A party that has more ‘fans’ than supporters is a fan club, not a political outfit. This is the dilemma of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), and the same dynamic defines B.J. Sadiq’s Let There Be Justice: The Political Journey of Imran Khan.
Although Sadiq describes the book as a serious study, it is anything but. It suffers from issues of the author’s positionality — he is simultaneously a fan of Imran Khan, a supporter of his politics and a critic. But it transpires that the drama created by the author is a work of fiction: he isn’t present on the many occasions he dramatises. This compromises the narrative because the book records the author’s bias rather than actual history as it played out. Had it been an academic work of history or political science, this book would have been accused of being rather selective in its interpretation of Khan and his politics. But since it is a work of fandom, it provides a window into the psyche of the Khan fan.
The book starts with why Khan entered politics, marking his ambition for change well before he formed the PTI. Like many PTI fans, the author makes little distinction between Khan the cricketer, the social activist and the politician. While fans claim with some justification that one sphere defines the other two and that there is continuity in Khan’s political evolution, the fact often lost on supporters is that Khan has been unable to translate the absolute trust reposed in him in cricket and philanthropy to the political sphere. This dichotomy leads to the creation of crass good-versus-evil duality in the eyes of the urban PTI voter, and this book suffers from the same.
Imran Khan’s political journey is undoubtedly a subject that needs academic research, but facts cannot be cherry-picked
But also fascinating are the author’s descriptions of Khan’s political opposition. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is “an ungainly land baron” while Benazir Bhutto is “his petulant daughter.” Asif Ali Zardari is “an icon of corruption”, an “Al Capone”, “the guilded multibillionaire Escobar of Pakistani politics”, “a racketeer” and “godless to his bone.” Altaf Hussain is a “Hindustani import from the UP province.” This is besides the glossary of abuse words that Khan had developed over the years to express outrage at the system.
In comparison, religious militants are described by the author as “fundoos” — a blanket term that obfuscates the nature and size of the devil. At the start of the book, Sadiq confesses the influence of Britain-based left wing writer Tariq Ali on him. This seems to have shaped his view of Khan as a progressive, rational leader — at one point, Sadiq describes how Khan in 2013 also feared that he was on the hit-list of the Taliban militants. Omitted from the narrative is how the Taliban pounded all secular parties in the lead-up to the 2013 elections, largely ignoring the PTI from its crosshairs. In fact, such was the damage inflicted on the rival Awami National Party (ANP) that an entire generation of its political activists was wiped out. This aided the PTI’s victory in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), but the author fails to take stock of this. Instead, he presents the PTI’s rise in KP as one that was borne simply out of a reaction to corruption and an absence of service delivery.
Khan, however, is given a ‘bye’ on his relationship with the Taliban — a crucial factor in ensuring that his party remained in the Taliban’s good books and continued to evolve at a faster pace than its rivals. There is no mention of how Khan continued to obfuscate the threat posed by the Taliban (calling them “our enraged and upset tribesmen”), how he continually pushed the political leadership into talks with the Taliban (the latter intent on challenging the state and establishing a different writ of the law), and indeed, his relationship with the ‘godfather of the Taliban’, Maulana Samiul Haq, as well as his public anguish at the killing of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakeemullah Mehsud.
But also fascinating are the author’s descriptions of Khan’s political opposition. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is “an ungainly land baron” while Benazir Bhutto is “his petulant daughter.” Asif Ali Zardari is “the guilded multibillionaire Escobar of Pakistani politics.” Altaf Hussain is a “Hindustani import from the UP province.”
In fact, in one of his dharna speeches before the ultimately botched plan to march towards Islamabad’s Red Zone, Khan threatened to hand over “the Gullu Butts” — a reference to alleged government-backed goons — to the Taliban if they created more hurdles or unleashed any violence on his supporters. This and other such instances are not mere coincidence, but Sadiq’s bias in understanding Khan as a progressive ideologue means he has camouflaged historical realities.
The bias comes into play yet again in the chapter on 2013’s national and provincial polls. Sadiq notes PTI’s gains in urban areas, derived in no small part from social media activism. He remarks on the PTI struggling to make inroads into rural politics, but brings the good-versus-evil duality into play by deriding them as “sloppy rural dung heaps of the country.” Elsewhere, referring to Zardari’s election as president, he comments: “how shameful was it to be identified as natives to a land whose voters had approved the biggest known thug and his henchmen to resume their fleecing of the national exchequer.” In other words, if you didn’t vote for Khan, you were either unpatriotic or too stupid to understand politics.
Another omission is PTI’s change of tact in inducting ‘electables’ to swell its numbers in Parliament. Despite Khan’s proclamation that the youth and only those with a clean record would be given tickets, the electables took over when elections drew near. This fact compromises the narrative of the rural backwaters letting Pakistan down, and therefore has been ‘well left.’
One chapter is titled ‘The Rebel in Parliament’ — only the ‘rebel’ does not even go to Parliament. The author notes how Khan’s speeches rankled with the opposition; the tragedy, however, is that instead of maintaining pressure inside parliament, Khan took a vigilante approach, albeit with mixed results. In fact, in an attempt to bring down the government, the PTI threatened to resign en masse from the national and provincial assemblies (barring KP, which it rules). PTI lawmakers returned to the same assemblies they were castigating on the road after the dharna fizzled out. This is another omission to the narrative.
But there are graver suggestions at play.
Sadiq quotes Khan’s father, Ikramullah Khan Niazi, as describing his son having “instinctive and rash judgement” but this is cited almost approvingly as an endearing quality. So, if Prime Minister Imran Khan were to drag Pakistan to war with India, should the electorate assume that he did so because of his impetuous nature?
Similarly, the eight days Khan spent in incarceration during protests against Gen Musharraf in 2007 have been built up to show that he sacrificed tremendously in his quest for justice, second only to Nelson Mandela.
Neither of these, or other remarks, paint Khan in a positive light and given the many omissions in the narrative, this does him a disservice. There is, for example, a comparison to be made between Khan and Bhutto in terms of bringing the (urban) youth into the political process at a scale that their political rivals struggled to emulate. The author alludes to that, but needs to build on it.
Then there are uncomfortable questions from within the party. Why were PTI’s founding fathers sidelined? Why did Javed Hashmi quit, claiming that the military was egging Khan on to dislodge the government? Is there truth to Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed’s allegations that the party lost its way and ideology? How did Khan receive the news of resignations of two of his party’s most upright men? How did moneyed men such as Jahangir Tareen gain such importance in the PTI? Do hereditary politics have space in the party? If not, why did Pervez Khattak’s relatives enjoy parliamentarian status and privileges? And is Ali Tareen really the best person in Lodhran to lead the party? None of the tough questions are tackled in the book.
Given how the author had a free pass at constructing Khan’s political journey, he makes many omissions to suit a certain narrative. Those omissions are more crucial to the book than what has been penned. In cricketing terms, this book has fallen hit-wicket.
The reviewer is a member of staff
Let There Be Justice: The Political Journey of Imran Khan
By B.J. Sadiq
Fonthill Media, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 14th, 2018