Published September 11, 2022
Former prime minister Imran Khan after his appearance before an anti-terrorism court on August 25, following his vow to take stern action against the police and a judge | Tanveer Shahzad
Former prime minister Imran Khan after his appearance before an anti-terrorism court on August 25, following his vow to take stern action against the police and a judge | Tanveer Shahzad

In 1994, during a visit to Aitchison College as part of his fundraising campaign for the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital, Imran Khan gave a speech in which he outlined what would later become the pillars of his political ideology. Addressing an audience of extremely privileged students, Imran Khan spoke at length about the need to avoid becoming what he called ‘Brown Sahibs’ — local elites influenced by, and perhaps beholden to, the West, disdainful of Pakistan’s culture and history and suffering from a perpetual inferiority complex rooted in the country’s colonial past.

Significantly, Khan also spoke of how the ‘Brown Sahibs’ who had hitherto ruled Pakistan — some of whom had been products of Aitchison College — had essentially sold the country out, engaging in rapacious corruption, while appeasing the West to protect and pursue their own interests. The solution, for Khan, was to oppose the extant political order and to take pride in being Pakistani.

Of course, the irony of these statements was not lost on many of the young students in attendance. Khan himself was, on paper, the quintessential ‘Brown Sahib’; he was educated at Aitchison and Oxford, played cricket, and had spent most of his youth leading the debauched lifestyle of an international playboy. Yet, this was part of his appeal; when he spoke of the decadence of the local and Western elite, he could claim to do so from a position of authority.

Read: The promise of Imran Khan

While the notion that Pakistan has been destroyed by an insouciant and amoral elite has always been central to Imran Khan’s politics and campaigning, it is by no means an idea that is exclusive to him or his party. Indeed, it is a view that has long been propagated by Pakistan’s military establishment which, like Khan, also adheres to the belief that Pakistan is besieged by hostile foreign powers committed to the country’s destruction.

Given the country’s economic situation, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf seems to be more popular today than it ever was during the time its chairman was prime minister. But it’s also constantly looking over its shoulder, fearing actions that could see it cut down to size. Can it use its apparent support to escape harsh accountability? And what is it actually offering its supporters?

This ideological affinity was accentuated in the 1990s by Imran Khan’s tutelage under former Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt Gen Hamid Gul and is what brought figures like Dr Shireen Mazari — then close to the establishment and one of the principal exponents of right-wing anti-Americanism — into his orbit.

Imran Khan was still at the start of his political career when Gen Musharraf came to power and, yet, even then the confluence between his politics and that of the military establishment found clear expression. Imran Khan was one of the first political leaders to pledge his support for the new regime, ostensibly because Musharraf promised to purge Pakistan of the corrupt politicians that had supposedly brought the country to ruin.

That the military itself might have had a role to play in Pakistan’s lack of progress was a fact that was not articulated by Imran Khan at the time. When he did eventually fall out with Musharraf, declaring his earlier support to have been a mistake, he claimed his opposition stemmed from the latter’s refusal or inability to tackle the corrupt political elite — epitomised, perhaps, by the regime’s reliance on the Chaudhries of Gujrat for electoral support.

However, there have long been reports suggesting that the real reason was far more prosaic; Musharraf had hinted that he would make Imran Khan prime minister and then chose not to.

Imran Khan’s early flirtations with politics and the military establishment were accompanied by the solidification of the views he first expressed in the early 1990s. Over time, as was the case with many of his ideological contemporaries around the world at the end of the Cold War, what had begun as a vague, not yet fully formed recognition of the need to challenge the inequities of the global order, the pernicious legacy of colonialism, and the predations of a corrupt local elite, evolved into a belief that imagined tradition and nationalist sentiment are the only real antidotes to corrupting external influences.

This is arguably what underpinned Imran Khan’s turn to Islam at a personal and political level, leading him to join forces with the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) during the Musharraf years, abstain from voting on the Women’s Protection Bill in 2005, call Osama bin Laden a ‘martyr’, and consistently portray the Taliban and their ideological ilk as being anti-imperialist warriors breaking the ‘shackles of slavery’.

