It was personal — so it seemed to his detractors.
Imran Khan realised early last year that his sprawling house on a whole hill in Bani Gala, just outside Islamabad, was losing its pristine surrounding because many other people also wanted to have their houses on nearby forested hills. He wrote a letter to Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar in March 2017, asking him to take note of the large-scale deforestation in the area to make space for construction.
Nisar wasted little time. He ordered the Capital Development Authority (CDA) to report on the construction taking place in Bani Gala. Less than two months later, CDA officials reported back. They said 122 properties built in the area were illegal. These included Imran Khan’s residence.
Will he let the authorities demolish his house to prove that he holds the rule of law and justice closer to his heart than anything else — including his idyllic residence? That has not yet come to pass.
It has always been personal — so it has always seemed to his detractors.
Imran Khan hardly ever showed up in the National Assembly in 2017 even though he continues to draw a salary as its member. He keeps calling it an illegitimate legislature born out of a rigged election. This, in spite of the fact that those elections now have a seal of approval from the very Supreme Court that took up his pleas to probe into electoral rigging and found no evidence thereof. The verdict of the same judiciary that he always invites to set things right does not seem to carry more weight for him than his own opinion of the National Assembly’s legitimacy.
In many ways, his personal likes and dislikes were on prominent display throughout the last year, as far his views on judicial proceedings are concerned. When Nawaz Sharif and his family claimed, albeit tenuously, that the case around the Panama Papers involved personal money that they had earned and not stolen from the public exchequer, he would only mock them. But when the court wanted to look into his own personal financial dealings, he would portray the case as a politically motivated attempt to create hurdles in the way of his campaign against corruption in high places. Fawad Chaudhry, spokesperson for his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), reiterates this point of view when he says: “The cases against Imran Khan and Jahangir Tareen are rather [political] counter blasts and have nothing to do with corruption or any other illegality [committed by the two].”
Imran Khan even put down the disqualification of his right-hand man, Jahangir Tareen, for holding any public office to a mere technicality. If this sounds eerily similar to Nawaz Sharif’s claims that he was knocked out for getting a salary he did not withdraw – a mere technicality – that is not something that seems to bother him much.
And he has been quite consistent in this.
When court decisions have not been in his favour (in, for instance, the election rigging case), he shrugs them off and continues to maintain his prejudgment stance. On occasions when proceedings have turned back against him (as is obvious in the case of Bani Gala’s deforestation), he simply disregards them. When they have been in his favour, he pats himself on the back for ensuring them. “We successfully took Nawaz Sharif to court for corruption, money laundering, assets concealment and tax evasion,” he says in an interview. “By moving on these major issues that afflict our polity, [my party] has proved to the nation that it acted on its commitments and saw them through,” he adds.
After Nawaz Sharif was disqualified in late July 2017, Imran Khan triumphantly announced: “Everyone will be held accountable now. This is just a beginning.” Only four months later, Tareen became the first major casualty of the process. Yet, Imran Khan still saw him as an upright businessman, regardless of the fact that he was disqualified for being involved in ‘insider trading’, which in many jurisdictions is treated as financial fraud.
Good court, bad court. Good decisions, bad decisions. Imran Khan gets to decide which way the judicial cookie must crumble. Or so say his detractors.
Analysts believe that his paradoxical reactions to judicial verdicts are not without political and legal risks. “Inviting unelected forums like the judiciary to settle morally charged political scores, that too without a proper trial, is always a double-edged sword,” says Waqqas Mir, a constitutional lawyer based in Lahore. “It undermines the political process and the polity as a whole. These tactics had to hurt PTI at some point,” he says.
Hassan Javid, a political analyst and a teacher at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, goes a step further: “The process initiated by Imran Khan is one that may have inadvertently opened a Pandora’s Box.” A majority of Pakistan’s political elite, according to him, has skeletons in their closets that could prove to be their undoing should they ever be brought to light. “This is true for the PTI, as it is for other mainstream parties.”
Imran Khan has already seen the foretaste of this. His own trial for setting up an offshore company and conducting Benami financial transactions to sell his flat in London and purchase land for his Bani Gala house brought him quite close to disqualification. He is reported to have thanked God on hearing the verdict that absolved him of any wrongdoing — so close did he feel himself to perishing politically that he deemed his escape a result of divine benevolence.
Mir has an entirely different take on this. “The reasoning by which he survived, some might say, does not represent the apex court’s finest hour,” says the jurist. “His image won’t get better after this close shave and let’s see if that checks him before his next run to the Supreme Court.”
The outcome of proceedings at the Election Commission of Pakistan over alleged irregularities in the collection of funds for PTI from abroad has the same feel of chickens coming home to roost.
