WHEN Imran Khan launched the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf in 1996, then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto rhetorically asked, “Can Imran win 51 per cent seats in parliament to form a government?” A decade and a half later, the same question haunts Mr Khan even when he has recently gathered together the largest public assembly of his entire political life. His supporters, critics and opponents are asking if he will ever get the parliamentary strength he needs to realise his aspirations of becoming prime minister.
There are, indeed, genuine reasons for scepticism. First, the nature of his politics and the political character of his supporters are such that transforming his public support into electoral success will be a challenging task. Second, the quality of his prospective, and previous, election candidates leaves much to be desired, and lastly, his political agenda is so briefly simplistic that it runs the risk of having limited appeal for most voters in the country.
Mr Khan’s inaugural political plank in 1996 was that all politics and all politicians are bad, and so it remains even today. This leaves him very little room for political manoeuvring, the alliance-making and deal-cutting that brings people to power in Pakistan and helps them throw their opponents out of it. His is, in fact, anti-politics — a non-political ideology that discredits what he calls “professional politics” in order to replace it with, you guessed it, politics.
Mr Khan conflates politics as practised by everyone else other than him with money, greed, corruption and the abuse of public support for personal gain, and thereby gives his replacement politics the lofty moral mantle of service, welfare, reform and change. But, like everyone else in the political arena, his purpose in running in an election remains as mundane as becoming the head of a government. For many years before he took part in the 1997 general election as the head of his nascent PTI, he was confused about whether he wanted to launch a movement for social reform, create a pressure group for weeding the bad stuff out of politics or launch a political party. What he came up with in the end was a cross between a social movement, a think tank and a loosely organised collection of highly educated technocrats and avowed Islamists.
Having propagated an anti-politics credo, Mr Khan ensured from the start that he repelled more voters than he attracted. Those who voted for a political party or an election candidate because they needed help in bending, bypassing or even violating the complex, corrupt and ineffective administrative and legal structures of the state would always hesitate to vote for him or his candidates. And such ‘bad’ voters have been in the majority — at least until now.
The political appeal of his anti-politics therefore remained limited to educated and young professionals who would defeat the average elected politician hands down in a battle of IQ, knowledge, understanding or articulation. To his advantage, this section of society has increased phenomenally in numbers over the last 15 years. This is Pakistan’s emerging middle class comprising bankers, doctors, engineers, techies, media persons, managers, advertisers, accountants, et al. that has benefited enormously from the privatisation of education and the economy in the 1990s and the expansion of private enterprise and the service sector in the 2000s. They are different from the traditional middle class consisting of the intermediaries of the economy and the state: traders, shopkeepers, government employees, commission agents, realtors, etc. who have more often than not voted for Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Mr Khan’s core support group, in fact, overlaps a great deal with the core support group of the Jamaat-i-Islami. But Jamaat, having lost its ideological dynamism and its organisational expertise in the late 1980s, had handed over its supporters to the PML-N.
It took many years for this neo-middle class to have enough numbers to make its mark on the political scene, which explains why Jamaat could never make electoral headway and why Mr Khan could only subsist on the margins of politics for so long. The first major show of power of this class was the 2007 movement for the restoration of the judiciary. That the parties — mainly Jamaat and the PTI — and professional groups — bar associations, for example — representing the political ideology of this class boycotted the 2008 election meant that the beneficiaries of its maiden political activism were the same politicians that it abhorred.
With Mr Khan’s Oct 30 rally, this middle class is only coalescing and concentrating on one platform and coming out against politics and politicians in much bigger numbers and with much greater enthusiasm than it has ever done to conclude the unfinished revolution that started in 2007. Finally the time has arrived for the middle class to kick everyone else out of power and bring their own man in.
But even when it came out in scores of thousands to listen to Mr Khan speak at the Minar-i-Pakistan, its next political step remains uncertain. With its well-recorded and well-known hatred for elections and the ballot box, will it take the trouble to cast a vote — something it has done only sparingly in the past? That is perhaps the biggest unknown in Pakistani politics today, and it is the answer to this question that will determine the extent of Mr Khan’s success, or failure, at the polls.
Two factors will be vital to the answer: his decision about making any alliances or becoming part of a rightwing conglomerate reportedly already in the making, and the quality of his candidates. Having undermined and discredited every political party in the country, he has left himself almost no space to backtrack on what he never tires of brandishing as the core principle of his politics — no compromises for electoral success. The moment he utters the word ‘alliance’, he will start losing support.