LET’S rewind five years. Back in 2017, things weren’t as bad as they are today. Pakistanis weren’t suffering from rampant inflation and the rupee was hovering at about 105 to the dollar, as compared to over 180 today. Political opponents and other critical journalists weren’t hounded, harassed and abused in the way that they have been in the last four years. And internationally, Pakistan was on better terms with the West, China and the Gulf countries. If Transparency International is to be believed, even corruption was at lower levels.
Yet, we were told that things were awful. That corrupt dynasties had ruined Pakistan and we needed saving. The saviour, presented as a messiah, was none other than Mr Imran Khan, who would rid us of the muck, “drain the swamp” as Donald Trump used to say, and usher in the new. Some of us, who cautioned then that the new could well be worse than the old were rebuked as perpetuators of the status quo and supporters of corrupt dynasties, the House of Sharifs and the Bhutto-Zardaris.
How will he do it? I recall asking friends and family who supported Imran Khan. After all, didn’t Gen Musharraf sell us the same mantra? Didn’t he NAB politicians only to induct them in his PML-Q later? Wasn’t political leadership exiled from Pakistan during his martial law and then offered an NRO at the end of his rule? Didn’t the people then reject his PML-Q at the polls and vote for the PPP and PML-N instead?
So if Musharraf, with all the military might at his disposal, was unsuccessful in eliminating the political relevance of the Sharifs and the Bhutto-Zardaris, how on earth was a hybrid regime going to accomplish it? As they say, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Khan was built up as larger than life, a superhero of sorts.
But Imran Khan was built up as larger than life, a superhero of sorts. He had captained the Pakistan cricket team to victory in the 1992 World Cup and built a state-of-the-art cancer hospital in Lahore. Formidable achievements, undoubtedly. But his political acumen and positions were less than stellar. In the 1997 election, his assessment was so off the mark that as a political novice, he contested from several constituencies across the length and breadth of Pakistan and was roundly defeated in all. In 2002, he finally got one seat in the National Assembly. Yet his voting record left lots to be desired. He cast his vote in favour of Maulana Fazlur Rehman for the office of prime minister in 2002 and refused to support the Women Protection Bill in 2006.
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For his supporters, none of this mattered. Nor did the fact that when, in 2013, it was apparent that his party would win enough seats to form government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he did not opt to contest a provincial assembly seat and become chief minister of that province. It would have been an ideal opportunity to prove himself as a serious politician. Indeed, Nawaz Sharif had run Punjab under Ziaul Haq in the 1980s and his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, had done so later.
But Mr Imran Khan was saving himself for the high office of prime minister only. He was a celebrity, after all, and anything less was beneath him. From 2008 to 2018, whenever the PPP and the PML-N collaborated in the greater national interest to pass important legislation such as the Seventh NFC Award and the 18th Amendment, he mocked them as playing ‘noora kushti’ and claimed this was ‘muk-muka’ as they were working together to save their corrupt wealth.
His supporters loved his aggression and were energised when he discredited politicians. His divisive style led him to hold a 125-day sit-in in the heart of Islamabad, a dharna that never should have been allowed by the PML-N government, as its demands and means were undemocratic. PTI was never a signatory to the Charter of Democracy and hence did not feel bound by democratic norms.
Imran Khan’s appeal as a cult figure continued to grow. And much like Modi in India or Trump in the US, his supporters were fed a steady diet of hate and vitriol. In India, the hate was against Muslims, in the US, it was racially motivated and in Pakistan, it was against democracy itself.
Dynasties in politics are far from ideal and the nature of democracy demands that political parties democratise themselves. But PTI never did that. Instead, it took in all shades of ‘electables’ and gave tickets to more father-son duos in 2018 than any other political party.
Dynasties shouldn’t be our preference but when the choice is between Trump and the Clinton dynasty, I’ll take Hillary. Or, between Modi and the Nehru dynasty, I’ll take Rahul Gandhi. So, in Pakistan too, I’ll take dynasty over cult.
The writer is a lawyer based in London.
Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2022