January issue 2012
All the Khan’s Men: Imran Khan and the Turncoats
Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet was called a ‘team of rivals,’ Barack Obama chose his opponent Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and now Imran Khan is gathering under his canopy a rainbow coalition of men who are more used to grasping each other’s throats than hands.
Will all Imran’s men now kiss and make up?
Barely two months after the game-changing Lahore rally that catapulted Imran into the political stratosphere, the strains are beginning to show. With a bevy of heavyweights joining the rising star in droves — and being welcomed with open arms — the ‘old guard’ so to speak, finds itself being elbowed out of the limelight. This may be a gradual shift born of political compulsions, but it is exposing the party to a new form of criticism both from the inside and out. PML-N’s Rana Sanaullah captured this criticism in a one-liner when he described the new PTI as “Q League alias Tehreek-e-Insaaf.”
“We need a better defence against this criticism,” admitted a PTI office-holder. “We knew it would come, but we didn’t anticipate the intensity.”
The defence — as is being put out by Imran and his men — goes something like this: yes, people from all backgrounds and parties are joining up, and yes, many of them have been at odds with each other in the past. Yes, some have taken positions in the past which are diametrically opposed to what Imran stands for, and yes, they have been parts of governments which Imran bitterly criticises. But — and here comes the defence — they will all fall in line under Imran and follow what he stands for. In other words, these heavyweights will set aside their long-held beliefs and toe the line of the leader. Having joined the ranks, these pinch-hitters now have no choice but to subsume their will into the larger will of the leader.
The vision comes from the leader, Imran argues himself, so it doesn’t matter what Qureshi or Kasuri or Hashmi said or did back in the day. What matters now is that he is the larger agent of change, and they his stormtroopers.
A case of Austin Powers and his Mini-Me?
The line of reasoning may be sound, but the practicalities are not as simple as Imran would have us believe. He knows it, as do his party’s rank and file, but somehow they are not able to understand that the voter knows it too. After all, this voter has known these heavyweights for much longer than Imran. This does not mean that the party will be hijacked, or even that Imran may find his own space being restricted by the presence of these electables. In fact, it is quite safe to assume that these political heavy-lifters know that Imran is the only game in town. For now they breathe the oxygen that he gives them. Imran is also right when he complains he used to be lambasted for not having a team, and now when he is putting together an electable team, he’s being lambasted for — well — putting together an electable team.
The issue is how to frame these apparent contradictions in a context which is saleable. Imran’s political muscle is growing by the day, and like it or not, the protein feeding the growth of this muscle is these same electables. Clearly there’s an election to win, and elections are not won on idealism alone. Or at least, that’s how the conventional thinking goes. Till a few months ago, analysts used to say it is the election after this next one which will be Imran’s. Now calculations have turned on their head. This clearly is Imran’s moment. The stars seem to be aligning now. He’s striking the right chords because the disillusionment with the mainstream parties is reaching a zenith. The economy is flatlining, the government is groaning under the weight of incumbency, the opposition is flailing in the wind, and the country seems to be headed nowhere. In such a dismal scenario, Imran appears as the force of change. He’s banking on his resume, his non-political credentials and his rhetoric. It sounds almost like the pre-victory Obama, unencumbered by the chains of actual performance. Five years later, who knows what the situation would be like. Plus Imran and his party would have been in parliament and will have a lot to answer for. He will be part of the system. Now he’s outside of it.
So the moment for him is now. And he’s desperate to make it happen, even if it means diluting his idealism to reduce the risk factor.
Here’s the problem though. These electables are no simpletons. They’ve invested decades perfecting the art of realpolitik. They have served in various parties and various governments in various positions. They have won and lost elections and are well-versed in the rigours of constituency politics. They have received and delivered patronage, and are neck-deep in the dynamics of kinship. They are chained to the tentacles of biradari and tribal politics and are, in fact, products of this system. They are hard-nosed realists who make compromises, cut corners, give and take favours, and savour the many flavours of the gravy train. In short, they are in the game to win, because winning is everything, regardless of how you play the game.
