Imran Khan once promised to change Pakistan. But Pakistan has changed him. To come within a striking distance of achieving his dream of leading the country (and not just its cricket team), Khan has had to traverse a personal journey longer and more transformative than the one he undertook to emerge as a front-runner for the prime minister's post in 2018.
From being an Oxford-educated member of global elite with clipped English accent and a marriage (later broken) with the daughter of a British tycoon to becoming a ‘staunch’ Islamist with feverish support for Pakistan’s stern blasphemy laws or regressive views on women, Khan has gone back a long way.
Khan's 2011 autobiography, Pakistan: A Personal History, quotes the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief blasting conservative clerics for causing the murder of Pakistani senator Salmaan Taseer through their zealotry and fanatical views on blasphemy.
Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was assassinated by his 26-year-old bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, on 4 January, 2011, for his perceived opposition to laws on blasphemy — an inflammatory subject in Pakistan. In 2016, the Nawaz Sharif government had executed Qadri, who had shot the senator 26 times. Soon after killing Taseer, he had told the media: "Salman Taseer is a blasphemer, and this is the punishment for a blasphemer."
In his death, Qadri became a martyr and an icon for Muslim fundamentalists. His execution sparked Islamist fury in Pakistan and gave birth to a new party, the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan, which has gained electoral ground since and is poised for a strong showing in Wednesday's general elections. Its supporters wave Qadri's flags and leaders vow "death to blasphemers".
In 2011, Imran still condemned Qadri and criticised the political establishment for failing to act against the mullahs. In an interview, he had told The Express Tribune that "extremism and radicalism have penetrated our society deeply" and were harming the youth, adding that "elements like Qadri are under the impression that Islam is under threat and act accordingly". "Qadri's actions had created fear in society, and he should be treated like any other murderer," he had said during the interview.
That was then.
Imran finished a poor third in the 2013 elections. The PTI chief was touted as Pakistan's "fresh new hope" and was drawing the crowds, but he failed to translate that support into votes. The drubbing seemingly triggered a fundamental change in Imran, or more likely, he realised that if one part of the power puzzle could be solved by piggybacking the military, the other was incumbent on a strong pro-Islamist stance.
Accordingly, his party is now supping with the fundamentalist loonies and Khan is pandering to every regressive cause. In their battle against Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), PTI members are asking the public to choose between the party that flaunts Qadri's image on election banners and the "party that executed him". Imran is doubling down on the message, telling rally-goers: "No Muslim can call himself a Muslim unless he believes that Prophet Mohammed was the last prophet." This statement, as the AFP report points out, has caused consternation among the Ahmadis, the minority segment that believes in a prophet after Mohammed. They have been kept out of the election process and are feeling insecure and persecuted.
In another rally, Imran said, "We stand with Article 295C and will defend it," referring to a clause in Pakistan's Constitution that mandates death penalty for any "imputation, insinuation or innuendo" against Prophet Muhammad, reports The Guardian.
The military is making Imran's path to premiership easier, given how it considers him a less troublesome figure compared to the dynastic politicians of the Sharif-Bhutto clan. But that isn't the complete picture. Corruption among rival ranks has also helped the former cricketer shape popular opinion in his favour. The Sharifs are jailed, mired in the Avenfield Apartments scandal, while Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) patriarch Asif Ali Zardari has been imprisoned on corruption charges. Imran, in contrast, is seen as incorruptible and has been alert enough to fashion his election campaign pushing the "clean Imran vs the mafias" narrative.
It is easy to see why youngsters feel hopeful about the "anti-establishment figure" seemingly capable of cleansing Pakistan and lifting it from a deep socio-economic morass.
London-based Financial Times quotes Huma Baqai, a professor of international relations at Karachi University, on Imran's appeal: "He is hope in the midst of hopelessness. He has no past political experience. He has committed blunders. But we have tried the two main political parties, and they have not delivered."
Appealing to many, but no experience to show
Yet, miserable as all choices are for Pakistani voters in these elections, Imran offers the worst set of options because of a number of reasons.
For instance, he has been around for a long time in politics but has never held a government position, has little administrative experience to show, and offers little beyond his single-point agenda against corruption. Having taken control of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) in the 2013 elections, Imran has mostly failed to convert his promises into reality. He had declared that KPK will be turned into a "model province", but ground reports point to a gulf of difference between the claim and his performance.
