A charismatic politician charming crowds throughout Pakistan. A rising crescendo of political speeches and rallies setting the nation afire, an impalpable sense of excitement building in the populace, casting the halo of destiny itself on the celebrity politician. A sense of promise, a social contract written anew; Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1973? No, rather it is Imran Khan in 2012, launching a flamboyant path to become the next prime minister of Pakistan.
Imran Khan’s turn in political fortunes has been the subject of fervid domestic debate in Pakistan. The numerous political talk shows hosted on television stations like Dunya, Geo TV, and ARY are turning their attention toward the legendary Pakistani cricketer turned head of the Tehrik-e-Insaaf political party, as he continues to hold rallies attended by hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis drawn to his message for change. His first rally, was held in Lahore in 1998, during the early years of his political career when the halo of his sports celebrity was as great an impediment to his being taken seriously as his playboy reputation and his marriage to Jemima Goldsmith.
Khan’s gritty perseverance in turning around his lackluster image was punctuated first by a Tehrik-e Insaaf rally in Lahore in October that pulled in an estimated 250,000 people followed by a December 25 rally in Karachi, which attracted a crowd that numbered from 100,000 to 150,000. Many political watchers –” from local politicians in Pakistan to international political observers to worldwide media outfits –” watched the rallies with interest, noting the way they had transformed Imran Khan’s status as a rising superstar in Pakistani politics. Khan pledged to end the massive corruption of the Zardari regime, electricity and energy shortages that have spread discontent across the Pakistani population, and Pakistan’s dependence on the US. Political observers noted that he avoided references to religious-based political mobilization, and instead addressed himself in secular nationalist terms.
The spectacular success of the rallies, especially the one in Karachi caused it to be splashed across international as well as domestic newspapers, and triggered a noticeable tsunami of politicians who are jumping ship from their cushy perches with older political parties to join the bandwagon of Pakistan’s newest political star. In particular, the defection of Javed Hashmi, one of the key figures of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) to Tehrik-e-Insaaf in January 2011, highlighted Khan’s power to bleed the old juggernauts of Pakistani political theatre into his group.
Hashmi’s defection evoked satirical comments from Pakistani talk show hosts about the timing of his “realization” that PML-N was on the wrong track and that Khan represented a better alternative for Pakistan, as Hashmi declared in a Multan speech. At any rate, it signaled to Hashmi’s colleagues on all rungs of the political ladder that jumping ship for Tehrik-e-Insaaf is a savvy move for lining the nest for one’s political future –” a skill honed through the decades of flip-flopping between political parties such as People’s Party of Pakistan (headed by Benazir Bhutto through the 1990s) and Nawaz Sharif’s various political organizations.
As is usually the case in reversals of fortune, where Imran Khan was once derided as “I’m the Dim,” he is now glorified (assisted in part by his own slogans) as “the next savior of Pakistan.” Even the most hard-nosed political critics cannot help but pay tribute to the mood of hope that has moved through the masses of the beleaguered country. A recent article in The New York Times dubbed his effect in reviving the national scene as “The Pakistani Spring.” A Pew Center poll in June 2011 found that Khan was the most popular politician in Pakistan.
While the 2011 rallies in Lahore and Karachi may be eye-catching and peculiarly persuasive, the turn in Khan’s fortune really began with the 2010 floods that blanketed wide swaths of the country, spreading misery, death, and dislocation. Khan’s charitable credentials were well-established with his establishment of the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital, Pakistan’s first cancer hospital. During the flood disaster, he became the only reliable distributor of aid and supplies to the victims. (Other handlers associated with charities were well-known for swiping medicine and other supplies in order to make a profit on the black market). Khan went a step further and personally raised millions of dollars abroad for his disaster relief projects. Khan’s public service during the tragedy cemented his legitimacy with the public and laid the foundation to his future political successes.
The nay-sayers and critics wagged their heads in doubt –” for entirely legitimate reasons. Khan has no coherent ideology or platform, differing from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose socialist influenced positions, while complicated by his affiliations with Pakistan’s feudal aristocracy, gave his policies a coherent direction. Most of Khan’s positions seem to be taken against existing problems, rather than outlining solutions or new visions. For instance, Khan has loudly declaimed against local corruption, suggesting that laws of transparency will change the system and influence Pakistan’s politicians to be much more responsible with the national wealth that they have happily plundered over their careers.
Khan’s other position is against the post-9/11 US-Pakistan security pact, which has green-lighted drone attacks, rendition killings, and kidnappings of Pakistani civilians. In fact, Khan’s popularity with the masses is in part, based on his willingness to verbally challenge the US-Pakistani special relationship, which has transformed from a species of shady cooperation into aggressive sabotage. But there are no ideas, as of yet, on the kind of (painful) economic and political restructuring that Pakistan must undertake in order to transition out of its “failed state” status. That is, the “insaaf” (justice) that Khan envisions is the negative kind geared toward the absence of social ills rather than a constructive, productive solution.
Imran Khan’s defenders –” a number of which belong to the demographic of articulate Pakistani youth –” dismiss such objections. In a blog for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, Shyema Sajjad writes: “His policies may be all over the place… or not even in place yet but Imran Khan has managed to do something none of the other leaders have so far –” wake people up. Forget the rural voters who are promised a plate of biryani for their vote. I am talking about people such as your siblings, your neighbours and co-workers. He has managed to wake them up, register themselves and get excited to vote for the very first time. How far Imran Khan manages to go, who knows, but making even quarter of this nation optimistic about the future is a very big achievement already.”
Imran Khan believes that he is touched with destiny, that he is providentially intended to lead Pakistan in a new direction. His natural charisma, strident ability to take tough positions, and his public service have changed the political map of Pakistan. The intelligentsia, workers, students and other demographics look to him as a way of breaking through the stagnation of national politics where army rule fluctuates with a hamstrung, ineffective civilian rule run by beefy politicians with family connections. But there are evident problems in the tactics he has taken up in steamrolling toward national power. Wafting in the margins for over a decade, he has made the decision to accommodate power groups in order to gain power and induce reform from the inside.
The compromises he is making with the politicians, army and other contingents of Pakistan power politics as a means of gaining power ensures that he will have allies from inside the system, as well as electoral votes on the outside. But as numerous political commentators are inquiring, how much compromise is too much? As Javed Saleem of the humorous Pakistani political show Hasb-e-Haal noted, at first Imran Khan’s words were direct and held no vestige of compromise. Now, as he begins to accept more and more contingents of the Pakistani political establishment, he has come to use disclaimers that interrupt his image as the intransigent voice of truth. As Muhammad Waseem, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, noted: “He’s now accepting people in his party who have been very much part of the status quo and the corrupt system. [Because] they are powerful and electable.”
So far, Khan is dodging the vital questions being posed to him: how will he realign Pakistan’s notoriously corrupt politicians to a platform of justice? If Khan is entirely serious about rupturing the US-Pakistani political contract, what will be the response of those politicians, who own significant properties in Europe and the US, and whose children are by and large settled there? How will Khan balance between the expectations of the masses whose imagination he has aroused, and the desires of the politicians, who largely view public treasuries as a get-rich-quick depot? And what will Khan do about the 800-lb elephant known as the Pakistani Army, which is fully entrenched in preserving its influence through Pakistan’s unfortunate political entanglements? If Imran Khan is deferring these issues till after the campaigning honeymoon is over, then his political marriage with the country as its prime minister will be quite difficult indeed.