The certification of genuine arrival as a leader often requires a singular momentous spectacle. In the case of Imran Khan, it happened on October 30. All the positive aspects of the rally at Minar-e-Pakistan have already been repeated to you, many times by now, and hence I will not belabour you with them. Amongst the euphoria surrounding the rally, a new buzzword has entered our rather stagnant political vocabulary, the word being ‘tsunami’. The choice of using a metaphor of sheer horror and utter destruction for political change is at the same time interesting and slightly disturbing. The breezy usage of natural calamities as symbols of political activity is definitely on the rise. We have heard the term boonchal (earthquake) for military takeovers before. There is no likeness here, earthquakes and tsunamis are not brought on by conspiring, malicious individuals or institutions. This was followed by a ‘tsunami’ of uncritical praise even by previous detractors. I have a suspicion that many felt that criticising Khan for his evidently incorrect assertions would somehow be disrespectful to the very large number of young people who attended the rally. Well, it should not be. The rally was admittedly a success, however the courtesy of treating PTI followers as adults (at least most of them) should be extended and they be given our candid opinion. I know of many extremely intelligent and sincere people who believe Imran Khan to be the saviour, and we will just have to agree to disagree.
I do not make a pretence of a neutral, fly-on-the-wall observer regarding my views on Imran Khan. The Lahore rally proved me wrong about the extent and numbers of his following. However, other than that one quantitative aspect, it reinforced the already settled impression of him possibly being an establishment stooge and either extremely naive or purely disingenuous. The towing of the military establishment line while attempting to be a populist leader is a contradiction that to me is irreconcilable, and hence makes him a hypocrite.
The single most anticlimactic moment of the rally was definitely the speech of Imran Khan himself. With the stage set for a historic speech, the opportunity was squandered by him. The unimpressive and apparently extempore speech was largely filled with repetitions of easy recommendations he frequently imparts. Conspicuously absent was mention of any serious military accountability. While Khan rightly exhorts politicians to bring back their foreign assets, he is curiously silent on the military’s multibillion assets in Pakistan. How about we begin at home? The foreign policy element in his speech was equally one-dimensional and simplistic — that of standing up to the United States and befriending China. No marks for novelty here. His argument against drone attacks is cogent standing alone, but it is almost immediately followed by why we should negotiate with the Taliban. Terming these sadistic medievalists as “our brothers” estranged by drone attacks is plainly dishonest and is an attempt to perpetuate the narrative of the military establishment’s discredited doctrine of ‘strategic depth’. I hope I do not have to burden your memory much while reminding you of the consequences of the previous occasions we capitulated, most recently in the Swat peace deal. Advisers like Shireen Mazari and mentors such as Gen (r) Hameed Gul are not confidence-inspiring. Imran Khan made a token statement on Balochistan, I sincerely hope that he follows up, though given his record and affiliations I am not hopeful. The closest he came to a making a serious policy point was while talking about patwaris and thanas, unfortunately he trailed off without a concrete suggestion.
The image of Imran Khan praying alone on the stage in Minar-e-Pakistan is telling. I have no doubt that the theatrical move was orchestrated and calculated as a ploy to reinforce his image of the messiah. I found it exhibitionist, ostentatious and a manifestation of an ego the size of Lahore. Could he not have prayed off stage or conducted a jamaat if he was so inclined — so much for being inclusive. However, do remember it is the same man who titled his recent autobiography Pakistan; a political history. This is quite a contrast with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Lahore speech of 1977 where he said “Haan mein sharab peeta hoon, laikan awam ka khoon nahi peeta!” (Yes I drink alcohol, but I do not drink the people’s blood). And before anyone embarks into drawing hopelessly inexact parallels between Khan and Bhutto’s rise, they will do well to remember Bhutto was fighting the military establishment while Imran Khan has them babysitting him.
Malcolm Gladwell made famous “the Warren Harding error” in his cleverly written book Blink. Warren Harding was one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States. Gladwell attributes Harding’s rise to the Oval office to the fact that the latter looked presidential and stately. Harding was a tall, dark and handsome man with a very perfunctory understanding of statecraft. He was vague and ambivalent on almost all major issues during his political career, but continued on the way up because he just came across as heroic. I am sure this is not the only reason people gravitate towards Khan, but personal charisma remains a major selling point.
The last argument which should be addressed is: don’t all of these objections apply to our current political leadership? They probably do, but our current leadership is not prophesying a tsunami. People who vote for them will have a fair idea of what they will get. Nevertheless, Khan’s policies and motivations will be more minutely examined and more criticism will follow, now that he seems to be a serious enough player. A reference I am sure many of Imran Khan’s fans will understand is from the movie Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility”. Khan has brought the historically apolitical urban youth into mainstream politics and needs to be commended for that and I hope that they vote for him, if they are so inclined, and elect him. However, if there is to be another attempt at a GHQ-backed test-tube revolution, that will be the real tsunami.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2011.