The more things change, the more they stay the same

Published April 25, 2016
PTI chairman Imran Khan and party spokesman Naeemul Haq during the PTI Foundation day rally in Islamabad.─ PTI Facebook page
PTI chairman Imran Khan and party spokesman Naeemul Haq during the PTI Foundation day rally in Islamabad.─ PTI Facebook page

ISLAMABAD: PTI couldn’t have asked for a better time to celebrate its 20th birthday, so to speak.

With the Sharifs under mounting pressure following the Panama Papers leak and the opposition clamouring at their door, the PTI chairman threatened to lay siege to the ruling party’s residential complex in Raiwind if his demand for a free and fair investigation into their offshore companies wasn’t met.

“Corruption sey chutkara, Imran Khan nay pukara” was the newly-coined battle cry on Sunday, reflecting both a change of tack and a return to the party’s social justice roots.

For Naeemul Haq, the party spokesperson who has been with Imran Khan through thick and thin, the party’s journey to its present position – as one of the three major forces in parliament – has not been an easy one.

“The 126-day dharna was the high point of Mr Khan’s political struggle,” he told Dawn, adding that it was launched to protest the massive rigging in the 2013 general elections, which “hurt PTI the most”.

But the high point also came with its lows, and the extended sit-in also earned Mr Khan a reputation for being something of a political ‘loose cannon’.

The party had staged a few rallies to protest the alleged rigging of the 2013 elections in the past, but it was the killing of 12 Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) workers in June 2014 that he ultimately used to up the ante against the government.

For Mr Khan’s detractors, the long march of Aug 2014 and the subsequent sit-in was staged at the behest of ‘the powers that be’. This view was lent credence by the resignation of party president Javed Hashmi, right in the midst of the sit-in.

Former minister Ishaq Khakwani, who worked under General Pervez Musharraf and later joined the PTI, said that compared to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rise to power, the 20-year struggle of a handful had grown into a movement of millions.

While the party continues to increase its role in national politics with every passing day, it has failed to bring about a new political culture on many fronts.

Like any other political party leader, Mr Khan is also compelled to bank on tried and tested politicians, or ‘electables’. This modus operandi has been widely criticised by friend and foe alike.

For all his efforts, Mr Khan wasn’t able to introduce a transparent democratic culture within the party either. PTI’s first intra-party elections were held just prior to the May 2013 general elections, and were later called into question by the party’s own election commissioner, retired Justice Wajihuddin Ahmad. However, even the former judge had to part ways with the party when his recommendations were ignored.

PTI’s second attempt at intra-party democracy almost met a similar fate last month when its second election commissioner, former bureaucrat Tasneem Noorani, resigned on the pretext that party leaders were undermining his role.

Mr Khan quickly deferred the elections under the guise of an anti-government movement over the Panama leaks, but the seeds of discord had already been sown within the party. Earlier this month, senior leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi, criticized Jahangir Tareen, while MNA Shafqat Mehmood has already made his reservations known.

This is indicative of another issue; that of Mr Khan’s indecisiveness. People got a glimpse of this during and after the sit-in, when he first announced his party’s decision to resign from the assemblies, and then had to renege. Critics even point to problems in his personal life, saying that it is indicative of a larger problem.

But the PTI chief’s greatest success has been the transplantation of the PPP. Trying to emerge as a major third party in a two-party system is never easy, but for all practical purposes, PTI has now replaced the PPP.

Jahangir Tareen and Shah Mehmood Qureshi join hands during the PTI foundation day rally.─ PTI Facebook page
Jahangir Tareen and Shah Mehmood Qureshi join hands during the PTI foundation day rally.─ PTI Facebook page

This realization is being recognised everywhere. Thinks tanks and civil society organizations regularly present comparisons between the PTI government in KP and the PML-N in Punjab and the centre, with the former receiving increasingly positive reviews.

Their position as the main opposition party is also cemented by the credence they are given by the government, and a well-oiled strategic media cell of the information ministry painstakingly follows and responds to Imran Khan whenever he makes any allegations against the ruling party.

Historic context

Compared to the other mainstream parties, PTI’s story is markedly different.

In the past, the Muslim League was used as a bandwagon by military dictators. The founding father of the PPP is also considered to be a protégée of General Ayub Khan. Riding high on his popularity, retired Air Marshal Asghar Khan constituted the Tehrik-i-Istaqlal in 1970, but failed to leave a lasting imprint. Even the MQM, set up in 1984 by Altaf Hussain, had its roots in the military regime of General Ziaul Haq.

But PTI’s story began after two of Mr Khan’s biggest wins: Pakistan’s victory at the 1992 cricket world cup and the successful completion of the Shaukhat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital.

Wading into politics in 1996, he tasted the bitter realities of politics in 1997 when none of his candidates, himself included, were elected to either the national or provincial assemblies.

Known for his perseverance on the pitch, he soldiered on and was rewarded by a lone seat from his home town of Mianwali in the next election, held under Musharraf.

He was one of the politicians who supported Musharraf in his referendum in early 2000, but left his side immediately when the military dictator started collecting traditional politicians under his umbrella in a bid to prolong his stay in power.

Read: History in the making

During the 2008 general elections, his was one of the parties that boycotted the polls as part of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy.

PTI’s emergence on the national political scene came on October 30, 2011, with one of the biggest rallies recorded in the political history of the country at the fabled Minar-i-Pakistan. From here, there was no turning back.

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2016


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