A similar logic was applied to local politics; in place of the ‘Evil Empire’ exploiting the poorer nations of the world, there was a kleptocratic, criminal elite who could only be opposed by those with unimpeachable moral integrity and a deep commitment to public service.

Constant contradictions

The perception game: PTI has been drawing sizeable crowds at its recent rallies
The perception game: PTI has been drawing sizeable crowds at its recent rallies

The Manichean simplicity of Imran Khan’s worldview — pitting good against evil — often lacks nuance and depth. Yet that is precisely what has always been at the heart of its appeal. Like other populists around the world, Imran Khan has always portrayed himself as an unblemished outsider, crusading against a cartelised elite that has enjoyed a monopoly on power for too long.

Yet, for all his supposed purity of purpose, Imran Khan’s rise to power has been marked by constant contradictions. After spending years opposing Gen Musharraf, Imran Khan was more than willing to turn to patrons within the military establishment to bolster his electoral prospects after 2011, and his victory in 2018 would, arguably, not have been possible without the interference of those he now refers to as “neutrals”.

From the beginning, Imran Khan has castigated the traditional political elite for their corruption and moral turpitude, yet the demands of electoral politics have led him to now preside over a party that relies heavily on the continued support of traditional ‘electables’. The PTI’s victory in Punjab in 2018, for example, was facilitated by the defection of dozens of candidates from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and up to 80 percent of the party’s legislators in the Punjab Assembly belonged to the same ‘dynastic’ political families that have dominated the electoral landscape since the 1970s.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that Imran Khan now counts people like Sheikh Rashid and Chaudhry Pervez Elahi as close political allies, despite having said less-than-flattering things about them and their conduct in the past.

Similarly, even as Imran Khan accuses other parties of being little more than hereditary fiefdoms run by the likes of the Sharifs and the Bhuttos, there is little evidence to suggest that his own party is internally democratic in any meaningful way. Khan wields absolute control over his party, and those who have disagreed with the direction taken by the party, such as Justice Wajihuddin — who wrote a report on the manipulation of the party’s internal elections — have been forced out.

Many of the so-called ‘ideological’ members of the party, who stuck with Imran Khan as he navigated his way through the political wilderness, have left, leaving the party increasingly beholden to the very same political interests it ostensibly seeks to oppose.

The PTI’s supporters say that all these compromises were necessary to win power, that they were simply a means to the ultimate end of creating a ‘Naya’ [New] Pakistan. Yet, what did the PTI do with the power it wielded after winning the 2018 elections? After all, unlike his predecessors, who were arguably punished for starting to stand up to the establishment, Imran Khan famously took pride in being on the “same page” as his patrons in the military.

The Manichean simplicity of Imran Khan’s worldview — pitting good against evil — often lacks nuance and depth. Yet that is precisely what has always been at the heart of its appeal. Like other populists around the world, Imran Khan has always portrayed himself as an unblemished outsider, crusading against a cartelised elite that has enjoyed a monopoly on power for too long.

The more things change...

Building narratives: Imran Khan continues to claim a conspiracy led to his ouster | AFP
Building narratives: Imran Khan continues to claim a conspiracy led to his ouster | AFP

For all of PTI’s great promises, what is remarkable about Imran Khan’s tenure as prime minister is just how little actually changed. On the economic front, despite repeated claims that he would not go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it was not long before Imran Khan and his government were implementing yet another IMF programme, spearheaded by a finance minister notable for having performed a similar role in the Musharraf and PPP eras.

Then, as the 2023 elections neared, the PTI government altered its economic trajectory, gearing up for the same kind of spending and fiscal indiscipline it had accused its rivals of engaging in to win votes. Other than approaching the IMF and ‘friendly’ countries for bailouts, the government’s economic policy seemed to revolve around an unhealthy fixation with real estate, euphemistically referred to as the ‘construction industry’. Not coincidentally, Imran Khan often found himself in the company of real estate developers, and the contradictions at the heart of the PTI’s politics were perhaps best encapsulated by the government’s seemingly close relationship with Bahria Town tycoon Malik Riaz.

