After teasing, taunting and tormenting India with his pace, guile and a gifted cricketing mind for nearly 15 years in the 1980s and 90s, Imran Khan’s return on a much bigger pitch — this time as a potential game changer in Pakistani politics — is being viewed by observers in India with a mix of curiosity and concern.
India was at the receiving end at a public meeting organised last Sunday by Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) in Lahore. India was not the main talking point at the rally which has been described as one of the largest gathering of people in Pakistan’s recent history. It was the Pakistani political establishment – specifically the leadership of the ruling PPP and President Zardari and the opposition PML-N and its leaders, the two Sharief brothers, that was the main target of his forceful attack.
The Americans and their policy of interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs — especially their drone attacking ways — was a close second in terms of inviting the wrath of the speakers.
But India and Kashmir also figured prominently in Imran Khan’s speech. Not that the issue ever takes much of a backseat in Pakistan’s national discourse but the significance of Imran Khan choosing to refer to the ‘K-word’ regularly and emphatically should not be lost on anyone. By asking for the withdrawal of Indian troops from the valley in what is being seen as his comeback rally, he has sent a clear signal to quite a few constituencies. New Delhi is one. The Pakistani security establishment, especially their all powerful army, is the other. There’s also a message to the international community.
In the immediate context though, Imran Khan’s rally has a greater resonance with the internal politics of Pakistan.
The Lahore meeting has attracted a lot of media attention both inside and outside Pakistan — both Washington Post and the New York Times have carried dispatches analysing the impact of Imran’s new innings in Pakistani politics — and the near unanimous media view is that in his second coming, the glamorous and charismatic cricketer-turned-politician is posing a serious threat to the established Pakistani political class.
A number of senior Pakistani commentators have compared the Imran Khan rally with the one Benazir Bhutto had in the same Iqbal Park 25 years ago in 1986 to mark her homecoming from exile. The Pakistani News has observed that the Benazir rally marked the beginning of the end for the military regime of General Zia. Imran’s rally could well mark the end of Pak’s foreign policy subservience to the USA.
But one swallow definitely does not a summer make.
But a hugely successful rally in Lahore last Sunday has helped Imran Khan shrug off the loser tag attached to him as far as politics is concerned. There was a reason why nobody took him seriously on the political pitch so far, even while conceding his match winning ways as a charismatic and extremely gifted sportsperson, fund raiser and social activist.
Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) does not have a single seat in the national Parliament and the former Pakistani pace spearhead and World Cup winning skipper, lost the two elections he contested in the past.
But all that has changed with his Sunday rally held in the shadows of the Minar-e-Pakistan near the historic Lahore fort where a resolution was adopted for the creation of a separate state for Indian Muslims in 1940.
Seasoned and respected Pakistani commentators like Hamid Mir and Rahmatullah Yusufzai are already talking about the Imran Khan rally in similar epochal terms. There’s a growing belief amongst observers in Pakistan that Imran Khan has finally arrived on the national stage with his promise of change and the manner in which he is posing a challenge to the decadent, corrupt and sucking-up-to-America ways of Pakistan politicians.
Imran has crafted his comeback with the kind of strategic thinking, forward planning and careful marshalling of resources at his command which made him one of the most feared and respected opponents on a cricket field.
He has carefully looked at the chinks in the armour of his political adversaries and worked out what can be a winning game plan for his campaign. His prime target is the urban youth who are sick and tired of the prevailing corruption and nepotism. He is also exploiting assiduously the simmering dislike Pakistanis have developed against the US.
Referring to the American Secretary of State as Chachi Clinton and warning Washington against interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs, Imran Khan is killing several birds with one stone. He is appealing to the self righteous pride of the country’s middle class as well as the Maulvis and Islamists. At the same time by taking a hawkish stand on Kashmir as well as against US interference Imran Khan is also ensuring at least the neutrality — if not support and approval — of the all powerful Pakistani Army.
Even while not sounding exactly like a dove, Imran Khan is also taking care to ensure that he does not come across as an Islamic fundamentalist. He is treading the middle path between the fundamentalists and the liberal secularists trying to carve a niche for himself which aims to be a little right of the liberal Sufi traditions. A rightwing liberal maybe if something like that can be carved out in terms of an ideology!
But there’s a long way to go for Imran before he can convert this strategy and his charisma into a winning electoral combination.
The biggest challenge would be one of logistics and a second line of leadership. He would require an army of workers and organisational base to be a serious contender in national elections. Then there’s the question of a second and third line of leadership. Right now the score on that front is embarrassingly low. Apart from a couple of names like a former provincial Governor, Mian Azhar, there’s hardly anybody in the PTI who can be regarded as a serious national leader of any stature.
The success of the Lahore rally will most likely see many politicians making a beeline for PTI but that would only make his task more difficult. Newcomers have to be admitted keeping in mind the criterion of both success in elections as well as the image of the applicant.
Otherwise the message of change and offering the Pakistani people a clean, different alternative will fritter away even before it has taken a firm shape.