THE first pin to the bubble came with Salala. Americans killing Pakistani soldiers en masse: it was a made-for-Khan moment.
He could bellow against the unpopular war next door and it would be lapped up by resentful Pakhtuns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and agitated patriots in the Punjabi heartland.
But the PPP-led coalition was for once alert to the possibilities.
Battered by memogate, unsettled by the rise of Khan, hammered by the PML-N, the coalition took a hard line on the Salala killings. It endorsed the closure of the Nato supply route, gave parliament the nod to draw up fresh terms of engagement with the US and made all the noises necessary to make it known that it wasn’t going to be business as usual with the Americans any more.
All of that put the coalition in lockstep with the army, which also leapt on Salala as a way to wrest back some space from the Americans and to counter the fallout from May 2 and PNS Mehran.
Suddenly, Khan’s wasn’t the only act in town banging the anti-US drum.
It’s harder to argue that the state — mostly the political government in Khan’s imagination but also the security establishment to some extent — is America’s poodle when they’re shutting off supply lines to a war effort and turning away important guests to Islamabad.
Khan’s other public misstep was the boycott of the by-polls, partially triggered by his insistence that incoming members of the PTI abdicate public office.
Khan doesn’t want his party tainted by what he’s lambasted as tainted assemblies, but politics abhors a vacuum. From 1985, parties have figured out that boycotts are a bad idea. They give a chance to new forces or allow old forces to consolidate.
Anyone who’s seen Gilani crowing since the record turnout for his son in Multan knows what consolidation can look like.
Spin it anyway they like, and the PTI is trying, but voters turned out for status quo options instead of staying home and waiting for PTI salvation at the next election. That really isn’t a place a party hoping to crack the system wants to be in when elections are round the corner.
Anti-corruption and anti-incumbency — which along with the anti-West/War on Terror mantra form the tripod on which Khan has built his electoral strategy — have proved to be exactly the small-bore draws that many thought they would be in the patronage-driven politics of rural Pakistan.
In urban Pakistan, too, some of the sheen has come off. Khan’s core supporter is young, educated and wants change. He or she is Muslim and fervently patriotic, but not quite of the crazy variety.
So the PTI’s linkages to the Difaa-i-Pakistan Council, however nominal, will have some of the little Khanistas running around with face paint on and turning out to swell PTI rallies wondering what exactly is going on.
Support for the Afghan Taliban as noble nationalists fighting off foreign invaders is one thing; cosying up to sectarian monsters running around Pakistan’s cities and towns threatening and killing ordinary Pakistanis is quite another.
And all of this before the internal problems of organisation and contending with the various egos that the PTI has assembled.
So far, the party hasn’t really got anywhere with the nuts and bolts of winning electoral strategies. At the lower rungs, recruitment of party workers who will help turn out voters on election day and take on funny business at the polling booth and in the counting process hasn’t taken off. The little Khanistas with face paint on aren’t cut out for that business.
At the candidate and leadership level, because Khan has already put on prime ministerial airs and talks about who he will appoint to head which public corporation and which ministry, egos are already being bruised or unwisely inflated. There’s nothing like the carrot of power and patronage to set off ugly intra-party battles.
And while Khan’s unwillingness to listen to or learn from even senior party members isn’t very different to that of other party leaders, the difference is that Khan really does know less about politics than your average party leader. So the more experienced in the PTI leadership chafe all the more when their advice is ignored.
All of this doesn’t mean that Khan is guaranteed to slide back into electoral insignificance. A major corruption scandal could yet inject new vigour into the PTI’s anti-corruption mantra and gain fresh traction with the voting public.
The reopening of Nato supply routes will give Khan fresh ammunition to attack the government as American lackeys. And as the predictable infighting in the DPC escalates, it could fade from the national radar well before campaign season begins in earnest.
The Pakistani voter’s mind is forgetful and forgiving and the little Khanistas may cheer up again.
But, whether Khan bounces back or not, the best hope for change he could have offered has already gone. Only to the most optimistic did it ever look like Khan could be propelled to power on the back of popular discontent the next time round.
But his rise did shake the PML-N and unsettle the PPP (Zardari has been candid in private about keeping an eye on the PTI, knowing the complications it could create for the PPP’s projections in KP and south Punjab).
If Khan had seriously talked up matters of policy and sounded a more sophisticated note on the solutions to some of Pakistan’s structural problems, he may — may — have forced some adjustments by the PPP and PML-N in their approach to governance and policy.
That alone would have been worth more than a few dozen PTI seats in parliament, assuming that power is only a means to an end, not the end itself — admittedly a dangerous assumption in Pakistan.
But Khan has given us none of that. Instead, when Jahangir Tareen presented the PTI’s power policy, he was promptly accused by Humayun Akhtar of stealing his plan. If the PML-Likeminded thinks you’ve copied their ideas — whether true or not — it doesn’t really bode well on the policy front.
Khan isn’t dead and buried yet and the competition isn’t getting ready to dance on his political grave. But the PTI’s purported rivals, the besieged status quo powers, are closer to paying the ultimate political insult: looking in the PTI’s direction and shrugging with indifference.
The writer is a member of staff.