His is a political position that takes an extremely dim view of what is going on in the country as politics, governance, foreign policy, economic management and even development. As long as he continues to maintain his opposition to the polities that are not working for a large number of Pakistanis, he will find some ready audience – though mainly through television talk shows and Facebook fan following. But that is as far as it can go. To capture the imagination of the voters and to compel them to take the trouble of participating in a public meeting or making it to a polling booth on the election day takes much more than just that.
First, it needs a crisp message – a catchy one liner a la Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's "Roti Kapra aur Makan". Secondly, it needs a distinct political target – in the same vein that Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was for Nawaz Sharif when he started off as a politician on his own. Thirdly, there has to be a well-defined ideological quotient – like Jamaat-e-Islami has. And lastly, there has to be an electoral machine up and running to ensure that the other side cannot capture polling booths and rig elections.
Khan, so far, does not have any of these. His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has yet to come up with a catch-all phrase that strikes a chord with a cross section of Pakistanis. His unrelenting references to match fixing and other cricketing terms while talking about political events do not cut much ice with a lot of people in the country who have become disillusioned with the game and the victories and defeats attached to it.
Even for the most ardent of Imran Khan fans his famous world cup victory in 1992 happened almost 20 years ago and at best lingers as a hazy memory of a past glory that cannot be possibly repeated in the near future.
His emphasis on Insaaf or justice as a panacea is already going through its first real test after the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry on the back of a movement run purely in the name of justice. Even for its proponents, including Khan, the results so far have been mixed at best.
His political targets are too many for him to be able to focus on any of them. Everyone who was, has been and is anyone in the country's politics is his enemy. In Pakistan's fractured polity along regional, ethnic and ideological lines such an opposition to all and sundry does not automatically create an electoral appeal that can cut across all these great divides. He, therefore, ends up giving a confused message to the electorate, more so when he does things that contradict his all-encompassing political hostility.
He sided with General (retired) Pervez Musharraf up until the 2002 referendum and then opposed him; he opposed Nawaz Sharif from the day he launched his party in 1990s but chose to attend an all parties conference that Sharif convened in Islamabad in 2007 to boycott the 2008 general election. In 2007, he went to London with a legal brief against Altaf Hussain and his Muttahida Qaumi Movement but in 2011 the two met and had only good things to say about each other. Khan is considered close to religious parties but his aversion to Maulana Fazlur Rehman is also all too well known.
Here is a historical parallel: When Sharif managed to woo voters on a mass scale, he did so by choosing his enemy carefully and then consolidating all anti-Bhutto, and anti-PPP segments of the society behind him.
Khan's political ideology is a curious mix of reactionary Islamism especially vis-à-vis the women and the minorities, gung-ho anti-Americanism and narrow nationalism peppered over with convenient anecdotes and selection of quotes from the west, most specifically the United Kingdom whose political and social system and political class invariably get a laudatory mention in all his conversations. He even goes to the extent of giving the British Empire and its colonial administration in India the credit of maintaining an exemplary law and order and providing impeccable governance.
However, all this stuff has been an old hat in Pakistan. We have Islamists who are more clear-headed on ideology than Khan is; anti-Americanism is the mantra that every politician in Pakistan swears by and some of them have a few highly selective incidents to back up their claims of anti-Americanism; and he is not the first political leader in Pakistan to talk of our immense natural and mineral wealth and the need for self-mobilisation which we must embark on to rid ourselves of our debilitating dependence on foreign loans and aid with shameful (his words) strings attached. His conversations are replete with words like lies, hypocrisy, dishonesty, corruption, theft, shame and slavery when he mentions the politics of the country but when all this invective is put together it does not constitute an ideological whole. It remains just an invective.
The least said about his party's organisation and electoral machine the better. The latest politician to join Khan is a certain Khwaja Khan Hoti of Mardan who has worked as the provincial president of the PPP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa before switching to Awami National Party in mid-2000s and winning the 2008 election for the National Assembly under the same party's banner. He is no different from any of those politicians that Khan always criticizes for changing political loyalties due to personal considerations.
Before he can start putting his political house in order to get what he does not have so far, Khan will only remain the darling of twenty-something, thirty-something bankers, IT professionals, teachers and students of expensive private educational institutions, media-persons and perhaps doctors and engineers – not to mention the richer and older people who as a matter of lifestyle hate everything that smacks of being desi including the local politics. But their political participation is limited to virtual activism of blogs, Facebook posts and tweets and, seldom if at all, treads the distance from their computer to a corner meeting or a polling station. The students of the government schools and colleges, the unions of teachers, clerks, industrial workers, farmers, and even traders have so far shown little interest in his politics.
Khan needs to realise that it is these latter groups of people and not armchair activists, which form the bulk of actual voters in Pakistan. Unless he attracts them, khan will be a minor political player – that is, as long as he is not propelled by the ubiquitous invisible hand that every now and then wants to reset the political chessboard in Pakistan to its own advantage.
Badar Alam is editor of the political monthly magazine, Herald.