The PTI’s track record in other areas of governance was also lacklustre. In practice, being on the ‘same page’ as the military establishment meant that the government was party to oppressing and persecuting the regime’s opponents. Rival politicians were thrown in jail (often on charges that have subsequently been revealed to be entirely fallacious), newspaper publishers were incarcerated, journalists were harassed, activists from around the country continued to go ‘missing’, and even judges critical of the regime were attacked.

The PTI’s human rights minister, Dr Mazari, spent more time tweeting about atrocities abroad than the deteriorating human rights situation at home, and felt no shame in declaring that a bill aimed at criminalising enforced disappearances had itself gone ‘missing’.

The PTI government’s authoritarian approach to managing opposition was mirrored by its approach to governance. For example, despite passing a bill for introducing new local governments in Punjab, no elections were held, nor were there any plans to devolve power in the province. Similarly, Imran Khan himself exhibited a disdainful attitude towards the processes and procedures of parliamentary government; his attendance in the National Assembly was abysmally low, his government repeatedly refused to work with colleagues across the aisle and, perhaps most notably of all, it relied heavily on ordinances, rather than parliamentary votes, to enact its legislative agenda.

Constant, glowing references to presidential systems, two-thirds majorities, and authoritarian strongmen around the world, all belied a desire to enact and work with a more centralised, less rambunctious and, perhaps, more docile political system. All of this was, of course, accompanied by the production of a discourse that labelled all those who opposed the PTI and its mission as being treasonous personifications of all that was wrong with Pakistan.

Until its final months, the PTI government did little to dispel the notion that it was functioning as little more than an extension of the military establishment that had propelled it to power. While there has been considerable speculation over precisely why Imran Khan was ousted, what is clear is that he had had a falling out with his former patrons, whose withdrawal of support for him enabled the Opposition to table and win the vote of no-confidence that forced him out.

While the mechanism through which this was accomplished was formally democratic and constitutional, there is little doubt that this outcome could not have been engineered without the military high command deciding to abandon the PTI project, just as it should be clear that the government now in power has some support from elements within the establishment.

Amidst these political machinations, Imran Khan’s response to his removal from power has played like a greatest-hits compilation of his political pronouncements over the years. Looking at the circumstances under which Imran Khan was ousted, a disinterested observer might conclude that, while the United States has historically been responsible for all manner of interventions to subvert and undermine governments around the world, there is little evidence to support that assertion in the case of the PTI.

Building narratives

Former prime minister Imran Khan appears before the Islamabad High Court on August 20, after being charged with contempt | Mohammad Asim / White Star
Former prime minister Imran Khan appears before the Islamabad High Court on August 20, after being charged with contempt | Mohammad Asim / White Star

Yet, as he has done for the better part of 30 years, Imran Khan has blamed nefarious foreign powers and their local collaborators for opposing his attempts to reform Pakistan. Cynical or not, the narrative of ‘regime change’ presented by PTI fits perfectly with the worldview Imran Khan has espoused throughout his political career and which has, since then, been internalised by his supporters.

Whether or not the United States actively sought to remove Imran Khan is a question that might only be definitively answered once CIA documents are declassified three decades from now, but questioning the veracity of Imran Khan’s claims is besides the point; the narrative he has manufactured is one that is believed by millions of his supporters across the country and reinforced by an increasingly polarised and walled-off media ecosystem — on television screens and the internet — in which alternate ‘facts’ make it increasingly difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood.

Herein lies another key fact often overlooked by many of Imran Khan’s critics. While it is undoubtedly true that PTI’s rise to power was made possible by the military establishment, it would be a mistake to thus assume that the party has no support, or that Imran Khan is not popular.

While the actual numbers can be argued and disputed, Imran Khan’s rallies and the PTI’s performance in recent by-elections are just two indicators that show there is genuine enthusiasm for what the party is offering, problematic as that might be.

