themes they should talk about openly and what they should avoid. Asif Zardari has played good cop bad cop with the establishment irrespective of his fans’ narrative. Social media blogs belonging to different political parties or persons paid to promote a political party on social media are major contributors to ‘Fan Fiction’.

‘Fan Fiction’ originated at the end of 19th century when Arthur Cannondale decided to stop his popular Shirlock Holmes stories in 1893. However, his committed fans started rewriting their own versions of Shirlock Holmes stories. When this happened, Arthur Cannondale started rewriting Shirlock Holmes stories to stop his fans from ruining his plots. This trend is so obvious in Pakistani politics. A number of quotes are associated with political leaders by their fans which the leaders themselves never said. The famous phrase of Imran Khan: ‘Aaap ney ghabrana nahi hei’ has been overly used in many fake quotes and memes. Similarly, too many fictional quotes are associated with Dr A Q Khan and Pervez Musharraf.

There is use of new vocabulary in fandoms. Take for example the word ‘Shipping’. It is derived from relationship. It explains the tendency on the part of individual fans to feel that they have a special relationship with their icon. Every fan looks at his political leader from his personal experience and priorities. He feels that he and his leader are related to each other on common grounds. Another word in the new vocabulary is ‘OTP, One True Pairing’. A fan idealises his icon in an imaginary relationship similar to two characters in a novel. Fandoms make these relations happen. Another word is ‘Slash / Shipping’. It is a form of making two persons, irrespective of their gender, ‘Shipped’. The original ‘Slash / Shipping’ was in the popular Stars Wars series where Kirk and Spock were ‘Slash/ Shipped’. In Arthur Cannondale characters, Holmes and Watson were ‘Slash / Shipped’. In Pakistani politics Nawaz/Shabaz, Asif/Bilawal, Imran/Bushra are ‘Slash / Shipped’.

An interesting feature of fandoms is ‘Fan-speak’. Fans from one group introduce quotes from their icon into their conversation with other members who recognise the phrase and are aware of its background and context. This becomes classic ‘Fan-speak’. It is prevalent in the daily conversations of fandoms on social media. The famous quote of the just retired Chief Justice: “Good to see you” is an example of “Fan Speak” of Imran Khan’s opponents. His own phrase “Absolutely Not” or Shahbaz Sharif’s phrase “Beggars can’t be choosers” or Bilawal Bhutto’s phrase “Jab barish ata hei to pani ata hei” became classic ‘Fan-speak”. Fans from the opposite camps used these to ridicule their leader’s opponents. ‘Mary Sue’ is also an interesting expression in fandoms which means a fan can insert himself in the original story and become the hero. This is not common and is frowned upon. Fans never try to become their leaders irrespective of how intensely they feel close to them. There is another expression called ‘Para-Social’. This is a condition of a fan having an imaginary ‘Shipping’ with his leader. A ‘Para-Social’ relationship is one sided. It is a relationship in which the political leader does not reciprocate by replying to the emails, messages or tweets of his fans. But on his part, his fans love him as their leader. Imran Khan is regarded as a hero by his fans despite the fact that he is no longer in power and may not return soon but their ‘Para-Social’ relationship with him remains strong while their leader is totally unaware of their names and locations. Interestingly, in a ‘Para-Social’ relationship, the fan is also aware of this reality but he finds a great meaning in this one-sided ‘Shipping’.

Fandoms create role models. Every young person has a hero he follows and tries to know about his life, tastes and ideas. He tries to follow his icon and fancies to meet him if he is reachable. We have seen how many young boys have tried to imitate Imran Khan and copy his dress style. In doing so the young fans get to feel that they know their icon and cling to him. Similarly, die hard supporters of Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari and Fazlur Rahman feel the same about their leaders. Fandoms are not prepared to listen to anything against their role models, even if the criticism is partially or wholly sincere and meant for constructive reformation. They are not prepared for what is called ‘Silphey’ which is another fandom term which means the act of a rabbit moving out of his burrow to gaze outside.

Fandoms can be a serious setback to the democratic system of a country where leaders should be chosen on the merit of manifestos they bring to the people with a clear understanding of the challenges, the resources available to fund programmes and introduce their teams to implement them. When this is missing and the voters are not educated enough to ask hard questions from their leaders, they cannot hold them accountable. If fandoms start making leaders, it is a point of serious contemplation and reflection.

Credits: This essay was inspired by a BBC Radio 4 Podcast on the Language of Fandoms by Michael Bond, Word of Mouth, dated 8 August 2023.

 *Mr. Syed Sharfuddin is a former Pakistani diplomat and a former Commonwealth Special Adviser for Asia, and lives in London, UK.






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