IMRAN Khan is the talk of the town. Is the political landscape changing? Are the contenders of power realigning? Khan’s gain at the Minar-i-Pakistan is generally understood as the PML-N’s loss. The latter rushed to pre-empt the former’s rally in utter confusion.
The Sharifs were under great pressure from the PPP’s agenda of a new province in southern Punjab and Khan’s bid to snatch the initiative from them. The impending Senate elections finally triggered the PML-N into action.
The PML-N’s idea was to re-establish its credibility as a party that would form the next government, to bring forward the polls before any further loss of initiative and to checkmate Imran Khan. But, the party leadership was in the dark about the public mood as well as its own capacity to appeal to the disgruntled mass of humanity.
Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s public meeting at Nasir Bagh was poorly organised. Thousands of people were herded together for long hours for what turned out to be a 30-minute solo performance. The audience lacked the level of mobilisation displayed in the 2009 rally for the ‘noble’ cause of restoration of the chief justice. Nawaz Sharif’s absence was costly. A veiled attempt at political succession failed.
The MQM’s public meeting elicited the PML-N’s criticism as a rent-a-rally for the incumbent president, much as it was on May 12, 2007. Despite being the largest among the three rallies, it put together only an insipid and robot-like audience. There was no political gain for the party, except strengthening its hands against the PPP on the issue of local government.
In contrast, Khan’s meeting was fun. He mobilised the youth, especially students. Women participants lent a progressive character to the event. Half a dozen speakers made the rally worth the time and the effort of the participants. Musical bands created a festive mood. There was a party-like atmosphere. Overall, the rally was well-organised.
The Bhutto legacy was all around, especially through the rhetoric about change and focus on youth. But, Khan’s end-message was stultifying: there was no ideological formulation, no set of
policies about social, political, economic, educational and legal reforms and no vision of the future. It was mere banging at the door, declaring that he had arrived.
The Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI) chief addressed two major themes that had been circulated in the media: anti-Americanism couched in the idiom of national sovereignty, and bad governance with a focus on corruption. He targeted Punjab because he has no following in Sindh and Balochistan, and only a few pockets of support in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
He warned both President Zardari and Nawaz Sharif to declare their assets within six months or else. This boiled down to a show of strength rather than a programme. Still, Khan is a significant new presence on the political stage, despite his critics harping on themes that he was an intellectual pygmy and a modern-day Tom Jones.
Imran Khan’s critics point to his lack of experience in governance, i.e. his poor CV for the job he is seeking. His followers consider him untried and clean, unlike others who are tried and discredited. In 2002, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal also claimed that it was untried. It was defeated in 2008 because of allegations of corruption, nepotism and bad governance.
Khan is the exit option in a polarised political arena. He is short on policy. But, he has emerged as a signpost pointing to ‘salvation’ for those who are disillusioned with the perceived ineptness of the political leadership. He represents the way out rather than the way in.
In Pakistan’s parliamentary system, a serious contender for power needs electables to win a plurality of the 272 contested National Assembly. The PTI’s candidates can win only a handful of seats, if at all. Therefore, Khan is on a shopping spree, looking for potential winners among the vastly tried lot — those who served under Musharraf and others.
Will he or won’t he make it, that is the question. His icon — Bhutto — made alliances with the leftist groups, the working-class activists, middle peasantry from central Punjab and the traditional political class of Sindh. In this process, he alienated the middle class that shunned mass mobilisation — later translated into votes.
The middle class instead turned to Asghar Khan. Around two million people joined his rally in Karachi in 1970. He was Mr Clean. But he lost out on ideology, the crystallisation of social and economic issues and policies and a credible organisational base in rural and urban areas. That cost votes. Asghar Khan never made it in his long political career.
Can Imran Khan improve on this model of a clean, popular, untried, middle-class hero? Or can he become another Bhutto, even without his intellectual excellence, vast experience of the national and international affairs and a progressive project of redistributive justice, given the PPP’s position against the army, bureaucracy, capitalists, landlords and the ulema in the 1970s?
Some argue that political mobilisation of the middle class by Imran Khan is a welcome change, because that would bring it in the political mainstream. Others find an ultra-rightist movement in the making, characterised by pro-Taliban and xenophobic tendencies. At the same time, the ‘modern’ boys and girls in his rally were convinced that in his heart of hearts Khan is secular.
The first luminary to join him after his rally was not an ex-minister of Musharraf or Nawaz Sharif but an ex-chief of an intelligence agency. Coming as the move does after speculations that the intelligence apparatus is sponsoring the PTI chief, his inclusion in the ranks can turn out to be suicidal. It can scare off prospective allies who would hate to be considered the establishment’s poodles.
The PPP, PML-N, MQM, ANP and others will now try to safeguard their own turfs. Imran Khan will be under pressure to explain a lot in his personal and professional life. His search for electoral heavyweights can jeopardise his ‘message’ of clean politics. Perhaps he will overcome these formidable challenges. Or maybe he will not be able to.
The writer is a professor at LUMS.