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Imran Khan: the myth and the reality

Published Nov 06, 2011 02:30am

Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf Chief Imran Khan. – File Photo by AFP

WHEN Imran Khan launched the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf in 1996, then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto rhetorically asked, “Can Imran win 51 per cent seats in parliament to form a government?” A decade and a half later, the same question haunts Mr Khan even when he has recently gathered together the largest public assembly of his entire political life. His supporters, critics and opponents are asking if he will ever get the parliamentary strength he needs to realise his aspirations of becoming prime minister.

There are, indeed, genuine reasons for scepticism. First, the nature of his politics and the political character of his supporters are such that transforming his public support into electoral success will be a challenging task. Second, the quality of his prospective, and previous, election candidates leaves much to be desired, and lastly, his political agenda is so briefly simplistic that it runs the risk of having limited appeal for most voters in the country.

Mr Khan’s inaugural political plank in 1996 was that all politics and all politicians are bad, and so it remains even today. This leaves him very little room for political manoeuvring, the alliance-making and deal-cutting that brings people to power in Pakistan and helps them throw their opponents out of it. His is, in fact, anti-politics — a non-political ideology that discredits what he calls “professional politics” in order to replace it with, you guessed it, politics.

Mr Khan conflates politics as practised by everyone else other than him with money, greed, corruption and the abuse of public support for personal gain, and thereby gives his replacement politics the lofty moral mantle of service, welfare, reform and change. But, like everyone else in the political arena, his purpose in running in an election remains as mundane as becoming the head of a government. For many years before he took part in the 1997 general election as the head of his nascent PTI, he was confused about whether he wanted to launch a movement for social reform, create a pressure group for weeding the bad stuff out of politics or launch a political party. What he came up with in the end was a cross between a social movement, a think tank and a loosely organised collection of highly educated technocrats and avowed Islamists.

Having propagated an anti-politics credo, Mr Khan ensured from the start that he repelled more voters than he attracted. Those who voted for a political party or an election candidate because they needed help in bending, bypassing or even violating the complex, corrupt and ineffective administrative and legal structures of the state would always hesitate to vote for him or his candidates. And such ‘bad’ voters have been in the majority — at least until now.

The political appeal of his anti-politics therefore remained limited to educated and young professionals who would defeat the average elected politician hands down in a battle of IQ, knowledge, understanding or articulation. To his advantage, this section of society has increased phenomenally in numbers over the last 15 years. This is Pakistan’s emerging middle class comprising bankers, doctors, engineers, techies, media persons, managers, advertisers, accountants, et al. that has benefited enormously from the privatisation of education and the economy in the 1990s and the expansion of private enterprise and the service sector in the 2000s. They are different from the traditional middle class consisting of the intermediaries of the economy and the state: traders, shopkeepers, government employees, commission agents, realtors, etc. who have more often than not voted for Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Mr Khan’s core support group, in fact, overlaps a great deal with the core support group of the Jamaat-i-Islami. But Jamaat, having lost its ideological dynamism and its organisational expertise in the late 1980s, had handed over its supporters to the PML-N.

It took many years for this neo-middle class to have enough numbers to make its mark on the political scene, which explains why Jamaat could never make electoral headway and why Mr Khan could only subsist on the margins of politics for so long. The first major show of power of this class was the 2007 movement for the restoration of the judiciary. That the parties — mainly Jamaat and the PTI — and professional groups — bar associations, for example — representing the political ideology of this class boycotted the 2008 election meant that the beneficiaries of its maiden political activism were the same politicians that it abhorred.

With Mr Khan’s Oct 30 rally, this middle class is only coalescing and concentrating on one platform and coming out against politics and politicians in much bigger numbers and with much greater enthusiasm than it has ever done to conclude the unfinished revolution that started in 2007. Finally the time has arrived for the middle class to kick everyone else out of power and bring their own man in.

But even when it came out in scores of thousands to listen to Mr Khan speak at the Minar-i-Pakistan, its next political step remains uncertain. With its well-recorded and well-known hatred for elections and the ballot box, will it take the trouble to cast a vote — something it has done only sparingly in the past? That is perhaps the biggest unknown in Pakistani politics today, and it is the answer to this question that will determine the extent of Mr Khan’s success, or failure, at the polls.

