Leading up to the first democratic transition of power in Pakistan’s history, the narrative surrounding the election had become reductively trite: President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party had mismanaged the state’s finances and foreign relations for five years; Nawaz Sharif, the strongman of Punjab, was the favourite to win the premiership; and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), despite its unlikely prospects, had energised millions of young and urban voters by offering the vision of a “New Pakistan” free of corruption and servility to Washington.
Another first in this election was the messianic tone and stature underpinning the candidacy of one leader, who himself was unlikely to become prime minister. Imran Khan, a former superstar cricketer, had attracted a following at home and abroad that would make Sharif and Zardari salivate. His charisma and perceived incorruptibility made him a revered figure in the eyes of millions; a messiah on a mission.
Khan’s PTI movement — and it is a movement — will outlast this defeat. We should take pause, however, before coronating Khan as the saviour of Pakistan. The deep frustrations Pakistanis have towards state power, abuse, corruption and mendacity are understandable. Pakistan’s leaders have plundered their country, stolen their people’s money and mortgaged their homeland’s future away, while Pakistan’s people have suffered — a 55 per cent literacy rate, an infant mortality rate of 61 per 1,000 deaths (placing Pakistan between Rwanda and Uganda) and a Gini coefficient of 30, make Pakistan one of the most unequal and least literate societies on earth.
Khan spoke of immediately ending corruption, “depoliticising” Pakistan’s bureaucracy, finally collecting taxes, reconciling with Pakistan’s Taliban and standing up to the United States. Many of his policies were certainly noble, but Khan always remained mum on how such ambitious ideas would translate into substantive policy. Corruption is systemic across Pakistan and according to a conservative estimate, costs the state two billion dollars annually. One cannot blame the ordinary voter for shrugging his shoulders and voting for another party during elections.
Similarly, a mere 0.57 per cent of Pakistanis pay income tax and many of Khan’s supporters and fellow political bosses fail to pay into the treasury. Would Khan coerce or persuade powerful frauds to contribute to the Pakistani state?
The Pakistani Taliban, which had been on a killing spree of non-PTI candidates over the better part of the election cycle, saw democracy and elections — undoubtedly values Khan holds dear — to be un-Islamic. How would Imran Khan plan to negotiate with terrorists, who have killed thousands of innocent civilians and Pakistani soldiers and murdered secularists or the insufficiently pious, who have exercised their right to run for election?
What would Khan do to protect minorities — Shias, Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians — who have become targets in their own country? Pakistan’s blasphemy law is a defacto arrest warrant for Christians; the Shias are targeted so regularly that their mass murder has become grotesquely commonplace; Ahmadis and Hindus remain fourth-class citizens. Such ambiguities still exist in messianic politics.
Between an energy crisis and an education crisis, Pakistan also faced a foreign policy crisis. Yet, the PTI’s “independent” foreign policy — Khan said he will stop US drones — seemed most likely to appease the Taliban, aggravate the US and antagonise Afghanistan. The state Khan wished to lead, continued to head towards pariah status internationally and his foreign policy bromides seemed to exacerbate rather than mitigate that trajectory.
These were the kinds of questions that deserved basic answers but often received none — a blurring of policy and platitude. This is precisely the weakness of those deemed messiahs: they galvanise millions, elude scrutiny and raise expectations to unprecedented levels. Khan’s policies had been relegated by the seductive appeal of his celebrity status and rhetoric.
Messiahs are never harbingers of positive change. They are reflections of a perverted status quo, yearning for any glimmer of authenticity and progress. I do not doubt Khan’s heart and like everyone else, wish to see corruption and terrorism end. If Khan continues to build on his successes, the next election will be the PTI’s to lose. But, let us remember that Khan is a politician and not a saviour, and Pakistanis at home and in the diaspora must continue to hold him to the same strict standard we hold all political elites.
The country’s future depends on it.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 21st, 2013.