Developmental Rhetoric in PML-N’s Self- Image: (Rail)Roads to Progress, Modernity, and Connectivity


PLMN, by way of monopoly on the developmental discourse in Pakistan and its symbolic repository, projects itself as the elixir to the nation’s ills. Thus, it is by drawing upon the seemingly “universalizing and depoliticizing power of development discourse” (Daechsel 2015, pg. 69) that PMLN is able to negotiate this complex terrain of development espoused as ‘apolitical’ and a universal goal. That is why the in the popular imagination it is, and will be, the PMLN government which brought CPEC, the-currently-56$bn infrastructure mega corridor project, to Pakistan to replace the decaying infrastructure and invigorate the economy. Not PPP[1]. As such I want to see how PMLN’s anchors itself in the Pakistani socio-political landscape as the harbinger of ‘Tomorrow’.

I believe it is important to undertake this project because what is at stake here is to understand the authority which PLMN exercises and wields by a close reading of the politics of visualities involved. After all, Pakistan is without a doubt a failed state. However, the question is: on what level and to which degree? Because while the severity of the electricity shortage faced by the state is unprecedented with blackouts up to 22 hours per day (Anwar 2015, pg. 1), the state/government (in this case PMLN) is still able to retain a stranglehold on the country’s resources. Moreover, by understanding the logics on which PLMN’s political advertising and marketing operates, other parties would be better placed to counter and break PLMN’s hegemony on the developmental discourse in Pakistan.

Theoretical framework

For my framework I shall be looking at infrastructure fetishism, that is how various political-economic apparatus are deployed in order to render the state’s sovereignty and the condition of construction invisible, through a Marxian materialist lens (Anwar 2015). However, at the same time I am aware that infrastructure are not simply the concrete buildings but are also the sociocultural superstructure or the social fabric within which the concrete is placed. As such to historically place this drive for development I shall draw upon the work of Markus Daeschel (Daeschel 2015).

To further unpack how this ‘universal’ developmental discourse then ties in with ideas of ‘modernity’ I shall then turn to Jennifer Robinson’s (Robinson 2006) work as she attempts to disrupt the confluence between modernity and Westerness. Parallel with this I shall also be mindful of Spivak’s concept of epistemic violence because for ‘modernity’ to be earmarked as a Western it is imperative that other (Eastern) forms of modernities be then categorized as traditional and not modern regardless of the shape and scale they take.

Historical Background:

Before moving on to the visual analysis part it would be helpful to step back and look at the historical conditions which enabled PLMN to garner so much power. For the most part is has to do how PLMN is embedded within Punjab’s geo-political landscape. Though, as I have said before while the developmental rhetoric is not exclusive to PLMN only, as PPP and the Army also paly their part in it, still it is PLMN who make a claim to the building of megaprojects and development of roads.

In “Alternative to Partition: Muslim Politics Between the Wars” (1981) Ayesha Jalal and Anil Seal have posited that the center of Muslim power in the subcontinent has essentially been the UP, i.e. the region between Punjab and Bengal, and once Independence/Partition takes place there’s a swing of power from UP towards Punjab. This swing of power is able to take place because as Sara Ansari in her book Life After Partition (2005) draws our attention to the fact that in Punjab there was an attempt at a total exchange of population. While Sindh’s Hindu population went from being a majority into an extremely small minority in just over 1–2 years post-Partition, there was an effort from the government of Sindh to try and keep the wealthy Hindus, and their wealth, within Sindh. However, no such effort was carried out in Punjab. Thus, while Punjab has no imprint-that is any longer noticeable-that belonged to another religion besides (suni) Islam, Sindh retains the memories and buildings of its past inhabitants.

Still, most significantly it is the confluence of Punjabi military identity with the National identity of Pakistan that goes a long way in explaining the domination that Punjab enjoys at the expense of other provinces[2]. Clive Dewey writing on this militarization aspect of Pakistan in “The Political Inheritance of Pakistan” (1991) writes that, “The army never goes back to the barracks, it merely asserts its power in different ways.” (p 256) shows us how it is through civilian governments that the military is able to assert its rule. Still, a more critical and nuanced engagement with this issue is the work by Yunus Samad “Punjab or Punjabistan: Crisis of National Identity” (1996), which goes a long way in explaining the Punjabinization of Pakistan. Samad argues that the question of Pakistani’s official identity often came to reflect the interests of the Punjabi Establishment (Punjabi military-bureaucratic oligarchy). That little by little the Punjabi-military-bureaucratic oligarchy dominated the Pakistani politics by asserting itself as the guardian of Pakistani nationalism.

