When Pervez Hoodbhoy, writing in Dawn last year, made the provocative claim that Imran Khan is Pakistan’s Donald Trump, he argued that, “charismatic narcissists [like Trump and Imran Khan] … can be very dangerous.” If running a country, Hoodbhoy wrote, “they can take it to war, waste resources, and increase internal violence.
Some commentators said the comparison was unfair. They observed that Imran Khan’s pronouncements, policies and support bases were radically different from those of Trump’s.
Having worked as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief for the last two decades, he merited being taken more seriously than an American businessman trying his hand at politics. This view was best articulated by Michael Kugelman, affiliated with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He called Imran Khan a bona fide “political star”. His campaign for “naya (new) Pakistan may be naïve”, but (unlike some of the policy proposals being offered by Trump) “it is neither nasty nor nefarious”.
With Trump now set to take over the US presidency, it is clear that those who failed to take him seriously were completely wrong in their assessment of the challenge he posed to conventional American politics. By contrast, Imran Khan’s desultory attempts to dislodge, replace, or even simply inconvenience the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) government in 2016 suggests that belief in his political acumen may be misplaced.
The warning signs were evident even before the start of last year. When the long-delayed local government elections were held in Punjab in 2015, the PTI found itself completely decimated.
The ruling party dominated the polls, winning 44 per cent of the available 7,266 seats and co-opting or accommodating the vast majority of independents, who won 39.4 per cent seats. As a party that had come second in the province in the 2013 general election, the PTI was expected to do better, but it managed to get merely 11.3 per cent seats. It could be argued that the electoral system was tailor-made to deliver victory to the ruling party, but the PTI’s staggering inability to convert its supposed mass popularity into electoral gains indicated serious problems the party suffers from.
Its lacklustre electoral performance was the latest episode in a series of setbacks the PTI has suffered since 2014, when its sit-in in Islamabad failed to change the political status quo and its allegations of widespread and systematic election rigging were largely dismissed by a judicial commission in 2015. When a subsequent by-election in Lahore saw the PMLN’s Ayaz Sadiq fend off a spirited challenge from the PTI’s Aleem Khan, the loss only made a tremor feel like a disaster.
The by-election took place in one of the four constituencies at the heart of Imran Khan’s allegation that the 2013 polls were rigged. After an election tribunal unseated Sadiq over rigging charges, the PTI claimed its stance was vindicated and expected to use the decision to its advantage — but without success.
The only exception in 2015 was a by-election in Lodhran that the PTI secretary general, Jahangir Tareen, won by a wide margin against his PMLN rival. Tareen, however, is precisely the sort of constituency politician – with tremendous financial resources at his disposal and the backing of kinship networks – that the PTI vows to change.
At the start of 2016, therefore, it seemed that the PTI’s strategy in Punjab had largely failed. It was reasonable to expect that Imran Khan would pivot towards grass-roots work, using ideology – as well as the party’s record in governing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – to prepare his party’s cadres in each constituency for the 2018 election.
Several PTI leaders had the same opinion. A senior PTI parliamentarian from Punjab suggested “great organisation” is the only way to overcome barriers to electoral victory. Another leader from the province argued that the PTI’s main problem was its inability to communicate its proposals – on corruption and governance – to a wide swath of society. A key figure in the party’s women’s wing said: “We [should] show [the voters] that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been our main example; the goal has been to abolish corruption.”
In the early half of 2016, the Panama Leaks helped Imran Khan ignore all this advice. He, instead, doubled down on the tactics he had employed in the past. As a major opposition party, the PTI was well within its right to demand accountability of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family over foreign assets revealed in the Panama Leaks and to use protest as a legitimate means to ensure that. The government’s constant stonewalling over the terms of reference – under which a commission could be set up to investigate the allegations – only further justified the PTI’s warnings for a protest. That the party should have exhausted other judicial and parliamentary options before embarking on protests only became obvious from its own recourse to these institutions after the failure of its agitation.
As was the case in 2014, Imran Khan again became single-mindedly focused on removing Nawaz Sharif from premiership and toppling his government. These objectives assume a sinister significance in a country with a history of overt and covert military intervention in politics. Less charitable explanations for Imran Khan’s behaviour suggest he is – knowingly or unknowingly – a puppet being controlled by shadowy forces in the establishment wanting to cut Nawaz Sharif’s government down to size.
Taimur Rahman, an assistant professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, claims that the PTI’s 2014 dharna started out as an attempt to gauge the military’s support for a movement aimed at toppling the government. It only picked up steam once assurances of that support came, he says. This, according to him, was confirmed with Javed Hashmi’s public departure from the party.
These assertions are difficult to substantiate. Party insiders say their rhetoric and symbolism was misread. A PTI district president in Punjab says Imran Khan’s repeated invocations of the “Third Umpire” – widely believed to mean the military – actually referred to God. “[Imran Khan] always raises a finger and points towards the sky [when he mentions] the Third Umpire,” the party office-bearer says.
A member of the PTI’s central executive committee suggests something similar: “We do meet the generals and the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] officials … but are they dictating our policies? No … Are we willing to do the bidding of the military? No, we are not.”
Even if allegations of collusion between the PTI and the military have been false, the calls for protests brought to light many contradictions in Imran Khan’s politics. First and foremost, ever since his abortive 2014 dharna, there has been more than a whiff of suspicion that the acquisition of power is of greater importance for him than the manner in which he can acquire it.
