People & Society

Who's afraid of Imran Khan?

Updated 06 Nov, 2016 07:39pm
Imran on his fund raising campaign: from socialite to social worker | Herald archives
Imran on his fund raising campaign: from socialite to social worker | Herald archives

With an agenda more ambitious and novel than any other political force in the nation's history, cricket idol turned philanthropist Imran Khan – along with former ISI chief General Hamid Gul and Pasban's Mohammad Ali Durrani – is about to launch his much speculated about 'pressure group'. This group, its founders claim, will not only emerge as the country's "third force", but also become "the first middle class movement in the land."

On the other hand, key players within the all powerful establishment, inside sources argue, foresee the group as being a second, rather than third force, with Imran Khan viewed as an eventual anti-PPP alternative to Nawaz Sharif, should Sharif and his group of Muslim Leaguers fail to deliver.

But even if the pressure group enjoys the patronage and guidance of sections within the establishment, as some of the group's supporters claim, the new force's professed goals of changing the dynamics and composition of Pakistani politics seem a trifle over ambitious for the time being.

The concept of the pressure group is based on the premise that the small minority which has ruled the country for most of its existence has finally exposed itself in the eyes of the people due to its petty infighting, insatiable greed and its utter failure in redressing the problems of the people. The new and much abused middle class, according to this contention, now constitutes a formidable force which is ready to challenge this "confederacy of dunces" and eventually overthrow it along with its colonial trappings.

The key leaders of the proposed group speak of "the collective unconscious of the people" which they claim has reached a state of readiness for a major social and political change.

All the three main figures in this group, Imran Khan, Mohammad Ali Durrani and Hamid Gul, refer to this agenda as social rather than political. The central leaders of the proposed group have finally decided to speak out about their future plans, which have hitherto been shrouded in mystery and subject to much debate. They reveal that education is to be the key area of focus at least in the first phase. Education in this case will mean increasing the people's awareness about their basic rights and preparing them to demand these rights by pressurising the correct quarters.

Some observers feel that Imran may well step back if the heat gets too much to bear, leaving his comrades in the lurch.

"Slowly and silently, we have carried out all the necessary research, we have formed the basic structure (of the group). We have the basic team and I am quite confident of our success," says Mohammad All Durrani, chief of Pasban. When he speaks of 'structure' and 'team', what Durrani has in mind is perhaps his own organisation which recently rebelled against its mother organisation, the Jamaat-e-Islami. Durrani and his supporters walked out of the Jamaat en masse last May.

Almost all the office bearers of the organisation left the JI and rallied behind Mohammad Ali Durrani and so this infrastructure, comprising a small but well-knit and efficient body, has remained quite intact.

Pasban subsequently provide its effectiveness to Imran Khan by successfully organising the fund-raising campaign for his Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital and arranging huge gatherings such as the recent Yaum-e-Awam (people’s day).

In a way, the Herald, has learnt, Imran’s proposed pressure group will be a re-activated and re-structured Pasban, at least in the first few months of its existence. “He (Imran) will announce his agenda and we will support it, says a central leader of Pasban. Perhaps this is why Imran has had some of his closest friends and family members inducted into Pasban. For example, his brother-in-law Habibuliah Khan Niazi is Pasban's organiser in the central Punjab — a region viewed as being of great importance because it has seen the emergence, over the recent years, of a strong middle class.

Along with organising itself at the grassroots level, the group is planning to set up a network of relief and social service facilities, for example home schools run by teachers on the pattern of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). The aim of the group is not just to promote literacy but to ensure that awareness of human rights is also propagated. The group even claims to have devised a syllabus aimed at imparting awareness to both children and adults.

According to the plan disclosed to the Herald by top leaders of the proposed group, in its first phase the organisation will strive to eliminate the people's dependence on the present political leadership. When confronted with a problem, people will be trained to organise themselves and strive collectively for its solution, rather than invoking the help of a legislator or even the local councillor. “People will learn to solve their problems through protest, through legal action and through a media trial," says Durrani, the Pasban chief. Such a strategy strongly echoes the Pasban activism witnessed in 1992 when the group carried out aggressive campaigns against selected cases of injustice and state cruelty. The campaign against police brutality and the high-handedness of certain vested interests, for example, had proved embarrassing for the government at the time.

