April issue 2013

By | Cover Story | Published 7 years ago

A harbinger of change or a politically blinkered man with abberated delusions of grandeur, Imran Khan is usually defined in these two extremes. His stated ideological stance and anti-US rhetoric bracket him with the country’s orthodox and conservative ideological forces like the Jamaat-e-Islami, but the urban fan club of this former cricket hero includes many young liberal men and women, who unequivocally abhor the politicisation of Islam and the clerics’ narrow interpretation of their religion. So while his rivals taunt the ‘Taliban Khan’ for opposing the military operation against Al-Qaeda-inspired local militants and keeping an evasive stand on the twin challenges of extremism and terrorism, his loyalists believe that he alone has the recipe to engender peace in the country.

Imran Khan certainly makes sure that in every public meeting and rally he devotes considerable time to showcasing himself as a man of faith and a “good, practicing Muslim.” He even underscored the Islamic dimension of his politics and personality and expressed fascination with the tribal code of honour, tradition and values in his book Pakistan; A Personal History. Some of his associates, meanwhile, are high-flying urbanites and staunch secularists who want to portray their leader as a liberal and explain his overt religiosity as no more than a tactical necessity.

The truth is, Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) tilt toward the right-wing remains a well thought-out and planned strategy rather than a matter of mere tactics, as described by many of his liberal supporters. It is the center-right and religious vote bank which he and his party are trying to woo, that pits them more against the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) than the secular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

No wonder then, when it comes to ideological positioning of the PTI on key issues — ranging from the opposition to the US drone attacks on local and foreign militants operating on Pakistani territory, to that of supporting controversial Islamic radical and terror convict, Aafia Siddiqui as a heroine — Imran Khan tends to be on the same wave-length as the Jamaat-e-Islami and its like. He seldom sees eye-to-eye with those forces which openly denounce terrorism and extremism in all its forms and who want non-state actors to stop using Pakistani territory to plan and launch strikes against any other country.

With this right-wing worldview and narrative, the 2013 general elections will be make-or-break for the PTI, which seeks to escape the political wilderness and emerge as an alternate force against the two mainstream parties — the PML-N and the PPP.

But will Khan’s “tsunami,” comprising enthusiastic youngsters and the so-called ‘electable’ candidates poached from other parties, be able to sweep aside the PML-N in its powerbase of the central Punjab? Will it be able to drown the PPP’s prospects in southern Punjab with the help of a couple of dissident leaders from the two main parties, including Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Makhdoom Javed Hashmi? Will the World Cup-winning captain be able to get any wickets on the turf of urban and rural Sindh where the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the PPP’s political scorecards have remained enviable? Khan has only a few party men to pit against the formidable PPP and MQM candidates in Sindh, and it is unlikely that they will emerge victorious in the hurly-burly of elections.

On Khyber Pakhtoonkhawa’s bumpy wicket, will Khan’s team be able to score against the googlies of Maulana Fazal-ur Rahman and his Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and other tenacious opponents like the Awami National Party (ANP)? And how will Khan’s team fare in the restive Balochistan province where the nationalists are back in the ring of electoral politics and are in no mood to repeat the 2008 boycott of elections.

All that notwithstanding, and whatever the prophets of doom and gloom may say, for his part Imran Khan is confident. He believes his moment has finally come. Certainly, going by the crowds at the PTI’s public meetings in all the major cities, he could be forgiven for believing that he is actually a major contender for power. The overall public disenchantment with the current political order, the endless stories of mega corruption, economic mismanagement and poor governance have certainly boost Imran Khan’s political fortunes, but the past two outings of his party in the 1997 and 2002 elections do not engender too much hope in this regard. In both those elections, the PTI’s performance remained dismal; it managed to secure only 1.7 percent and 0.8 percent of the popular votes respectively.

Will Khan’s team be able to score against the googlies of Maulana Fazal-ur Rahman and his Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and other tenacious opponents like the Awami National Party (ANP)? And how will Khan’s team fare in the restive Balochistan province where the nationalists are back in the ring of electoral politics and are in no mood to repeat the 2008 boycott of elections.

In the 2002 elections, Imran Khan’s performance at the hustings was seen as ever more pathetic because he barely managed to win his lone seat in the National Assembly, even though former military ruler Pervez Musharraf had kept the central leadership of the PPP and PML-N out of the electoral arena.