If anything, what Imran Khan has been able to demonstrate over the past few months is that he and his party possess the capacity to energise and mobilise their supporters through relentless campaigning and message discipline. Furthermore, in addition to being able to build and capitalise on the narrative of foreign interference, PTI has also benefited from not having to deal with the consequences of its own poor governance.

While the economic crises currently faced by Pakistan might have originated during the PTI’s time in power, the blame for rising inflation, fuel prices, electricity shortages and so on will fall squarely on the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government.

Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of the current political scenario is the way in which the PTI’s campaigning and narrative-building has essentially gone unanswered; even as Imran Khan travels across the country, building on his momentum and attacking the PDM, the absence of a coherent response from the government has only served to heighten the PTI’s appeal. The reality is that for all its faults, and for all the cynicism that underlies the PTI’s campaigning, the party is offering voters something. The same cannot be said for the PDM, whose only answer to allegations of corruption and misgovernance has been silent acceptance.


From ‘dacoit’ to ‘ally’: Imran Khan pictured alongside Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi (right) at a recent jalsa in Gujrat
From ‘dacoit’ to ‘ally’: Imran Khan pictured alongside Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi (right) at a recent jalsa in Gujrat

However, before commenting on the future of the PTI and its prospects in the next elections, it is important to consider a couple of key questions.

First, what exactly is the PTI’s current relationship with the military establishment and to what extent does that matter going forward? One of the most frustrating aspects of writing on Pakistani politics is the extent to which the exact nature of civil-military relations is often opaque and inscrutable. Although it seems Imran Khan lost the support of the establishment prior to his ouster, what is not immediately obvious is whether this has led to a split within the military itself over the question of supporting Imran Khan in the future.

This is linked to the manner in which Imran Khan, the PTI and its supporters have attacked the military high command in recent months; while some have been quick to suggest that this kind of open criticism of the military is unprecedented and could potentially open up the space for greater civilian power in the years ahead, it has been difficult to establish the extent to which Imran Khan’s newfound commitment to civilian supremacy is more about principle and less about simply working with, or indeed under, a more sympathetic military high command.

Put differently, would the PTI be willing to eschew establishment support in the future even if it were offered a guaranteed return to power in exchange for returning to the ‘same page’? This is important because, at some level, there is a genuine opportunity for change here; while Imran Khan has been loathe to directly confront the establishment, relying on innuendo and implication to express his displeasure with the current Chief of Army Staff Gen Bajwa, it would be interesting to see the extent to which pro-Imran Khan sentiment could be deployed to potentially bring about greater demands of civilian supremacy and less military involvement in politics.

Open conflict of this kind between the PTI and the military would be fraught with risk and, as stated above, it is not at all clear that Imran Khan is committed to bringing about a fundamental change in civil-military relations in Pakistan. But this moment does represent the best opportunity to address that institutional imbalance since the end of the Musharraf regime and perhaps even since the early 1970s.

Second, while the PTI does have considerable support, is it sufficient to help the party overcome any challenges that it might confront between now and general elections that might be held in the second half of 2023? Throughout Pakistan’s history, attempts to suppress political parties and movements have involved widespread repression, ranging from the confiscation of party funds to the incarceration of leaders and activists. This is a fate that has befallen all the mainstream parties in the past, and is something the PTI has yet to experience fully.

It remains to be seen if the PTI would be able to withstand attempts to jail more of its leaders, such as Imran Khan’s Chief of Staff Shahbaz Gill or respond to any attempt to disqualify Imran Khan based on the prohibited funding case. Should the costs of political activity increase for the PTI, particularly after a change of guard within the military in November, the continued success of the party would depend heavily on its ability to withstand repression and confront the PDM and establishment head-on.

Indeed, an improved economic situation in 2023 and any establishment backing for the PDM prior to elections would necessitate the PTI taking a more unambiguous stance on civilian supremacy than it has thus far. Some have suggested that one of the reasons why the PTI has not felt the full repressive might of the state thus far, despite all that Imran Khan and his supporters have said these past few months (given that other activists have been jailed and tortured for saying far less, including during the PTI’s tenure), is because the establishment fears a popular backlash against itself.