A Pasban protest outside the Punjab Assemble: rallying the middle class | Herald archives
A Pasban protest outside the Punjab Assemble: rallying the middle class | Herald archives

Planners of the proposed group believe that the process of consciousness raising, organisation and protest will give spontaneous birth to a new leadership at the local, provincial and national level. This leadership will emerge from within the middle class, and by replacing the "corrupt minority leadership", it will eventually bring about a complete change in the exploitative system which has prevailed for centuries.

Although all the three key players of the pressure group are known for long-harboured, or more recent, anti-West and pan-Islamist views, they seem to be trying their best to play down this image. Today, Imran Khan vehemently denies being anti-West. All Durrani, for his part, states that the West should support their move "because the oligarchy in Pakistan may give birth, as a reaction, to a violent anti-West movement." Similarly, a close associate of one key player in the anti-Soviet jehad in Afghanistan, General Hamid Gul, informed the Herald that the retired spy-master has successfully revived his relationship with his old friends in the West.

While lmran complains of being wrongly portrayed as "obscurantist" and "anti-West", Pasban chief Durrani too now believes that the supremacy of Islam as enshrined in the constitution of 1973 is quite adequate. For him. the issue is not religion but the state of the economy, corruption and exploitation.

This seems all very well. But it will be more difficult for the group to describe, perhaps even decide on, the role which will be played at present and in the future by General Hamid Gul. General Gul’s views on what are now seen as sensitive issues are too well-known to be re-defined. “He is an asset as well as a liability, says an insider. Though still in Afghanistan on what seems like an extended absence from this country, most Pasban leaders hope that Gul will willingly forsake his global agenda to play his "much needed role" in the country. Some of lmran's associates, however, are of the view that Hamid Gul should provide guidance to the group while remaining at a distance.

Meanwhile, the revelation that the group is basically the brainchild of Hamid Gul has proved most embarrassing for Imran Khan who now painstakingly explains the difference in approach between himself and Hamid Gul — although he re-affirms his admiration for General Gul as a "mujahid."

It was now clear that lmran, who is yet to demonstrate any political acumen, is definitely the front-running protagonist of the show and it is on him that all eyes are focused.

Gul’s associates also testify to the fact that lmran Khan was not taken into confidence last year when Hamid Gul first conceived the idea of forming a 'pressure group' for bringing about a 'soft-revolution' in the country. The people who were then contacted, these associates claim, included Hakim Said, the late Takbeer editor Maulana Salahuddin, Tariq Chaudhry, Mustafa Sadiq and Abdus Sattar Edhi. They also claim that the murder of Maulana Salahuddin was linked to the active role being played by him in forming the group and it was his death that scared off certain others from taking the plunge, including Edhi.

Gul's pressure group, which put forward a highly idealistic agenda, was to be announced in mid-December last year. According to a member of the core team, working groups were to be formed which would prepare proposals aimed at bringing about improvement in various sectors. A large-scale effort was also planned to bring about a reconciliation between the different ethnic and sectarian groups as well as political parties. Some group members, however, raised strong objections to this grandiose scheme and advised Hamid Gul not to make a laughing stock of himself, and the plan was temporarily shelved. General Gul subsequently left for Afghanistan from where he keeps abreast of developments via a satellite telephone.

At the same time that Gul was thinking of setting up his grand pressure group of notables, Pasban leaders, who were also in touch with Hamid Gul, were making efforts to re-activate their organisation after they had parted ways with the Jamaat. Pasban activists claim that they carried out field research, and finally came up with a much more practical plan than the over-ambitious ones Gul had initially proposed. "It was only Pasban in the whole scheme of things which had an organised presence in the field," says a leader.

Imran, in the meantime, invoked Pasban's help once again for his most recent fund-raising campaign at the end of last year. The association was in no way new. Mohammad Ali Durrani and lmran Khan were old acquaintances and Pasban had arranged a Jashn-e-Fatah in Lahore with Imran at centre stage way back in 1992 after Pakistan won the cricket World Cup. Again in 1993, Pasban organised lmran Khan's fund raising shows in various cities. But there was a distinct change evident. The November-December fund raising campaign and the Jashn-e-Awam in the new year, were by far the most high-profile, politically loaded shows arranged by Pasban for lmran Khan.