But this time round, the PTI seems convinced it will do a lot better. At the ripe age of 60, Imran Khan still remains an idol for the youth and a hero for many of his women fans. And many of them, particularly in the urban areas, are least bothered about ideological debates and his right-wing stance. For many he remains an untainted icon who could make a difference in politics just because he is honest, upright and bold. Even his rivals and harshest critics acknowledge his achievements as a sportsman and philanthropist and agree that he is one of the few Mr. Cleans of Pakistan’s corruption-ridden power politics.

Unfortunately, the crowds at the PTI rallies and Imran Khan’s image alone are not enough to guarantee him a ticket to the corridors of power. There are many other elements, which come into play in Pakistan’s electoral politics that overwhelmingly remains constituency-centred and revolves around local narrow factors such as the biradari or caste system, the vice-like hold of the mighty feudal lords and tribal chiefs and ethnic and sectarian affiliations.

So far, in Pakistan’s electoral history. only Zulfikar Ali Bhutto managed to steamroll his constituency-centric politics in the 1970 elections. But after that the parochial nature of electoral politics bounced back with a vengeance — thanks to careful nurturing and patronising by the former military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq during the 1980s.
In any case, constituency-centric politics tend to work more in major urban centres rather than in rural or semi-urban regions where factors including family ties, caste, tribe and ethnic and sectarian affiliations still play a vital role. This is why all the political parties remain so desperate to get into their fold “electable candidates,” most of who belong to powerful feudal or tribal families. Despite jumping from one party to another and a frequent change of loyalties, many such candidates manage to sail to Parliament following each election, as their followers vote for them regardless of their political or ideological position.

Will Imran Khan’s PTI, with its right-wing tilt, be able to repeat the feat of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP, which shot to popularity on the back of secular and left-wing slogans? The harsh reality is that Imran Khan still comes short in relation to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, not only in terms of vision, political acumen, charisma and exposure to both national and international politics, but also in communication and public oratory. Bhutto also had a more dynamic team compared with the political floaters and pygmies in Khan’s arsenal.

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One factor that could work in Imran Khan’s favour is the youth bulge, which means that around 40 percent of voters will be in the age bracket of 18 to 30 years. If Imran Khan manages to cash in on his popularity among youngsters, at least in the urban centers, he could give PML-N a run for its money in many of the constituencies of central Punjab.

So even in this day and age of mediocrity, when brilliant politicians have become rare species, Imran Khan’s simplistic worldview and the USP (unique selling point) which revolves more around the mantra of ‘I’ and bombastic self-glorification than on real issue and how to resolve them in realistic ways, are not likely to make him a shoo-in to power.

While some of Imran Khan’s close associates predict either a winning wave in favour of their party or at the least a minimum of 15 to 20 National Assembly seats, many independent analysts have been less generous in awarding his party seats.

Of course both these claims are based on hypotheses rather than on scientific analyses or polls.

One factor that could work in Imran Khan’s favour is the youth bulge, which means that around 40 percent of voters will be in the age bracket of 18 to 30 years and many would be voting for the first time in their life. If Imran Khan manages to cash in on his popularity among youngsters, at least in the urban centres he could give PML-N a run for its money in many of the constituencies of central Punjab. The PTI also has footprints in parts of Khyber-Pakhtoonkhawa, but the real question remains: Will Imran Khan’s fans be able to make an impact when it comes to constituency-centric polling? There are no easy answers for the untested and inexperienced PTI, which despite all the hype and aura of popular appeal could return empty-handed given the nature of the electoral system which appears locked in favour of the existing major parties. The PTI has to adapt and play according to the template.

That aside, one thing is for sure: the PML-N will remain wary of Imran Khan, who is competing for seats in its power-base. If Khan’s team manages to play to its optimum on D-Day, the PTI can prove a major spoiler for the PML-N, especially on those seats which are closely contested. Meanwhile, the division in the right-wing vote-bank can benefit the PPP and its allies, provided they manage to mobilise their traditional voters. However, given the poor five year performance with the PPP at the helm, voters may not deliver the dividends sought by the party.

Whether Imran Khan’s tsunami proves a mere storm in a teacup, whether he emerges as a victor or a mere spoiler on May 11, he is at least forcing the traditional players to raise the bar of their performance in this flawed and dysfunctional democratic system. He is also to be credited for making the contest a little more colourful and interesting by his band, baja, dance rallies laced with a generous dose of religion and a brazen display of self-righteousness.

All eyes are now set on May 11. Win or lose what, one wonders, will Imran Khan and his PTI followers do after the people have given their verdict.

Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.