IT already seems safe to say that Imran Khan has grossly overplayed his hand by moving forward with the PTI’s ‘Jail Bharo Tehreek’. Apart from some of the party’s most dedicated workers, it appears that the majority of its support base is content with remaining on the sidelines.
Reports from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Thursday suggested that the party was in complete disarray on the day of the Peshawar ‘court arrest drive’. The venue was changed at the eleventh hour, key leaders failed to show up, and there was also a comical stand-off between the citizenry and the state, with neither the police appearing too keen on arresting the PTI supporters, nor Mr Khan’s ‘tigers’ themselves very enthusiastic about spending time behind bars.
It appears that the disorder in the PTI’s ranks was due to confusion at the top, with senior leader Pervez Khattak telling PTI’s provincial leadership that Mr Khan would give another call for arrests.
Even in Punjab, the PTI seems to have gotten cold feet. It filed a habeas corpus petition to retrieve nine of its senior leaders who had been arrested just a day earlier, arguing that their lives were in danger if they were to remain in police custody.
This is certainly not how mass arrest drives work. The idea is to overwhelm the system, not beat a hasty retreat the moment the state flexes its muscles.
One cannot say this adventure has played out unexpectedly. Mr Khan appears to have a fairly poor understanding of his support base and its relationship with his party.
He repeatedly fails to account for the fact that there is a complete lack of organisation in the PTI at the grassroots level. He cannot expect ordinary people to place blind faith in him and proceed to jail, especially when there is no support network to watch out for them and protect them during the period of their incarceration.
It is folly for Mr Khan to believe that he can mobilise ordinary supporters the same way that the Jamaat-i-Islami can, or earlier iterations of the MQM could. The PTI and Mr Khan have risen to the top of Pakistani politics not on the back of an organised populist movement, but due to ordinary voters’ disillusionment with the politics of some of our more ‘experienced’ leaders and their parties.
Therefore, while Mr Khan’s personal charisma may pull a significant number of votes at the ballot box, it is never going to prove enough to persuade ordinary citizens to dedicate their time and resources to a movement like the ‘Jail Bharo Tehreek’.
Till the party undertakes any meaningful restructuring, its lack of mobilisation power will remain its Achilles heel when it comes to launching movements that pit ordinary people against the might of the state.
Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2023