It was during this most recent association that the former cricketer and Pasban finally agreed on an agenda. "The warm reception lmran received from the common man everywhere in the country finally convinced him to do something for them," says one of the cricketer's friends.

Hamid Gul and Imran Khan: the new equation | Herald archives
Hamid Gul and Imran Khan: the new equation | Herald archives

It was speculation over Imran's political intentions which caused unparalleled public interest about the proposed pressure group. The section within the establishment which had already decided to dump Nawaz Sharif were also excited by the idea of raising a cricket hero to the status of a leading politician, according to sources.

The series of articles Imran began writing in the press evoked a strong response. Every leading columnist reacted to the views expressed in one way or another. A media war was also unleashed between pro- and anti-Imran camps. Some of the muck raked up during this campaign was scurrilous in the extreme. Senior government figures, for their part, chose to ignore the furore, at least on the surface. But behind the scenes, signs of panic were visible. There was a heated exchange over the alleged banning of Imran's hospital campaign ads on PTV, a disinformation campaign maligning the former cricket star, as well as the emergence of the government's sports advisor and former cricketer Sarfaraz Nawaz as lmran's supposed nemesis.

It was now clear that lmran, who is yet to demonstrate any political acumen, is definitely the front-running protagonist of the show and it is on him that all eyes are focused. The fact of the matter is that, whether one likes it or not, the man is one of the most popular personalities in the country, and his popularity can no longer be ascribed to cricket alone. His associates believe that through his cancer hospital campaign, Imran has successfully proved himself as a figure who lives on beyond his cricketing glory. Today, many young people look up to him as someone who could guide them through adversity in the manner in which he took on all competitors so effectively on the cricket field.

But whether lmran is able to sustain his popularity and cash in on his image in the thorny field of politics is the most important question that will ensure whether his ambitious plans will sink or swim. So far, he has proved himself an excellent crowd-puller. But he also appears to be hopeless at dealing with the media, with his penchant for sending out the wrong signals and repeatedly contradicting himself. “He is very very sensitive to misreporting, negative portrayal of his personality and opposition to him,” admits one supporter.

Some of his friends within the pressure group believe that his straightforwardness, bordering on naiveté, has disrupted the carefully planned timing of their foray into the spotlight as they were not yet ready to challenge the frontline leadership just yet. Edhi’s outburst, they feel, also contributed to the untimely outbreak of unwanted controversies around the group.

Imran’s repetitive and vehement statements about his desire to remain out of politics, by which he means electoral politics, is interpreted by some as a wish to act as the catalyst for great change, without taking any formal post in the power structure- a revolutionary leader a la Khomeini or Altaf Hussain.

Although all the three key players of the pressure group are known for long-harboured, or more recent, anti-West and pan-Islamist views, they seem to be trying their best to play down this image.

"If the new group can be compared to anything, it is the MQM," says a top leader of the proposed group. "It will be a middle class movement like the MQM but our agenda is not sectarian or ethnic. It is based instead on class struggle. "He agrees. however, that what may prove disastrous for the group is Imran's desire to remain popular with those on both sides of this divide.

Although all of Imran's friends and associates contacted by the Herald claim that there is no turning back for him, some observers feel that Imran may well step back if the heat gets too much to bear, leaving his comrades in the lurch because of his inability to shrug off the punches that will inevitably come his way.

Meanwhile, several doubts are also being raised about the ability of the group's leaders to bring about a renaissance in a society rent by a myriad conflicts. None of its visionaries seem to have the intelligence and imagination which is expected from individuals at the helm of any great movement that aims to fundamentally transform society. The group which has caused such a furor even before its formal birth may well die out with a whimper. On the other hand, it would be equally naive to underestimate lmran's charisma. Hamid Gul's intrigues, Durrani's organisational talents, and the powers of the agencies to exploit the situation. Most important, it may be fatal to underestimate the people's disgust with the present political leadership.

This article was originally published in the Herald's February 1995 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a senior journalist and columnist.