Will this style of politicking go against the grain of the change Imran is promising? It may. Or, it may not. Expecting Imran to do the impossible when others fall short of even the possible may be a bit unfair. So what we are seeing now is Imran slowly transforming his principled rhetoric into campaign rhetoric aimed at getting him to power. A wild card can be as wild as he likes, but a serious contender for power needs to be more circumspect. The angry rebellious Imran, now that he smells power, is trying to become a leader-in-waiting. The trappings of responsibility are slowly chipping away the impracticalities of idealism.
Good for him? Possibly, because at this stage voters gravitating towards him seem willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But the coming months will be critical for him in terms of keeping his electable heavyweights on a tight leash. Already we are seeing former rivals and now teammates Khurshid Kasuri and Sardar Aseff Ahmad Ali indulging in a public spat over who deserves a ticket from their constituency. Other such issues may flare up (Shah Mahmood vs Javed Hashmi?) and begin to haunt Imran’s politics. In addition, it may not be easy for these electables to always keep their long held views in check. Spinning inside a 24/7 news cycle, even the most-disciplined tend to go off-track.
As long as the focus remains on Imran, his momentum will continue. The moment it turns to the squabbles of these electables, PTI will start to resemble the traditional parties. The PTI heavyweights are meant to win the party seats. As long as they are focused on this objective, Imran can keep smiling his way to elections. But if they start grabbing each other’s throats, Imran can expect a tsunami of criticism coming his way.
And to think that, in the good old cricketing days, Imran only had one Miandad to contend with.
If Imran Khan does make it to the coveted post of Prime Minister, what would his cabinet of ertswhile rivals look like? Fahd Hussain hazards a guess.
Foreign Minister: Since three former ones have joined him — Khurshid Kasuri, Sardar Aseff Ahmed Ali and Shah Mahmood Qureshi — this would be a tough one. All three are experienced politicians and have clocked many years as FM. There will surely be a tussle for the coveted post. For sheer gravitas and experience, my choice is Khurshid Kasuri.
Interior Minister: This powerful position requires someone who is well-versed with the political intricacies of maintaining law and order, as well as coordinating very well with the armed forces. A straight and upright person would make this job very effective and people-friendly. My choice as Interior Minister would be Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
Law Minister: Since the last few years, the Law Minister has become a key figure for all governments. In Imran’s cabinet, this portfolio would suit someone who is on good terms with the judiciary, and has a legal background that commands respect. The obvious choice would be Hamid Khan.
Minister for Water & Power: Given the acute energy crisis facing Pakistan in this sector, this ministry requires a boss who has a professional background plus the commitment and integrity to turn this crisis into an opportunity. Among Imran’s team, the ideal person would be Dr Arif Alvi.
Defence Minister: A toothless position in practical terms, this ministry needs a person who can flex his/her muscles and stare down the armed forces. Plus coordinate key national security decision-making. Dr Shireen Mazari would be an explosive choice. I would love to sit in on the meetings when she’s the Defence Minister.
Information Minister: In this day and age, the government’s spinmaster must command respect among the media, and possess the skills required to be the face of the administration. Shafqat Mahmood fits the bill.
Minister for Petroleum: Another key ministry which has become even more important after the gas and energy crisis. For Pakistan’s future energy needs, this ministry will play a key role. The man suited best to head this ministry needs to know the ins and outs of domestic politics and be able to deal with all kinds of pressures. My vote would be for Sardar Aseff Ahmad Ali.
Railways Minister: Here we need a person who can take on the mafias, make difficult decisions and has the capacity to understand the complexities of turning around the dying railways. Omar Cheema fits the bill.
Minister of Communications: Another key ministry, given the explosive growth of communication in Pakistan. Imran has on board a person with experience of this kind of work, and who did a good job as minister. The choice is obvious: Awais Leghari.
Ministry of Human Rights Development: An undervalued ministry because we have got our priorities wrong. If Imran gets them right, and gives this ministry the importance it deserves, he has a person who could do the job: Fauzia Kasuri.
You will note that I’ve left the critical finance ministry vacant. This is so because I don’t see an ideal candidate among his team — yet.
And then, of course, there’s Javed Hashmi. Well, let’s assume that the tallest building on Constitution Avenue would be vacant by then…
This article was originally published in the Annual 2012 issue of Newsline as part of a larger cover story on Pakistani’s political future.