“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. And then you win.”
That’s right. You win, no matter the odds.
American trade unionist Nicholas Klein was so right.
All our entrenched political dynasties have joined forces to fight Imran Khan whom they first ignored as a rookie and then ridiculed as a crazy rabble-rouser.
Khan fought like a lone crusader. He took on the “cabal of crooks” in his “crusade against corruption”. He confronted their spin doctors. He defied those who no one had dared to defy before. He challenged the “chronically corrupt” system. In the process, he antagonized everyone. They all coalesced to bring him down. And after his “humiliating” exit and a failed march on Islamabad, his critics wrote him off.
The alliance shared the spoils and moved to settle a score. A political witch-hunt began against Khan, his family, and his close confidants to break their will to fight.
But Khan wouldn’t give up. He persevered. So did his party loyalists. Khan was convinced his government wasn’t toppled through an indigenous democratic process. He was convinced it was a regime change operation backed by the US which was unhappy with his independent foreign policy.
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Nobody believed in his narrative. Or they didn’t want to. The ruling coalition ridiculed it as a “figment of Khan’s imagination”. The security establishment dismissed it as lacking substance. And the judiciary ruled there was “no corroborating evidence”. But PTI supporters were as convinced as Khan was.
The recent by-election in 20 Punjab constituencies was a good litmus test of Khan’s narrative. All analyses, all assessments, and all predictions pointed to an easy walkover for the PML-N which was bolstered by support from around a dozen coalition partners. According to Khan, “Mr. X” and “Mr. Y” were also in cohorts with them to ensure a PML-N win, given the high stakes.
But the PTI stunned everyone. It proved all analyses, all assessments, and all predictions wrong. It swept all but five seats. The Sharifs and their allies must have been shell-shocked. The election drubbing has not only sealed the fate of Hamza Shehbaz’s nascent government in Punjab but has also imperiled the coalition set-up in the Centre, led by his father, Shehbaz Sharif.
It wasn’t just a dazzling electoral triumph. It reinvented Khan, reshaped his politics, and reinvigorated his struggle in more than one way.
Good times coming for Pakistan (InshaAllah) after the Punjab Elections victory! The people of Pakistan are celebrating this win all over the country and overseas Pakistanis celebrating too. ECP's role was shameful, we won despite the record rigging! #الیکشن_کمشنر_استعفی_دو pic.twitter.com/1Sdju7vUer— PTI (@PTIofficial) July 19, 2022
First, it has seriously dented, if not debunked, the earlier narrative of Khan’s rivals that he had been “selected” by the security establishment by rigging the 2018 elections in favor of PTI. The 20 seats that fell vacant after the judiciary de-seated the PTI lawmakers who had jumped ship after Khan’s ouster spelled doom for the party in Punjab. They had won the last elections on PTI’s tickets but received a drubbing in the same constituencies when they contested the by-election as PML-N’s nominees. People again voted for Khan’s party. This means the PTI’s previous win here was also not engineered.
Second, it shows that Punjab no longer belongs to the Sharifs, who traditionally drew their political strength from the central and northern districts of this bellwether province. The PTI has emerged as the most popular party in the south, center, and north of Punjab. The party won three out of four constituencies up for grabs in Lahore, the citadel of the Sharifs. It was a rude awakening. It shouldn’t have been. The massive organic and spontaneous protests after Khan’s ouster at Liberty Chowk should have awakened the PML-N to this new reality.
Also read: Basking in poll glory, Imran toughens line
Third, Khan’s narrative appears to have been embraced by voters, especially by the educated middle-class. This narrative was spun around four points: 1.) Khan faced America’s vengeance for defying its diktats and charting an independent foreign policy course; 2.) Pakistan’s political parties colluded with the US to bring down his government and thus compromised the nation’s sovereignty; 3.) Khan is the only hope for Pakistan; 4.) Only he can stand up to the security establishment for civilian supremacy.
Fourth, it indicates growing maturity and political awareness among voters. They not only turned out in huge numbers [in some constituencies turnout was up to 60%] to exercise their democratic right but also guarded their votes against rigging. They rejected the “opportunists” and “electables” and voted for an ideology. This is a good omen for the future of our fledgling democracy.
Fifth, Khan has proved that his party could not be taken hostage by billionaires who join politics to multiply their fortunes. Khan might have largely benefitted from the largesse of Jahangir Tareen and Aleem Khan, who, at one point, were called the “ATM” of PTI, but he didn’t compromise on his principles when he had to make a choice. For, he knew his ideological supporters would come forward to fund the party with their donations.
But in this triumph, there is also a lesson for Khan.
The power grab by an unscrupulous opposition alliance was a godsend because he would have little to defend his performance in the next elections if he had completed his tenure. Abandoning their “vote ko izzat dau” narrative and toppling the PTI government when the “opportunity” beckoned has cost the opposition, PML-N in particular, dearly.
Imran Khan, by his admission, didn’t wield real power during his time in office. His government would have to face the repercussions of the decisions taken elsewhere. In a democracy, people are the only legitimate fountain of power. Ceding space to stay on the “same page” with the powers that be would only strengthen undemocratic forces and erode civilian supremacy. A government built on shaky grounds would always be prone to the whims of “Mr. X” and “Mr. Y” and to conspiracies orchestrated abroad.
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