The nationalist rhetoric which was then deployed, more often than not, was premised on the development of the nation in order to being in on par with the other Western Nations, thus the model of modernity which Pakistan aspired towards was an uncritical grafting of Western notion of modernity onto the Pakistani landscape backed by the Harvard Advisory Group, UN, and other international groups and development consultancies, such as Doxiadis Associates.

What this resulted in was the branding of all those who opposed any sort of development projects as the enemies of the nation, Indian agents/sympathizers, against the prosperity of the people, out to undermine the public good, etc, etc. This also had serious consequences for the labour force and landless peasants because then any move to unionize and demand adequate compensation from the government, foreign investors, multinational corporations, was meet with the strength of the State and quickly crushed, as Kamran Asdar Ali elucidates in his essay, “Strength of the State Meets the Strength of the Street: The 1972 Labour Struggle in Karachi” (2010)

Visual Sources

The visual sources which I shall be using is the cover of PLMN’s 2013 manifesto, which I shall then contrast with MQM’s and PPP’s manifesto cover page to further underscore how PLMN significantly differs in regards to the symbolic capital it draws upon and operationalizes. Second, I shall look at an at political camping poster which the PLMN made one year after PLMN had won the 2013 elections in order to consolidate its image.

The poster has been taken from PLMN official Facebook page as I wished to see how PLMN builds and propagates its image on social media. This is an important limitation to my paper because then I shall not be dealing with how PLMN is represented by others, and on other platforms, and how its own representation then circulates. Also, I am not investigating the truth value of any image. I simply wish to unpack the social and symbolic capital upon which they draw.

Visual Analysis of the Manifestos:

Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s manifesto for 2013 elections[3]:

MQM’s manifesto for 2013 elections[4]:

Pakistan People’s Party’s manifesto for the elections in 2013[5]:

Even before commenting on the colour scheme, layout, size, and visual elements, what jumps to the eye is the quality of the image. PPP has the high-resolution image available, while PLMN’s resolution is moderate, and MQM’s is hideously pixelated. This is important because it indicates the tech-savyness of the parties, or the length to which they are willing to go in order to appear as such.

Now. PLMN’s cover is completely crowed. There is no empty space left except for the sky, but over there PLMN logo, and its signature is present. As if to indicate that not only PLMN is in an elevated position, but is also occupying the new frontiers of new and modern possibilities as indicated by the PIA plane (which embodies the nation) which is heading towards a “khuddar, khushhal, khudmukthar, Pakistan”. (Blessed, Happy, Self-Reliant, Pakistan)

The second important thing to take note of is how the left side represents the ‘traditional’ side of Pakistan with all of its iconic buildings and only the K2 mountain range as the backdrop to give that naturally aesthetic feel to it. Moreover, below this placement of this ‘traditional’ Pakistan we see pristine winding roads thus recreating the picturesque aesthetic to some degree where this modern elevated tarmac road will take us to ‘traditional’ Pakistan. In contrast to this, the right side completely embodies the modern outlook of skyscrapers, shining buildings, rail roads, road, satellites, Information Technology equipment, and motor cars (exactly the discourse of modernity as essentially Western-centric against which Robinson warns us).

Lastly, it is on the right side that Nawaz Sharif is placed in conversation with, presumably, an army personal as signified by the green uniform. Thus, the Army, the Nation, and PLMN are not only on the same page but all working together in order to ensure the prosperity for all involved.

PPP by contrast we can see goes for people’s approach with a mature, muted, and somber aesthetic with a lot of clear space in the background. Especially since the symbolic capital upon which they draw is the death of Benazir Bhutto. While PPP does have its slogan written out in roman Urdu, the lack of any visuals in order to concretize what these promises would look like leave the viewer with nothing but the image of Benazir, which may or not be helpful to the party.

As for MQM, well, they may be intending to project themselves as the only source of light in the darkness, but the poor resolution, font, font size, colours, fails to convey anything except a poorly done job.

Visual Analysis of the Political Campaign ad by PLMN[6]:

Once again the resolution is not good and we can see over here that Nawaz Sharif occupies the sky as he smiles benevolently, and confidently, in a suit and tie (signifying a modern dressing sensibility) upon the progress which is taking place under his watchful gaze. Again, the PIA airplane is heading towards a bright future which brought about by PLMN. The placement of the wind turbines, the dam producing hydro powered electricity, and solar panels engaging with motif of electricity generation are also key visual elements as modernity cannot exist without electricity.

While the background is crammed with skyscrapers and new, shining, steel and glass buildings.