Imran Khan defines himself and his party more in terms of what they are against, rather than what they can deliver. His entire narrative has been about the PMLN, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and other mainstream parties that are ‘inherently corrupt’ and part of a mutually beneficial arrangement, in which they take turns plundering the country. In a speech on September 14, 2014, for example, he called the Charter of Democracy a “joint venture [between the PPP and the PMLN] aimed at plundering Pakistan’s wealth”. He added: “Under the deal, both parties … agreed to loot Pakistan by turns and help each other to wipe out all other parties from the political field through rigging.”
He also promotes the idea that he and his party are outsiders to the political system and offer the only credible means to challenge and change the status quo. But when it comes to demolishing its edifice, his solution sounds simplistic. He argues that putting an end to corruption will automatically fix everything else. There is remarkably little difference between Imran Khan’s vague policy promises and those of his political rivals.
How exactly will Imran Khan deal with corruption? What is the plan for overhauling the bureaucracy and the police, both of which are central to the culture of corruption? How will he empower the parliament and the courts to take stronger measures for accountability? How will he deal with the traditional constituency politicians, who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, given that his electoral victory is likely to be dependent upon them? There are no clear answers, as is evident from the case of the floundering Ehtesab Commission, set up by the party’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkwa earlier last year.
Imran Khan’s views on democratic institutions pose another quandary: just as Trump famously claimed that widespread (and unsubstantiated) rigging meant that any result of the American election – other than his victory – would be invalid, Imran Khan has repeatedly argued that Pakistan’s institutions will not be doing their duty fairly, unless their decisions conform to the PTI’s position.
When Imran Khan claims, as he did on November 14, 2016, that the parliament is “meaningless” and “boring”, it begs the question why he and his party are still interested in the election process and assemblies. A recent report by an Islamabad-based think tank shows he attended only six per cent of the current parliament’s sittings since 2013, making less than a dozen verbal interventions.
His boycotts of the parliament have been as erratic as they have been temporary. He decided not to attend the parliament’s joint session when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed it in November 2016, but reversed the decision a month later to file a privilege motion against Nawaz Sharif. The two decisions, following in quick succession, gave his opponents yet another reason to label him “U-turn Khan”.
Only weeks before that turnabout, he promised to “lock down” Islamabad until action of a largely unspecified nature was taken to hold the Sharifs accountable for the disclosures made in the Panama Leaks. Following massive roadblocks, baton attacks and mass arrests by the government to stop his supporters from converging in Islamabad (as well as some lukewarm support from other opposition parties), Khan appeared to have no alternative plans to ensure the promised lockdown, except press appearances and – more absurdly – a display of his physical fitness by doing push-ups in public. Then, he suddenly called off the sit-in as soon as the Supreme Court started hearing petitions over the Panama Leaks. This was despite the fact that thousands of people were already marching towards Islamabad – especially from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – against numerous life-threatening obstacles.
When asked about these changes, the PTI leaders claim that the Supreme Court’s intervention satisfied their party’s demand for accountability. One party leader, however, admits the changes created “misunderstanding” between the PTI and its partners, such as the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam, which has been helping to organise the protest. Other PTI leaders recall chaotic scenes from the 2013 election, when the party kept changing its candidates in many constituencies, up until the last three weeks before polling.
This kind of decision-making in the PTI belies a political approach that is arbitrary at best and clueless at worst. Echoes of this can be seen in the PTI’s shambolic performance in the Supreme Court during hearings on the Panama Leaks. After months of tall claims that it possesses damning evidence directly implicating Nawaz Sharif, the party’s legal team failed to make a case, let alone an effective one.
One thread that links a lot of criticism of the PTI is the notion that Imran Khan himself is a gifted and visionary leader, with a genuine desire to bring about positive change in Pakistan, but his ‘electable’ advisors are creating problems. One member of the PTI’s central executive committee believes that the powerful party leaders “do not believe in change” because many of them “have been associated with corruption in the past”. One young student leader, affiliated with the PTI, says the presence of ‘electables’ means that the party cannot “stay true to its core ideology”.
But this argument that Imran Khan is somehow distinct from his advisers is flawed. If he possesses as great a political acumen as his followers claim, then why does he allow himself to be misled by any other leader in the party? Given that the PTI is essentially built around Imran Khan, the buck stops with him.
This is as true for the PTI’s internal structure and strategy as it is for broader questions of ideology and alliance-making. As someone campaigning for change, Imran Khan should have shunned alliances with traditional constituency politicians. As a self-proclaimed democrat, he should have found it impossible to work with politicians and parties tainted by association with the military establishment. As a self-declared moderate, he should have no hesitation in condemning extremist organisations that often extend support to him, as the affiliates of Lal Masjid did in the run-up to his latest protest call.
It could be argued that all these contradictions are par for the course in Pakistani politics and that it is not fair to hold Imran Khan to higher standards than his opponents. It is true that he is held to higher standards — but that is because he promises change premised on the idea that he and his party are different.
Pakistan urgently needs a credible alternative to Nawaz Sharif’s ineffective handling of the economy and his tendency to centralise power. Imran Khan and the PTI could have offered an effective check on the PMLN, especially after the PPP’s collapse in Punjab. But instead, the country is left with a leader who spends time doing push-ups with rock stars and vacationing with old buddies, even when the parliament is in session to discuss matters of serious import.
The way the PTI is constituted, it lacks both an ideology and a political machine required to pose a serious challenge to the PMLN in the next election. It will, therefore, remain a party of protest, relying on populism and the personal appeal of Imran Khan to mobilise support for itself. This strategy has failed in the past and is likely to fail again, barring a rather unexpected ouster of the Nawaz Sharif government as a result of court hearings into the Panama Leaks.
This article was written as part of the Person of the Year series for the Herald's Annual 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.