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Is Imran Khan politically doomed?

Updated February 03, 2015

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Imran has a massive ship to steer and the navigator is not working.—Photo by Mobeen Ansari
Imran has a massive ship to steer and the navigator is not working.—Photo by Mobeen Ansari

Imran Khan was hospitalised after falling down from the stage in a rally in Lahore, just days before the polling on May 11, 2013. He hit TV screens again later in June. In his successive interviews, he emphasised on three points that became the agenda for his party post-2013 elections.

One, the so called War on Terror is not our war. It is America’s war. We shall get out of it and the best way to do it is to bluntly say no to US and hold negotiations with the Taliban to end terrorism and bring peace in the country.

Following the attack on Army Public School, though, he aligned himself with the forces fighting the Taliban.

Two, Khan claimed that the elections were massively rigged but his party had opted not to come out on streets in protest – like the opposition did in 1977 – in the greater national interest, and insisted that a commission should investigate it.

For four straight months, he crusaded for the cause of a 'fair and impartial' judicial commission conducting this investigation.

Three, Imran’s vows about what his party’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa planned to achieve. These were interspersed with lots of ‘Inshallahs’ (God willing) and promised to end corruption, bring transparency besides boasting of making other achievements like producing surplus electricity in 5-years times.

In the year and a half since the elections, Khan has dithered between these three of his major takes, on screens and in streets, without achieving anything in real terms.

Know more: Imran says will never accept defeat

His party can only assume that it has mobilised, made aware, politicised a section of the population but these will remain wishful suppositions unless they pass some real tests.

The party has exhausted its agenda. It is now hardly left with an issue to politick around with.

So, is the party over then?

The PTI is too big to disappear into thin air.

Consider these facts to have an idea about its size:

The party tally in terms of seats in the parliament is not impressive but still one shouldn’t forget that it polled a hefty 7.7 million votes to become the second most voted party in the country after the PML-N.

Here is a summary of the position of the party’s National Assembly candidates on the election victory stand:

(Note: The table does not include the results of the by-elections and other changes effected after the polling held on May 11, 2013.)

Add to this the fact that the party is the strongest in urban centres.

Of Lahore metropolitan’s 13 National Assembly seats, the PTI was the winner on one and a runner up on 11. It was placed on third position on only one seat.

Similarly, of Karachi’s 20 seats, the PTI contested 17 to come out the winner on one and runner up on 15 and on lower position on only one other seat.

These numbers only speak of the electoral performance of the party. However, the political space within which it operates offers many more lucrative opportunities than the ones it has been able to capitalise.

Also happening: Imran demands NA speaker's suspension

The polity in Punjab is too big not to have an opposition party. The province has around 500 national and provincial constituencies and there are at least three major and well-entrenched contenders of power in each.

The PML-N has been able to mop up the lead contenders but it cannot simultaneously accommodate their competitors in the party ranks. They obviously have to find another platform to channelise their politics.

The situation in Sindh is even worse from the point of view of ruling parties. Both the MQM in urban centres and the PPP in the rest of Sindh did maintain their positions in past elections but they both heavily suffer from incumbency fatigue.

The electors are sick and tired of the same faces, using the same rhetoric about all too familiar matters. Anything new thus stands a hypothetical chance.

The PTI’s support base has two clearly defined segments.

One is the urban middle class youth beholden to Khan’s charisma, whatever that means, and the other is the crowd that is managed and delivered by the ‘electables’ or what I prefer to see as second and third level power contenders.

They need access to state power to move up the class ladder and their patience has limits. Let’s not pretend. There are no party ideologies and no party loyalties anymore. Politics is not the struggle between haves and have-nots. It’s a game that the haves and the wannabes play.

Two of the PTI’s support bases are many a times at cross purpose. Khan can probably bank on his charisma to keep the support of his awestruck urban fans in tact but the electables and the numbers they can churn out are a different ball game.

What does Khan have to offer them? Hopes.

Trading in hope is a risky business.

Explore: What is 'naya' in Naya Pakistan?

Politics is a highly volatile market. Hope of a 'Naya Pakistan' may do the trick with urbanites but for the electables hope only means ‘power within sight’ and the distance between hope and power has to be measurable.

Imran tried to hedge his bets by seeking 'the umpire’s' support during his recent adventure but it didn’t come through.

No doubt that the umpire has been bankrolling movements and underwriting deals throughout our political history. But, for now, he may be too busy elsewhere and when he does emerge from the task at hand, the situation is likely to be different from what it is now.

The joining of dissidents from other parties can help boost adrenaline levels of party supporters but these have a short half-life. More so because many of them carry baggage from their past and can easily become a liability instead of an asset.

See: Parliament Watch: Old hands joining PTI set sights on next election

Imran has a massive ship to steer and the navigator is not working. He has to keep it afloat for a long time (read: three and half years until the next elections). He needs to find a way out sooner than later.

One possibility could be to refresh the party’s mandate by holding local government elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. If he wins he cannot only sail through safely but can also turn the heat on the ruling party and make life difficult for it.

But for that he will have to first skilfully deal with his elected parliamentarians who will not be willing to share power with local government minions. The local elections are a risky gamble, as they might deepen and expose fissures within the party.

More importantly, if the PTI loses these elections, its prospects in Punjab are sure to be botched beyond repair. Too many might opt to jump out of Khan’s rudderless ‘sinking’ ship then.

So, will the Kaptaan throw the gauntlet?

Or,

Would he rather wait in the dressing room for the umpire to call an off time-out and resume ‘the match’?