Imran Khan keeps talking about change. Change of leadership. Change of system. Change of status quo. But after travelling with and meeting Khan in the past few weeks, I have come to a conclusion that he needs to take drastic measures to stop becoming more and more irrelevant.
Just last year, around the same time, he was being called the third political force after stalwarts of other political parties, soon after the famous rally in Lahore in October, started joining the Imran Khan bandwagon. However, these very elements have failed him in the response he received in south Punjab during his recent tour of that area.
Dubbed as an ‘Awami raabta muhim’ in constituencies that are considered a stronghold of Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Jahangir Tareen — his current three closest advisers — Khan’s south Punjab visit was important since it was seen as a gauge of the popularity of his party in the areas of the party’s heavyweights. But the fact also remains that these heavyweights represent the status quo and this is proving to be harmful to him and the party.
The status quo was visible from the day Khan arrived in the region.
With the start of this south Punjab visit in a private jet that a handful of people in Pakistan privately own to touring the district in four-wheelers that only a fraction of Pakistanis can afford, the PTI chief was surrounded by people who are very much part of the status and do not really represent his slogan of change in any way. Furthermore, this is not only proving to be a burden, it is also making the party believe in an electoral future that may actually not be so rosy.
In Lodhran, where Tareen is among the richest landlords, the PTI chief addressed more than nine gatherings in a span of 12 hours or so. In one of the villages where Imran Khan was going to arrive later, I reached earlier to get a sense of his welcome. There, I found quite a few ‘outsiders’ making sure that all was ready when Khan’s convoy, led by Tareen’s expensive four-wheeler, reached the location.
While the gatherings were well-orchestrated, it seemed that many of the participants were there simply because they had been transported there.
A group of local journalists was given a navigation guide by Tareen. Upon inquiry, he turned out to be a servant at his farmhouse. The servant’s constant recognition for people in vehicles around us was remarkable and when I asked him how he knew all of them, he replied: “These are all Tareen saab’s workers”.
When Imran Khan arrived at the spot, he spoke briefly for ten minutes to a couple of thousand people. At other spots, there was even a smaller crowd. The organisers were smart enough to hold the gatherings in narrow commercial streets where the crowd was bound to look bigger. The level of participation can also be judged by the fact that the people I spoke to in the same village where a jalsa was held, not too far from their homes, were not even aware of it being held.
Imran Khan clearly thinks he is a rock star. The more I meet, cover and hear him, the more I feel that this self-perception may be affecting his judgment as well. Throughout the south Punjab visit, I saw him sitting on stage, wearing shiny sunglasses and instead of looking up and interacting with the crowd, he was busy playing with his smart phone. If he wants to reach out to people in rural areas, he has to give up comforts such as the stage, imported four-wheelers and so on.
He also needs to move beyond cursing President Asif Ali Zardari, the Sharif Brothers and just about every other politician who has not joined his party. Yes, everyone loves to bash those in power and have a good laugh but the PTI chief needs to understand that his role is bigger than a stand-up comedian because rural Pakistan can make or break him.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 18th, 2012.