Whether this is true has not been tested, and it will be interesting to see if Imran Khan and his party have the desire, or indeed the capacity, to take to the streets and confront the establishment in the months ahead.

Third, what does the PTI actually stand for? As recent research on politics in Pakistan shows, there are seismic shifts taking place in the country that will have considerable political repercussions. Every year, millions of new voters come of age, with young people now comprising the bulk of the electorate. The country is also becoming more urban and more connected, with social media and online campaigning assuming greater significance than was the case in the past.

Moreover, voters are also becoming more assertive; while the country continues to be characterised by thana-kachehri patronage politics, voters do expect more from their representatives in terms of service delivery. In response to all of this, like many tech evangelists hyping up the latest gadget or app, Imran Khan’s genius has always been in providing deceptively simple solutions to complex social problems.

Corruption can be eliminated by having honest leadership, poverty can be eradicated by soliciting remittances and investment from the Pakistani diaspora abroad, and social evils can be combated by stronger doses of religious education. The simplicity of the message is what gives it its resonance but, as recent events have shown, bringing about lasting, meaningful reform requires a greater depth and breadth of vision than what has been shown by Imran Khan and the PTI thus far.

Charisma and autocracy

One of the great ironies of the situation is that, once you scratch beneath the surface, the PTI does not actually look very different from its rivals. Bereft of its undoubtedly charismatic leader, PTI is just another motley crew of opportunists and dynasts.

It is obvious that Imran Khan sees himself as a messianic figure destined to lead Pakistan. At some level, narcissism is arguably a prerequisite for the pursuit of high office, as a high degree of self-regard would be required to believe you could change the world. Yet, It is this narcissism that has led Imran Khan to blithely continue holding campaign rallies even as the country grapples with unprecedented flooding, and greenlight attempts by Senator Shaukat Tarin and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa finance minister Taimur Jhagra to scupper the PDM government’s deal with the IMF.

That Imran Khan would place his personal quest for power over the national interest is utterly unsurprising, however, given that it fits perfectly with the belief that he, and he alone, ultimately deserves to rule Pakistan. Like Louis XIV, Imran Khan is, in his own mind, the state; any compromises that have to be made or any sacrifices that have to be given are worth it, as long as he can return to power.

Imran Khan’s pronouncements and his conduct also suggest that he sees himself as being cut from the same cloth as the great anti-colonial leaders of the 20th century, standing up to the predations of the West, while bringing independence and prosperity to his people. Yet, whatever the rhetoric, the reality is very different.

Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara refused to accept foreign aid as he sought to make his country economically self-reliant. Cuba’s Fidel Castro defied a decades-long American embargo while investing in the development of world-class welfare infrastructure. Leaders like Kwame Nkrumah and Leopold Senghor were committed to the idea of building alternative political and economic institutions like the socialist New International Economic Order. Even autocratic leaders like Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, who Imran Khan admires greatly, achieved what they did by refusing to compromise on questions of bureaucratic and economic reform. Whatever their faults, and there were many, these leaders had principles and an ideological framework that guided their attempts to build a new and better world.

And then we have Imran Khan, who rails against the evils of the West only to turn to the IMF to bail his government out, and hires lobbyists to plead his case in the United States. He preaches revolution and then rides the military’s coattails to power. He speaks of Islamic solidarity on a global stage and the pursuit of an independent foreign policy, but then backs out from a visit to Malaysia after receiving a stern talking-to from the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

He lambasts the government for jailing party workers and journalists sympathetic to his cause, but spends years doing the same as his ministers mock dissidents and accuse them of treason. He rants about the evils of dynastic politics and then inducts dozens of established political families into his party. He pledges to fundamentally transform the economy and then proceeds to grant amnesties to robber barons and real estate moguls.

Ultimately, what Imran Khan has demonstrated over the years is that his inclinations are those of a regressive autocrat, with pliant principles and questionable judgement. He has a lot of support, and may even win a fair election in 2023 (although it is too early to make predictions), but it is worth asking what exactly he would do with his power should he return to government.

Being popular is, after all, not the same as being right.

The writer is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

He tweets @hassanjavid

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 11th, 2022



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