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Imran Khan and the unfolding political paradox

As pressure on PTI ramps up, the ousted PM ironically finds more political space to breathe

By Zeeshan Ahmad |
Design: Mohsin Alam
PUBLISHED August 28, 2022

In my previous article, written on the eve of the no-confidence vote against Imran Khan, I had voiced the apprehension that whichever faction succeeded his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in government would find power a poisoned chalice. Months on, while some economic improvement has been seen, it is hard to find a silver lining to the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s grand enterprise against him. What was the point?

Pakistan’s politics over the decades past have been imperfect, although it can be argued that politics everywhere in the world are by their very nature ‘imperfect’. But two back-to-back successful democratic transitions and common ground on some broad yet basic issues among stakeholders suggested a positive trajectory to our political process. In cascading fashion, it feels, that progress has been rolled back. And as our nation faces its worst climate-induced natural disaster in more than a decade, on top of the myriad economic challenges that remain in place, it is hard to be optimistic about the outcome to the on-going political confrontation.

A lot of initial blame, to be fair, does rest on Imran Khan and his party. The anti-corruption platform that brought the PTI to power, while popular, would keep it from seeing the big picture. Good governance in any healthy democracy calls for compromise and cooperation with all sides of the political spectrum, even electoral opponents. In the face of task at hand, it was always going to be impractical.

Critics time and again warned the PTI was underestimating the rigours of governance. It made several initial missteps and dented its own popularity as a result even though it enjoyed a level of support from the establishment that no other political faction could boast of – in the beginning of its tenure at least. As the public grew disgruntled and the opposition sniffed opportunity, Imran and his party may have felt they had no choice but to double down on its electoral rhetoric. Perhaps more flexibility from the PTI leadership could have saved its government and our politics.

Then again, similar arguments can be made against its opponents. As I noted in the previous article, all the PDM and other stakeholders against Imran’s party had to do was sit back. The PTI was well on its path to political oblivion until the no-confidence move gathered steam. The case made before the public was that allowing Imran to continue had been economically untenable for all of us. It made some sense too at the time, until the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz found itself unwilling to pull the same triggers the PTI government was criticised for. While progress has been made since on a deal with the International Monetary Fund and the rupee has recovered some of its strength as a consequence, the matter remains up in the air. Any setback may send the economy tumbling all over again, this time with the added challenge of tackling a natural catastrophe.

In the meanwhile, Imran Khan’s regime change conspiracy theory is being turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. As alarming precedents are set – and these should raise concern among all stakeholders, political and non-political – Imran Khan and the PTI paradoxically find more political space to breathe. Imran, for his part, has always relished the ‘cornered tiger’ perception. The manner in which the PTI is being cornered is also transparent for the masses that back him.

The political elite against Imran and the powers that be need to be mindful about a few aspects in particular. The first entails understanding who backs the PTI leader and why that segment of society finds his appeal so enduring.

The rise of the PTI has been down to the mobilisation of a disillusioned class of Pakistani citizens, many of who represent the middle-class urban youth. While certain sections have made them fodder for jokes over their supposed naivety and idealism, that segment of society is still one of the strongest engines for growth our nation has, at least in the right conditions. Politically alienating that segment serves no one.

Imran Khan, more than the party he leads, has cultivated his cult of personality in a rather organic fashion as well. While his opponents attribute his political achievements to the establishment, his popularity has developed independently. That aspect certainly should not be confused. Imran and the PTI, as a result, for better or worse, represent a political reality.

We as a nation, from the corridors of power down to the street, need to be careful with throwing around the label of traitor. Politics entails differences of opinion. Healthy politics rest on debate and disagreement. Holding dissenting views does not equal the absence of patriotism. Politicians, like all human beings, may be flawed and imperfect but allegations of treason must only be made in accordance with strict and limited criteria.

Finally, whatever the truth may be, the allegations that Shahbaz Gill has been subjected to torture and sexual abuse should trigger serious alarm. The people and critics are rightly fatigued by round the clock political intrigue, especially in the face of the climate catastrophe that has left hundreds dead and many more homeless and uprooted. But if a representative of a major political party can suffer such inhumane actions, then where does the ordinary Pakistani stand.

It is especially telling how those that would ordinarily remind us to not resort to victim-blaming have reacted to the allegations. Just because one is a rather vocal politician does not mean we stop extending that basic human decency. The allegations need to be thoroughly investigated and if there is truth to them, the perpetrators brought to justice.