Two factors will be vital to the answer: his decision about making any alliances or becoming part of a rightwing conglomerate reportedly already in the making, and the quality of his candidates. Having undermined and discredited every political party in the country, he has left himself almost no space to backtrack on what he never tires of brandishing as the core principle of his politics — no compromises for electoral success. The moment he utters the word ‘alliance’, he will start losing support.

On the second count, Mr Khan may already be faltering. In at least Khyber Pakhtunkhwa some of his would-be electoral candidates represent the exact antithesis of his anti-politics ideology — they are professional politicians who have changed political loyalties in the past, and some have unenviable political track records. Two of his main people in KP are Iftikhar Jhagra and Khwaja Khan Hoti. Both are the scions of political dynasties in their respective areas and both carry political baggage that may not measure up to the great expectations Mr Khan’s core supporters harbour.

Mr Jhagra is a four-time member of the provincial assembly from the Pakistan Peoples’ Party and a cousin of Iqbal Zafar Jhagra, who happens to be a senior leader of the PML-N. The former has left the PPP because he fears that he will not get a party ticket for the next election under an anticipated seat adjustment between the PPP and the Awami National Party. Mr Hoti was the PPP provincial chief for much of the 2000s before he joined the ANP just in time for the 2008 election. Even today he remains a member of the National Assembly from the ANP, though Mr Khan has claimed on a number of occasions that he will soon resign and formally join the PTI. Mr Hoti comes from the family of Nawab Akbar Khan Hoti, who was a member of the All India Muslim League. Another prominent member of the family was Nawabzada Abdul Ghafoor Hoti, who remained the governor of the then North West Frontier Province under Gen Ziaul Haq. In its earlier incarnation the PTI had Nawabzada Mohsin Ali Khan as its main man in the NWFP and, quite like Messers Jhagra and Hoti, he has been in and out of almost all political parties in the province. So much for Mr Khan’s antipathy towards family-based politics and his supporters’ disgust for politicos who represent and serve their personal and family interests whichever party they join.

In Punjab, Mr Khan’s choice of candidates is even more suspect. In a 2010 by-election in Lahore he gave his party’s ticket to one Mian Hamid Meraj, who happened to be the son of Mian Meraj Din, a one-time excise minister in the Punjab government of Shahbaz Sharif in the 1990s who was forced to resign from his cabinet post under allegations of electricity theft. The main reason why Mr Din and his family remain in the business of politics is that they come from an influential local family of Lahore that has its biradri vote bank in some parts of the city. Zaheer Abbas Khokhar, a possible PTI candidate in the next election, became a member of the National Assembly on a PPP ticket in 2002 before joining the PPP-Patriots, which eventually dissolved itself into the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam, the much-maligned faction of the League under the much-maligned Chaudharys of Gujrat. He is also the nephew of Malik Karamat Khokhar, who was a PPP candidate in the 2008 election. Another intending PTI candidate is Rasheed Bhatti, a one-time PPP member of the Punjab Assembly who created a small stir in 1989 by insisting that he will use only Punjabi in his speeches in the assembly and who is known for his many family feuds and property disputes. His brother, Jameel Bhatti, was once the head of the People’s Students’ Federation, the student wing of the PPP, at Quaid-i-Azam University in the early 1990s. The two latest entrants in the PTI from Lahore are Mian Azhar and Farooq Amjad Mir. The former was the governor of Punjab when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister in the 1990s before the two had a falling-out. After Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf took over power from Nawaz Sharif, Mr Azhar was the head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Likeminded — the first batch of League people who opted to side with the military ruler after his 1999 coup. He eventually lost not just the leadership of the faction to the Chaudharys but also lost two successive elections — in 2002 and 2008 — on a PML-Q ticket to relative political lightweights. Mr Mir was the naib nazim of Lahore in 2004 when he fought and won a by-election for the National Assembly from Lahore as a PML-Q candidate. In 2008, he lost badly to a PML-N opponent and has been in the political wilderness since then before resurrecting himself in the PTI, which is, in fact, where he had started his political career in 1996.