Arshad Mahmood, an Islamabad-based writer and social activist, told Deutsche Welle of Germany that "things are pretty much the same as they were in the past" because PTI workers "consider themselves above the law and won't cooperate with the administration". Some say the party is facing internal rifts as "many provincial lawmakers have revolted against the KPK chief minister and Imran Khan".
Imran claims he will turn Pakistan into an "Islamic welfare state". That is a recipe for disaster for a country that suffers from a crippling balance of payment crisis, a free-falling currency, rising oil prices, macro-economic instability, power and water shortages, the world's highest infant mortality rate, and ranks low on the Human Development Index (147 of 188 in 2016) and high on the Global Hunger Index (106 among 119 developing countries in 2017). Not only is Imran's job nearly impossible, the PTI chief appears dangerously thin on ideas and policies.
In an interview to London-based Sunday Times newspaper — when asked about how he plans to implement the ‘China model in Pakistan’ (a stated campaign promise) — Khan “is unable to explain” to Ben Judah, the interviewer, even rudimentary details."
“‘We have a lot to learn from what they did with industry.’ So what is his overall plan? First, ‘a sovereign foreign policy’. Second, ‘an Islamic welfare state’. Third, ‘the China model’. Can he give me any details? His eyes glaze over. Even Khan’s closest aides admit the boss is not great in this department. ‘He’s not a strategy guy, let’s put it that way,’ said Asad Umar, vice-president of Khan’s party. ‘He has never been in an institution and doesn’t know how to work in an institutional setting’."
As has been previously noted, in his pursuit of power, Imran has shown a dangerous tilt towards Islamism — especially towards the Taliban — earning him the moniker of "Taliban Khan". The provincial government his party runs in the northern KPK region earned notoriety in 2017 for granting $3 million to the Haqqania madrassa, a fount of the dreaded Taliban militants. The PTI chief has gone on to demand that the "Taliban should be allowed to open offices in Pakistani cities", has called for an end to American drone attacks on them and the Taliban, in turn, want Imran to "represent them in negotiations with the government".
There are alarm bells for India amid indications that if Imran's party falls short of the halfway mark in the National Assembly, candidates of the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek — the electoral front of Mumbai attacks mastermind Hafiz Saeed's Milli Muslim league — may join hands with Imran to keep out Sharif's party from power.
In any case, nationwide opinion polls (see here and here) indicate that though Imran's PTI may finish ahead of Sharif's PML-N and Bhutto-Zardari's PPP, none of the parties will get a clear majority. In that scenario, analysts believe that Imran, despite his protestations, will eventually join hands with the PPP to keep the Sharifs out.
As Irfan Husain writes in Dawn, "For the PPP, this arrangement would be a no-brainer: the shrewd Zardari would drive a hard bargain, knowing how badly Imran Khan wants the top job." What this means is that an inexperienced Imran will be putty in the hands of more experienced political operatives and unable to offer the kind of governance he has promised.
Imran and the Pakistani military
However, the most damning argument against Imran's tenure at the helm is the power that the country's military wield over him. The Pindi khakis have facilitated his rise to the top through a strategy of machinations, manipulations and coercive strategies, and will be eager to extract their pound of flesh. Just one example should be enough of the way the "establishment" has tried to control the narrative in Imran's favour.
Raza Rumi, editor of the Daily Times, told Christina Lamb of The Times, UK, how the media has been browbeaten and threatened into self-censorship. The "red lines" include "anything positive about Nawaz Sharif, coverage of PML-N rallies, enforced disappearances by the military, Pashtun protests against army killings, criticism of the judiciary, and any mention of a tell-all book by Imran's former wife, Reham".
In this scenario, Imran's succession (assuming he wins) may lack the popular stamp of approval. This, in turn, may oddly create even more civil-military tension because though the army is working tirelessly to set him up as the prime minister, Imran's lack of credibility may work to the disadvantage of the military, which wants to enjoy power without responsibility, as Husain Haqqani writes in Foreign Policy.
"Pakistan is a constitutional democracy, not a dictatorship. If the puppet strings are too visible, then the puppeteer holds all responsibility for all outcomes. The establishment wants it both ways: power but no responsibility," Pakistan's former ambassador to the US wrote.
Pakistani voters have been presented with a bad script. However, they may do well to choose the least bad option. That leaves out Imran Khan.
Updated Date: Jul 25, 2018 07:29 AM