The one contemporary politician who evokes the strongest sentiments from both his detractors and admirers is undoubtedly Imran Khan. The word recently in vogue to describe him is ‘kaaptan’ or captain. The term probably refers to his cricketing days and not to Walt Whitman’s unparalleled ode to Abraham Lincoln titled “O Captain! My Captain!”
Imran Khan to some is a Taliban apologist failing to condemn a suicide attack without an elaborate tirade against drone attacks, war on terror and the West generally. For others, he is the only hope left for redemption, the promised saviour. Khan undeniably has the ability to draw a certain segment of society in and hold them in his thrall. The most fascinating thing about Khan is the minimalism in his views and the increasing lowering of our expectations. For example, Khan has a penchant for justice and independence of judiciary. It is an admirable fixation and unexceptionable in principle. Yet very rarely has Khan found the inclination to explain the specifics of his vision. Similarly, Khan is dead against corruption, but again has hardly ever elaborated on this, apart from his constant exhortation for all politicians to bring their foreign money back home. There is nothing inherently unreasonable in the aforementioned demands. Yet their simplicity is baffling, especially by an ostensibly national leader. Taking strong positions on easy moral questions should not be sufficient. They are better suited to a disgruntled and frustrated citizen. Leaders are supposed to give visions and methodologies to implement them — the mere desire to eradicate corruption without any concrete proposals is either disingenuous or extremely naive.
Imran Khan seems to have found a niche in the urban middle class youth. The argument put forth for Khan’s suitability by his followers is that despite his flaws there is no other alternative. That is a rather unflattering endorsement, being the lesser evil is hardly the stuff that leaders should be made up of. Some even insinuate that since everyone else has had a chance, Imran Khan should also be tried once. The suggestion is comical; the country should not be given on test runs.
Imran Khan has never made a pretence of building a democratic party, that is part of his charisma. In the 14 years since the inception of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the average voter (excluding the very few active party workers) can name only one prominent member, that being the gallant Khan himself. This is at worse a model of dictatorial khilafat and at best no better than the recent unopposed election of Nawaz Sharif held by the PML-N.
A very disturbing element of Khan’s recent political rise is his now almost explicit support by the military establishment. Even more alarming is the increasingly aggressive style being adopted by his followers against anyone who chooses to point out this glaringly obvious unholy nexus. The style can be attributed partially to the influence on Khan by his brother party, the Jamaat-i-Islami. Another contributing factor is the demographic of his fan base. The average Imran Khan supporter is an energetic urbanite with a computer and a Facebook account, unhappy about the state of affairs. Imran Khan and Pervez Musharraf, despite all their animosity, have this boutique following in common. Any election held on Facebook would be a tough contest between the two, a country mile or two ahead of President Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. And they hate or, when sympathetic, pity the common ignorant, illiterate voter who keeps on electing the PPP and PMLs over and over again. One is reminded of the late queen mother, who once famously remarked, “I see no point at all in being poor”. This condescension and holier-than-thou attitude is what tyrannies are made up of. CS Lewis once said, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive”.
While Zardari and Nawaz Sharif are fair game despite their public mandates for the most scathing of insults, the first hint of criticism on Imran Khan has the cyber-world jolted. There is a definite hint of fascism in this. Similar to Khan and with a great convergence in views is the hysterical clownish polemist Zaid Hamid. The fielding of by-election candidates, particularly in Lahore and Rawalpindi, by Khan shows his willingness to play by the agreed rules, i.e. that of fielding time-tested local heavyweights. The fact that his candidates lost is no ground for sympathy, it merely displays that he was outmanoeuvred.
The biggest dent to Khan’s credentials as a national leader is the semi-coherent pandering to the most prevalent prejudice of our society — that of uncritically blaming the West for suicide attacks. Instead of doing the hard part of simultaneously standing up to suicidal barbarians and western imperialism, Khan has chosen the ridiculously easy path of portraying suicidal bombers as our brothers who have been wronged. His denial of the existence of an ideology which sanctions and glorifies these attacks is either shamelessly opportunistic or outright cowardly. As far as I am concerned, his lukewarm condemnation of the Taliban, which at times comes across as tacit endorsement, overrides any and all of his positive traits when it comes to the prospect of him potentially taking over the reins of power. The religious parties have had this stance for years and incidentally been backed by Khan’s current patrons, the Pakistan Army. What makes Khan more insidious is that his stance is couched (although not particularly well) in a liberal facade.
Imran Khan has hardly ever said anything substantial about the mass murder of the Baloch — ranting about corruption, though imperative, does not solve problems of ethnic and national identities. He, it seems, has made his bet, which is to attempt to come to power based on the support of the military establishment and hence no longer feels the need to reach out to the masses (at least not to those without internet access). My main point though is not to call attention to Khan’s follies but rather to the fact that he has no claim of being treated exceptionally in comparison to other political leaders.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2011.