That leaves out Mr Khan’s most ardent and, so far, most consistent supporter in Lahore — Mian Mehmoodur Rashid. Since the PTI’s formation, he is only one of two people from Lahore who have never deserted the party, the other being senior lawyer Hamid Khan. Mr Rashid was one of the few Islami Jamhoori Ittehad candidates in Lahore who survived a PPP onslaught in the 1988 election. In 1990, he again won a seat from the city for the Punjab Assembly from Jamaat’s quota in the Sharif-led alliance. Since then, however, electoral success has eluded him.

So, here is the question: Will supporters of the PTI vote for such political weathercocks in their search for a change in the political culture of the country? If they will, the party’s promised revolution will be suffocated under the heavy burden of its own candidates and the winners’ ambition for power. That some earlier passengers on the PTI bandwagon soon left in disgust and disillusionment may well mean that at least some current supporters are headed in the same direction when they find out that the quality of the candidates from their ‘pro-change’, ‘clean’ party is as low as it can get in Pakistani politics.

Perhaps the galaxy of stars from different fields that Mr Khan could muster in his early days was an indication of the promise he had. His party’s first secretary general was Dr Pervez Hassan, the internationally renown environmental law expert who now has a whole block at the Punjab University Law College named after him; the first PTI information secretary was a certain Nasim Zehra who has now become one of Pakistan’s most well-known political commentators and talk show hosts; Mr Khan’s main man in Karachi was one Nazim Haji, who founded the Citizens Police Liaison Committee which, at least in its early days, played a significant role in controlling crime in the city; a youngish Owais Ghani, who worked as the governor of Balochistan under Gen Musharraf before taking the same position in his home province of KP, was a member of the central executive committee of the PTI along with another educationist, Dr Farooq, who was the vice-chancellor designate of a proposed university in Swat and who played a leading role in setting up a school for the re-education of trainee suicide bombers freed from the Taliban in the 2009 military operation.

The people who have replaced them have either unproven or controversial credentials. The current PTI secretary general is Karachi-based Dr Arif Alvi, a dentist for the city’s elite who has pots of money and a techie son who lets go of no opportunity to promote his father’s political party through purportedly non-political ventures. The main policy advisor of the party is Dr Shireen Mazari, who for years ran a government-funded think tank in Islamabad before serving for a short period of time as the editor of the Lahore-based English daily The Nation. If she is known for anything, it is certainly not a non-jingoistic understanding of Pakistan’s foreign and security policies. The brain behind Mr Khan’s latest makeover as Pakistan’s savoir in the making — one more time after a failed earlier attempt — is Haroonur Rashid, a columnist with the daily Jang who once wrote the authorised and laudatory biography of Gen Akhtar Abdur Rehman, an intelligence czar under Gen Zia and one of the many architects of Pakistan-backed militancy in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The last critical factor of Mr Khan’s politics is his agenda. When he started off in 1996, his catchphrases were brown sahib, VIP culture, political corruption, accountability before election, fatal dependence on foreign loans and subservience to the United States. His proposed remedies were supposed to be elaborate and were to be prepared by eight committees of technocrats with vast expertise and experience in various fields. Though these committees are known to have worked for months, their output has never seen the light of the day and Mr Khan’s interim solutions remain rather sketchy.

Many years later, he remains high on rhetoric and low on reality. Political corruption, lavish government expenditure, anti-Americanism and dependence on foreign money continue to be his hobby horses but his solutions have become more basic and irrelevant than ever before: politicians should declare their ‘real’ assets; courts are to be reformed; thorough accountability to be conducted without fear or favour; local governments to be brought back with, surprise, surprise, elected sheriffs at the local level; an end to patwaris and the digitisation of land records (something already underway in some districts in Punjab with rather mixed results); an education emergency to be declared; Balochistan to be brought into the national mainstream — it’s simple, isn’t it? — by holding meetings with disgruntled Baloch politicians; and the much-talked about end to thaana culture.

If some people find disconcerting similarities between these solutions and Gen Musharraf’s agenda after he overthrew Nawaz Sharif’s government, they only need to understand that both play to the same gallery of middle class professionals in the anti-politics brigade.

The writer is Editor, Herald