People & Society

Imran Khan: Creating the biggest political storm of the year

Published Aug 16, 2018 02:30am

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Photo by AP
Photo by AP

You could see him as the power-hungry man atop a container,operating at the behest of the military and out to undermine Pakistan's democratic progression. Or you could cast him as the principled leader who stuck to his guns, and defied all those who had predicted that he would settle for a face-saver and go home — all for a fair electoral system, a prerequisite to the consolidation of democracy.

Ether way, Khan has influenced Pakistani politics – and indeed Pakistan's future – in monument always in 2014. Between his famous Lahore jalsa in October 2011 and the May 2013 election, he had managed to change the tenor of Pakistani politics by rallying the middle-class urban youth. As a result, he forced his opponents to scamper for new wooing strategies to keep their bases energised and start paying attention to issues such as corruption and meritocracy during their election campaigns. Like him or not, you can't take this away from him.

In 2014, Khan channelled the energies of his supporters in ways no one could have foreseen. He proved that he could keep them with him even when his politics seems suicidal to many. But, while his achievements in the outgoing year have been mostly positive for his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), they have left Pakistan a worse place than what it was a year ago. For each positive development attributable to his container movement, there is a negative that overshadows it.

For starters, admittedly, it is not a trivial achievement for Khan to have kept his supporters mobilised. The victory of the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) in the 2013 election could easily have deflated the PTI rank and file, especially the younger ones, mainly because Khan's party machine was fairly rudimentary at the grass-roots level. On the other hand, Khan may have done a great disservice by mobilising the energies of the youth around demands that reject the very norms of democracy. Simply put, his message from the container was that he would much rather let the system crash than be part of it:get Nawaz Sharif out unconstitutionally, bring in an interim set-up unconstitutionally, and fix the electoral system through new rules created by this unconstitutional set-up — rules that give him a better chance at winning. The key here is the unconstitutional part.

Everyone who has backed Khan over the past five months must have been convinced that all this is fair. They have bought into the argument that the rules for the democratic game are not sacrosanct— break them when they don’t suit you, especially if you can justify that as being good for democracy. This argument is dangerously close to the narratives which accompanied military takeovers in the past. Purists will, indeed, tell you that Khan’s approach to electoral reforms and consolidation of democracy are an oxymoron.

PTI supporters at a rally in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad
PTI supporters at a rally in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad

The next positive: Khan is the first leader since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to have framed his popular discourse in the language of citizens’ rights. He hasn't received the credit he deserves for this— in a society so despondent about its future and so skeptical about the state's resolve to deliver on its social contract, this is an invaluable contribution. Decode what he has been saying and you will find that it is essentially the roti-kapra-makaan philosophy repackaged for the modern era: justice is a right; a corruption-free government is a right; basic necessities of life are a right and Pakistanis must stand up for them.

But again, Khan has not said anything on how to achieve this. Throughout his time on the container, he seemed unprepared to talk substance. More tellingly, he seemed reluctant to share anything his team has achieved in PTI- ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for realising this rights-based agenda. His basic message can be reduced to this: I am your man; I’ll deliver. Period. This is more becoming of a cult leader than a democrat heading a party that is arguably Pakistan’s second-largest,and the one that claims to be different.

Next — and this is perhaps the most consequential. Khan ostensibly set out to strengthen Pakistan’s democracy by asking for electoral reforms. No quibbles with this: we need reforms and the status quo parties are too insecure to allow these reforms willingly. Khan has done fairly well on this front. He (thankfully) failed to force Prime Minister Sharif out of office but the government will not be able to getaway without addressing this issue in some form. He has generated too much hype, focus and momentum for it to let it fizzle out completely.Granted, a lot is still left to be desired but one can rest assured that the next election will be held under a fairer system than the one we have now.

The paradox here is that Khan has not only left the PMLN government weaker, but he may also have made Prime Minister Imran Khan a failure even before getting a sniff of the coveted office. The first effect is obvious: the PMLN seemed woefully short of creative ideas to deal with the man on the container. Every counter-move it conceived made it look worse and the government did take a fairly massive economic hit due to the dharnas even if not nearly as much as it claims.

Politically, this is great news for Khan. The government will take months to recover. Already struggling to perform due to its internal weaknesses and sure to be hurt by he incumbency factor in the next election in any case, the electoral challenge facing the PMLN whenever it comes, has become daunting. The PTI would want the government to continue spending its energy entirely on saving its skin rather than on delivering.

Photo by AFP
Photo by AFP

But what of Khan himself? He has set a precedent – a dangerous one –that will likely come back to haunt him.He has argued for four months that no electricity, no water and gas,skyrocketing prices, a government running around the world with a begging bowl and terrorist violence are enough reasons to bring down the government. Really! Exactly which one of these problems does he think he will be able to fix in the first year of his government? Does he really believe that he will be immune from Messrs Sharif and Asif Zardari plopping a container in Islamabad, separately or together, and readingback his own script to him?

Don’t be surprised if 2014 is remembered as a year when out-of-power parties deliberately created instability by bringing people on to the streets and paralysing the government. Dharnas may well be here to stay;Khan may get a taste of his own medicine if and when he is in office.More importantly, the country shall bear the brunt for his protest and those his opponents hold in future.

Perhaps the most immediate effect Khan's 2014 politics has had is to put the army back in the driver’s seat. I certainly don’t buy the argument that the whole container movement was scripted by the military, yet there is no doubt that the army wasn’t exactly silent observer.

Today, the army stands out as the clear winner. It won accolades for not intervening in politics, the government is no longer challenging the army top brass on key foreign policy and internal security issues and, ironically, with his reckless independence, Khan has proven himself, in the army’s eyes, as too risky an option for Pakistan. A pliant Sharif would be better any day than a Khan who doesn't seem to listen to anyone.

All said, Khan’s political footprint has been both deep and wide in 2014. In as much as he has weakened the government, he has gained something for PTI. He,however, hasn’t done so in a way that ought to comfort Pakistanis committed to democratic consolidation. While he is likely to bethe default favourite choice of the people of Pakistan in the next national election, whether – after coming into power – he can get along with the powers that be is a bigger question than most are willing to accept at this point.


*Moeed Yusuf is the associate vice president of Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. He is also the author of 'Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia' (Stanford University Press, 2018).


This article was written as part of the Person of the Year series for the Herald's Annual January 2015 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.