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Born-again Imran, five months later

April 02, 2012

IN the beginning, he needed 100 days to save Pakistan. Things have moved faster since and an Imran Khan who is striving to sustain himself as the alternative, today vows to end corruption in nine days after coming to power.

In any case this obsession with fixing deadlines is as pronounced in the case of PTI as any other group vowing fast delivery. It would not be out of place to have a quick look at the party and its leader as they complete the first 150 days of their real existence.

It’s been 150 days since the PTI, a small group of apparently well-meaning, but grumpy, even vain, middle-class reformers low on ideology morphed into a popular party. Finally, they found the numbers to effectively launch the party in the vast expanses by the Minar-i-Pakistan on Oct 30, 2011. The standards to measure Imran changed immediately. Tough questions began to be asked.

The party’s activists have grown not only vociferous but, on evidence, they can be provoked into self-righteous bouts with anyone they feel has asked critical questions of their leader. This could be a very Pakistani trait but then within Pakistan comparisons can be made between the PTI Young Turks and the old brand who are at their politest when they are hissing.

PTI supporters’ attacks on critics are vicious. But there are exceptions as there are queries emanating from some of the recent pronouncements about the PTI by those who can read the signs. “Has the tsunami died down?” wondered a PTI office-bearer who came visiting last week.

He typified a new group of politicians who are not quite sure how to interpret which sign how. They are waiting for the election to provide them with an answer, and should be hopeful that the ongoing PTI drive for membership — quite a dangerous exercise — will give them sufficient numbers to flaunt.

The last time the same PTI official found himself defending Imran’s open-door policy that has, post-October, led to the inclusion of the ‘electables’ from any and every background.

This time he was confronted with the opposite argument: why is it that the PML-N is leading the PTI in the count of those who join a party in anticipation of that party’s success in the next election? The PTI official was too polite to point out the clashing logics and did what all political workers here are expected to do in such circumstances: repose faith in the wisdom of his leader.

The debate is not about whether or not you like Imran Khan. One would be inclined to say that Imran ceased to be a leader of promise many years ago. He picked his own allies — Taliban et al — and left out many potential supporters who would have given his party a totally different image than the Jamaat-offshoot look it proudly sports. But that personal aspect has to be discounted in aid of a fair attempt at estimating PTI’s public appeal.

The tsunami intrigues and attracts all kinds of reactions — from a dissection of the cruel use of a destructive storm to describe a popular upsurge to the grand blunders in unification Imran has committed in the first five months of his new life.

Ultimately, all this talk has to be contextualised in the promise of the Oct 30 jalsa in Lahore. And this is where some of the interpretations have to be dug up from underneath the heap of superlatives that were so urgently lavished on Imran then.

The rally led to the proclamations of Imran’s arrival as the third — or the second or the only — option. Amidst all those cries for change, the battle was deemed to have been already won, especially since everyone was so sure the impatient establishment was backing the party.

The PTI ‘supremo’s’ arrogance was forgotten and he was readily hailed as our best bet at finding the middle-class the much-desired middle path to peace and prosperity.

The impression was strong; the strongest element in it was not the people but the belief that Imran was working on a green signal from the masters. It had to be a quick-fix job that didn’t give Imran’s rivals time to react.

Experienced politicians landed on the PTI bandwagon in a pile, a veritable collection that was threatening enough for Imran’s rivals — the PML-N — to do a bit of quick ally hunting, indulge in a few urgent patch-ups and also to launch a few development schemes on the side.

It is this counterpunch that has led some to write off the PTI, in a hurry, unless they have heard Mr Establishment speak about the change in plans. Yet, like it or not, with a disappointing show here and a big rally there, in the public domain, Imran is there to be reckoned with.

Among the good and bad decisions, the reconciliatory tone towards the MQM at his Karachi jalsa a month after Lahore did greatly compromise his reputation as someone who could take on the mightiest without fear.

He was right to not take part in the by-polls since by-polls here are fought under their own rules. He stood little chance against the nominees of the federal and provincial governments using their resources and the loss would have harmed the PTI.

The general election is crucial. Imran must do well on this last chance or take his seat in the annals next to Asghar Khan. But that eventuality is as yet some distance away.

The PML-N factor is important. N-League is certainly doing damage-control exercise in Punjab, but so far as popular perceptions of development accruing out a clash between two parties go, life in the previously monotonous Punjab is richer for the care it has received from its rulers in this run-up to the election and after the emergence of a new challenger for power in Imran Khan.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.