The phenomenon of Imran Khan and politics

IK was swept/guided to power under similar hopes after failure of the tested and tried cabal of corrupt dynasts


Inam Ul Haque October 06, 2022
The writer is a retired major general and has an interest in International Relations and Political Sociology. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @20_Inam

In December 2020, I wrote; Imran Khan — the dying pangs of a dream. The cited Op-Ed was based on the performance of the then PTI government, its relative unease at handling the economy and the pitfalls of not being on the same page with the Military. Things unfolded as projected, except that IK now symbolises even more the dreams, hopes and aspirations of a cross-section of Pakistan.

In subsequent articles, I argued that Khan combines charisma, Pakistaniyyat, Islamist credentials, spine to hold his ground/courage and relative integrity in comparison with others; hence he should be packaged correctly for greater good of this country, and its starry-eyed people. Given PTI’s inexperience/non-deliverance, IK was suggested to become Rahber-e-Tehreek rather than holding a public office ‘on return’. A series of steps were suggested to improve PTI’s governance, the next time around. The powers that be were advised to read the popular ‘pulse’ correctly, and avoid repeating the many missteps that started the curse of Ramadan-2022. That curse which has afflicted our body politic deeply and adversely continues to this day.

As an optimist, one sees the brighter side of even the starkest adversity, as even evil has corrective, constructive and creative silver-lining. Our belief that all the good and the bad is from Him. IK was swept/guided to power under similar hopes after failure of the tested and tried cabal of corrupt dynasts. Midway through his maiden innings, these hopes seemed dashed. However, these stand resurrected like never before. Empirical evidence aside, IK the idol is seen as an underdog wronged under foreign pressure, with own people in cahoots. And that energises the mainstream Pakistan and a substantial number of fence-sitters. Irrespective of the hard realities, this narrative sells and sells well.

Beyond this point, the short-term Pakistani politics is faced with the following key questions. Will IK/PTI sustain the momentum of their narrative till elections in 2023? Will his arrest and detention/disqualification lead to some sort of revolution? How would the ‘neutrals’ react ‘if and when’ there is a change of guards? And what will be the 2023, post-election dispensation?

First, the sustenance of election-oriented popularity of PTI/IK through agitation. As I have repeatedly opined, IK is the first leader after ZA Bhutto who has mobilised masses, albeit with two variances. His movement comprises urban upper middle class also (Bhutto did not have this advantage); and he/PTI dexterously uses the power of social media (Bhutto did not have this advantage either). So, if today is any guide, he shall be able to maintain his support base till elections next year.

However, those in the know of Pakistan’s ‘one-event political culture’ would attest that there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Who would have thought Asif Zardari becoming president if the ‘single event’ of Benazir’s death had not buoyed PPP’s political fortunes. So, fingers are always crossed in projecting Pakistan’s political direction. The list of variables that can/would cast their shadow over the course of politics is long…from governance quality by present dispensation to the economic revival/inflation control to flood relief/rehabilitation to power hardball by ‘other’ players – internal and external, etc.

Second, what happens if he is arrested/disqualified and barred from politics? The public mood is strongly defiant, as has been seen by previous two attempts to nab him. The PDM-led government and Rana Sanaullah-engineered strategy would be to stem the pro-Imran tide using strong administrative actions, maligning IK/PTI through IT-based smear campaign, entangling him/PTI leadership in unending legal battles, and gaging the PTI’s narrative over state-controlled media. They would use the change of guards at GHQ to their advantage, actual and/or perceived.

Would IK’s arrest lead to any semblance of a revolution? Revolutionary culture cites ‘misery’ as breeding the revolt. This misery is mostly economic misery that mobilises the dispossessed masses under a dynamic leader and an organised party. The public discontent is channelised carefully by revolutionaries to challenge the existing order. Pakistan/PTI does not qualify for revolution due to various reasons. Our Hindu legacy ascribes hardships to destiny/kismet, and never allows the balloon of discontent to burst. Two, Subcontinent never had a revolution, as demography is too diverse, divided and dispersed to become revolutionary material. Three, rulers in Islamabad do not matter for the vast majority of Pakistanis in rural heartland, especially in flood-ravaged areas. Four, social media following and rallies may be deceptive. Musharraf had millions of followers on Facebook.

However, above considered and the fact that IK mobilises the citizenry like none else, especially Pakistan’s IT-savvy youth bulge…revolutionary seeds might be discreetly in ferment. And for every event, there has to be a first time. For a popular anti-status quo uprising, any misstep may be a tinderbox. However, the outcome would most likely be anarchy, rather than a guided revolution, for cited reasons. And the ensuing violence might propel the Military into action, as is always the case with Military interventions. Our low threshold of violence-absorption might again welcome the ‘criticised’ Military to restore the cherished law and order. And that outcome upends the political calendar like always.

Third, crystal-balling the Military. One does not read too much into the recent trip of Gen Bajwa and his team to the US. This planned visit was twice rescheduled, and important Generals always accompany the Chief, when he is to interact with various US military forums. As announced by DG ISPR and based upon other indicators, Pakistan Army would have a new COAS this November. And 2023 elections would be under his capable and observant watch. And, he would be his own man, irrespective of the circumstances of his selection.

Fourth, the post-2023 election dispensation. Considering the many ‘ifs and buts’ (and absence of any single-event trigger), PDM if able to turn the challenge of floods into opportunity, might steady the economy – possible. It may thus make a dent in PTI’s popularity and vote bank. Otherwise also, agitational politics outside the Parliament would be costly and tiring for PTI. In that likely scenario, IK may still win and form a coalition with a strong opposition. In the event of an earlier vote (that is not likely), IK/PTI may form a government without needing uneasy compromises with coalition partners.

So, the political horizon has PTI written large…perhaps after lessons learnt. Let’s get back to work.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 6th, 2022.

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