Since being ousted from power in April, PTI Chairman Imran Khan has relentlessly been in protest mode, holding one public rally after the other that are seemingly drawing in huge crowds.
His support base seems to be lapping up what began as a highly populist narrative, taking on nearly every major national institution in a bid to push home the narrative of a conspiracy against the former prime minister and his government.
But of late, Mr Khan appears to be displaying some flexibility — stopping just short of crossing the line that may lead to a direct confrontation with the very institutions he accuses of conspiring with the ruling coalition to keep him out of power.
This, many observers feel, is sending mixed signals to those quarters that he now seems to be engaging with, leaving many uncertain about his actual intentions.
“Once out of power, Imran Khan started his struggle by firing in all directions. The establishment, judiciary, the election commission and politicians, all of them faced Mr Khan’s verbal firing squad for the next few months,” says noted academician and policy expert Hassan Askari Rizvi. However, the PTI chief soon realised the diminishing returns of his policy, and re-calibration followed, Mr Rizvi notes.
Mr Khan, who professes a penchant for “principled politics” and espouses “merit” at every juncture, has demonstrated in the past that he can be flexible when circumstances require.
But today, he appears to be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: keeping up pressure through massive rallies to avoid possible administrative and legal troubles while engaging with his so-called adversaries.
In his rallies, he threatens to bring the country to a halt or march on Islamabad, but once out of the sight of his ardent followers, the former premier sends out conciliatory signals, so much so that some supporters have joined his detractors in accusing him of being confused about his goals, or worse, of putting up a deliberate double act.
So, what would happen if he marches on Islamabad and runs into the Rangers? “He is facing dozens of FIRs in nine crime categories. How else can he deal with them? Around 15 FIRs were lodged against him over the May 25 march. Being a populist, popular pressure is the only safety valve for him and he is trying to apply it relentlessly,” Mr Rizvi says.
Editorial: Political stunt
It is possibly the assessment of these ground realities that has deterred him from announcing the final date for a much-touted march on the capital. And recent reports, albeit unconfirmed, of Mr Khan meeting the army chief, as relayed by President Arif Alvi and Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, only reinforce the perception that he is playing high-octane public politics and looking for safe passage behind the scenes.
But will playing to both galleries get him what he has set out for — another stint in power?
Columnist and TV personality Mosharraf Zaidi said that Mr Khan has been able to capture people’s imagination by indulging in “destructive politics”. This works because it addresses and plays on popular fears, and is always more captivating than the dull, drab run of the mill stuff that our politics is filled with, he says.
This, in Mr Zaidi’s opinion, is why the PTI chief now leads the national political discourse and others respond to what he does. He is aided in no small part by the uncertainty looming on several fronts: is the country heading towards a default or not; when are elections going to be held; can this government perform, or even survive; and, perhaps most pressing of all, what about the appointment or extension to the army chief?
All these variables generate concern and curiosity among the masses and being a populist, Imran Khan has mastered the art of playing on these fears.
Journalist and commentator Zahid Hussain, who has authored some seminal works on Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy, explains that the PTI chief’s approach leaves a couple of questions.
Firstly, can the momentum generated over the past few months be sustained until the next general elections? Secondly, can Imran Khan turn the crowds from his rallies into a sustainable resistance movement that can overthrow the government? Both these questions continue to dog Mr Khan.
Initially, it seemed as if Mr Khan was making the same mistake as Napoleon — opening up too many fronts — as he took on the army, the judiciary, the election commission and parliament, all at once. However, of late, he seems to have realised that purely populist politics may provide temporary respite but could not help him achieve his ultimate goal — the overthrow of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government. In order to achieve that, he needs to work within the system. This realisation is now reflected in his willingness to return to parliament, contest by-elections and avoid dissolving two provincial assemblies his party is in command of.
Mohsin Leghari, a PTI stalwart and provincial minister, says that turning the middle class support base into a resistance movement is always hard, but Imran Khan has certainly succeeded in giving his opponents sleepless nights.
“Each time Mr Khan threatens to act, the government cordons off Islamabad. If he has to work hard to keep up popular pressure, the PDM government also has to keep containers in place and wait for his ‘threats’. It is a battle of nerves that Imran Khan is winning so far. The PTI will cross the Rubicon when it comes to that,” a confident Leghari claims.
Journalist and TV anchor Talat Hussain, however, has his doubts when it comes to triggering a government collapse through popular pressure. “History does not bail Imran Khan out. He could not do it in 2014, and he failed in May this year as well, when only a few thousand workers escorted him to Islamabad. After the federal government responded with heavy handedness and he went back promising to return after a week, but never did.”
A PTI worker, who did not wish to be named, advises realism, saying it is becoming increasingly hard to maintain, let alone increase, popular pressure on institutions. “Workers have been at it hoping that elections are just around the corner. But the realisation that polls may not be coming as soon as hoped is slowly sinking in among the rank and file.”
Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2022