For quite some time, he avoided appearing in the case while, simultaneously, vilifying the same authorities hearing the case against him as having helped Nawaz Sharif win the 2013 election. He was so dismissive of the case that his lawyers submitted a document during a hearing on January 9, 2017 that accused election commission adjudicators of being biased against him and the PTI. They now wanted to try him for contempt of court as well.
By the summer, they had had enough of his evasive tactics. They issued a show-cause notice to him, asking him to explain why he had been failing to appear before them. On October 13, they issued his arrest warrant. He claimed in front of television cameras that he would rather get arrested than apologise to the election commission. When finally, on October 26, his lawyers submitted his handwritten note by way of apology, the election commission did not accept its language and made him write another note as well as apologise in person.
This was a massive judicial reversal. Tareen’s disqualification would be another — and probably of the same magnitude. His party’s failure to have its dissident legislator Ayesha Gulalai de-seated from the National Assembly was yet another blow. Though in terms of its political impact, it resides much below the earlier two.
Last summer was not really the best of times for Imran Khan.
At the start of August 2017, Ayesha, a prominent PTI official, accused him of sending her inappropriate text messages. Many of his critics thought the allegation could potentially ruin his political career. Yet he seems to have survived them with a mix of subterfuge and an abuse-laden counter-attack by his fans and followers. Chaudhry still seems to be gloating when he says ‘lie’ is a “part of Gulalai’s very name”. Others have called her and her family all kinds of names to the extent that at one stage Imran Khan himself had to step in to stop the vituperative language being used on social media against her athlete sister Maria Toorpakai.
Yet, says Javid, Imran Khan has displayed a “clearly boorish, insensitive, and dismissive” attitude in this case. In one major sign of this, he has been boycotting a parliamentary committee set up to probe Ayesha’s allegations against him because, well, he does not like its composition. Mir is also disappointed over Imran Khan’s “failure to call for or initiate an impartial investigation into allegations of sexual harassment within his party”.
But Dr Farzana Bari, a teacher at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, who also champions human rights and civil liberties, is not surprised. “He … did not [try] to prove [Ayesha] wrong because he knew she would expose him.”
In a civilized society that cares for women’s rights, such an attitude would be political suicide. In Pakistan, it seems to be anything but. “People know that Imran Khan is not really a pious person,” says Farzana. In this particular case, she says, they “were pretty accepting of his behaviour because of his reputation” of being a “playboy”.
Mir is even more clinical in his analysis. “Politicians in a patriarchal system benefit from the gross disparities of power that stare the Ayesha Gulalais in their face.” She has no chance of getting justice nor are her allegations going to threaten Imran Khan’s political career. When Chaudhry asks “how a woman who has no political background, can affect Imran Khan’s politics”, he seems only to be validating this unfortunate ground reality.
Chaudhry’s bravado also highlights another moral paradox that informs much of Imran Khan’s politics. Nothing can take away the moral high ground he always seems to occupy. Even those he accused of being afflicted with all kinds of moral flaws cannot dent his party’s moral values if they are accepted en masse into its folds. This is the logic that eased entry into the PTI for the likes of former federal minister Nazar Gondal (whose brother Zafar Gondal is facing a case for massive corruption) and Babar Awan (who himself is being probed by the National Accountability Bureau). The same rule applies to former federal minister Firdous Ashiq Awan and former Sindh chief ministers Liaqat Jatoi and Mumtaz Bhutto. They were bad because they were under bad leaders such as Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, but they have become good because now they have come under the incorruptible leadership of Imran Khan.
The messiah can never go wrong, retort his supporters. Until he does.
Javid believes the discrepancy between Imran Khan’s rhetoric of change and his realpolitik in electoral terms is so glaring that it will be a miracle if people do not see it come election time. Imran Khan, he says, “will enter 2018 a diminished figure”. Though “he continues to be cheered on by millions, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is not much to distinguish him and his party from those he continually rails against”.
Farzana agrees with him — to an extent. “People now have a perception about Imran Khan that he is no different from other political leaders … and the PTI is no different from any other party,” she says. “People are also aware that he is double-faced in his personal and political life: he tends to show off his modernity on the one hand but, as the popular saying goes, he has a beard in his stomach. People are aware of his closeness to the Taliban and his support for their madrasas. His hypocritical personality is well known,” she observes.
Yet, she says, many will vote for him. “I do not think [anything that happened in 2017] will have any impact as such on his politics [in 2018],” she says. Mir also sees no change in Imran Khan’s political fortunes. “His political image won’t change for those who see him as a messiah.”
Imran Khan seems to know this. “The PTI has emerged as the most popular and largest national political force in the country, cutting across rural and urban divides, class and ethnic groups, and Muslim and non-Muslim divisions,” he says. In 2018, his party plans to field candidates across the country. “We have become wiser after the 2013 elections and will not allow anyone to steal our mandate,” he adds.
Makes for a tough electoral contest, if nothing else.
This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
Mubashir Zaidi is a journalist who has been associated with the Dawn Media Group since 1999.