Second, the Metro bus and the train figure prominently in the middle of the picture as they head outwards towards us, the viewer, which indicates that Progress and Modernity are coming towards us. As this ad is for the Youth of Pakistan, we can see the sign of 3G and 4G, which would appeal to the youth in the picture. And in keeping with stereotypes of gendered profession, men are easily identifiable as belonging to the professions of engineers, doctors, and business, while one woman just has her arms folded and the other one just has a degree.

Lastly, while the bold type face in blue of declaring, “Good Governance Ka Aik Saal / Tameear Aur Taraqqi Bemisaal” (Good Governance for One Year / Unprecedented Development and Prosperity) is important in the textual analysis of this image, as is the text presented below where PLMN lists its achievements and goals, what is of prime important to me here is the text super imposed in light red on the picture, “Nai Baat” (Literal translation: New News).

This is significant because it encapsulates quietly pithily the core value, ethic, which at the core of and ungirds PLMN’s political rhetoric: Modernity. This sense of newness, and development. Of being on par with Western Nation (and Saudi Arabia) with all the towering steel, glass, and concrete buildings.


That development is a central concern for PLMN is really no hidden fact. Their political raison d’etre is based on it and operates on this. However, what is important to understand to the fatalistic extent to which PLMN then takes this.

Their obsession and fetishizing of the infrastructure is detrimental to the Human Good because what happens when tons of concrete is give precedence over human life is that poverty, inequality, injustice runs rampant. It is not because there isn’t enough infrastructure.

Yes, infrastructure is important. It is crucial for a lot of thing to take place. But the question, as always, remains: at what cost?

Punjab has, and will continue to have, a stranglehold on Pakistan. The case with CPEC has made this much more apparent than ever before because while the Punjab government was given the full plan of 250 pages, other provinces were given a watered down and completely pointless document comprising of no more than 25–30 pages as the recently released report by Dawn revealed[7]. The plans for setting up,

“A full system of monitoring and surveillance will be built in cities from Peshawar to Karachi, with 24 hour video recordings on roads and busy marketplaces for law and order.” (Dawn, 2017)

Is in no short measure reassuring. It is in fact a clear indication of how China will colonize Pakistan.

For other political parties to jump on the bandwagon of development and to also exclusively draw upon the repository of development symbols is difficult now because not only will it create a dissonance with their own image which they have built over the years. However, not incorporating this the visual of development, the imagery, would be even more fatal because then PLMN will have an unchallenged monopoly on the rhetoric of development. And as long as they do possess that monopoly the deployment of this rhetoric to the complete exclusion of all aspects of human presence and growth, not mere tokenism, will take place. Furthermore, anyone who will then challenge this idea of modernity of development in the slightest will be branded as a traitor, militant, irrational, crazy, against the public good, agents of RAW etc, etc[8]. Without ever addressing the grievances and wishes of the people these mega infrastructure project crush and displace.

For example,

After which ‘vandalism’ becomes the key word here, and the only images which circulate are the types which show and ‘enraged’ thus crazy/irrational mob of people going on a rampage for no good reason whatsoever.


Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern speak?” (1998), selected excerpts

Jennifer Robinson, “Dislocating Modernity,” Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development (2006), 13-­28.

Nausheen H. Anwar, “Introduction,” Infrastructure Redux: Crisis, Progress in Industrial Pakistan & Beyond (2015), 1–23

Markus Daeschel, “The Consultant’s Gaze,” Islamabad and the Politics of International Development in Pakistan (2015), 67–105.

Ayesha Jalal and Anil Seal, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 15, №3, Power, Profit and Politics: Essays on Imperialism, Nationalism and Change in Twentieth-Century India (1981), pp. 415–454

Yunas Samad, Pakistan or Punjabistan: Crisis of National Identity’, Punjabi Identity: Continuity and Change, July 1, 1996. Gurharpal Singh (Author, Editor), Ian Talbot (Editor)

Sara Ansari, Life After Partition: Migration, Community, Strife in Sindh: 1947–1962. May 26th 2005 by Oxford University Press, USA

[1] “CPEC is PPP’s project: Asif Zardari” [Accessed: 4/18/2017]

[2] A small point of interest is how the Army, and Punjab at large, was quick to take on Urdu while also giving due emphasis to English. While Sindh still insists on Sindhi being taught in all government schools up until the 8th standard till this day.

[3] [Accessed: May 25, 2017]

[4] [Accessed: May 25, 2017]

[5] [Accessed: May 25, 2017]

[6] [Accessed: May 25, 2017]

[7] [Accessed: May 25, 2017]