People & Society

Controversies and contradictions dog Imran Khan’s political rise

Published 17 Aug, 2018 01:29am
Photo by AFP
Photo by AFP

On November 17, 2011, Imran Khan addressed a press conference at his Zaman Park residence in Lahore. Among the crowd gathered around him to speak to the media were some former members of the national and provincial assemblies and ex-local government representatives from Sheikhupura distric, preparing to join his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Also, present inhis and out on the street were a number of what the educated segments of Pakistani society disapprovingly call ‘professional’ politicians and their hangers-on, dressed in starched white shalwar-kameez suits. The usual young, hip crowd supporting Khan seemed to have already been overshadowed, if not outnumbered, by the strong presence of what in PTI’s parlance is a ‘tried and tested’ lot.

From being a fringe politician to becoming a political force in the making, Khan ‘arrived’ on the national political landscape mainly on the shoulders of a following that had a large virtual presence on the social media websites and championed a clean, honourable, principle-based politics of change. But merely a month after unfurling his banner of change at what his supporters like to categorise as a historic rally in Lahore on October 28, his stance on many issues and his resolve for clean, principled politics appear to be either diluting or becoming even more ambiguous.

The search for electable candidates seems to have placed the former cricketer in a compromising position as he tries to translate his public support into votes (see All the Khan’s Men). As PTI expands, it is changing its complexion. This was evident from Khan’s press conference, where men joining his party all came from Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ). According to a television journalist covering the event, it is only a matter of time when PTI will be indistinguishable from PMLQ or Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) as it continues embracing more electables.

This is in contrast with what Khan has repeatedly pledged — that he will introduce new, educated and clean faces as his election candidates. He, however, rejects the criticism that he is compromising his agenda of change by accepting traditional politicians in the party. “Our doors are open to everyone except those who have not declared their true assets, plundered the country and stashed away the looted money in foreign banks,” Khan has repeatedly said in his encounters with the media. “But only the untainted and honest will be chosen for party’s election tickets.”

In practice, though, the situation is far from this ideal. Khan himself has explained that he might have to depend on the existing lot of politicians in the villages due to the unique dynamics of rural politics. Even in urban areas, the party’s track record in awarding election tickets for by-polls leaves a lot to be desired as, for instance, in the case of Mian Hamid Meraj who fought and lost a Lahore by-election in 2010. His father Mian Merajdin had to resign from the Punjab government of Shahbaz Sharif in 1990s under the charges of stealing electricity.

Dr Arif Alvi, PTI secretary general, justifies the change as if PTI is doing it only to satisfy the media. “When we take clean and untainted people you say they will not get elected. Now when the so-called electable candidates are scrambling to join PTI, you are criticising us for accepting them.” He, however, admits that the real test for PTI and its leadership lies in maintaining the “purity of the party and its candidates”.

This will be a tough task. Ever since PTI’s Lahore rally, traditional politicians have made a beeline to join the party. Some of them like the Dogars and the Virks of Sheikhupura and Sardars and Tammans of Chakwal have been tarnished both due to their association with tainted parties and because of their personal track record in power. One of the Dogars is widely known in his own area as a petty criminal who also benefitted from his association with PMLN in early 1990s by getting his son employed as a tehsildar in the Punjab revenue department. A Tamman resigned from the National Assembly only last year when reports emerged that his graduation degree was fake.

Analysts say the traditional politicians are joining Khan because there is a growing perception among them that the powerful military establishment in general and Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in particularly are backing him and his party. According to this perception, the establishment is unhappy with President Asif Ali Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) because of the allegations of massive corruption, the government’s pro-United States tilt in the ‘war on terror’ and its inability to salvage the sliding economy.

The second piece in this perception puzzle is that Nawaz Sharif and his PMLN have become unacceptable to the establishment because of the hard-line stance that Nawaz Sharif has taken over the military’s continued involvement and interference in political affairs. Hence, to sum it up, the need for a third force to prevent a strong government by any of the two big parties as well as to implement the establishment’s security and foreign policies agendas.

“Prima facie Imran Khan is being supported by the establishment,” says Mohammad Waseem, a professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He cites the widely circulated theory that Khan and his PTI are being propped up to curtail PMLN’s power-base in urban Punjab and says: “Khan’s harangue against PMLN lends support to this theory.”

Historical parallels suggest that the establishment may be once again at its old game of making and breaking political parties and rendering the political field more level for its favourites. In 2002, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf created PMLQ by encouraging desertions from PMLN in order to legitimise his rule. Later, he used ISI and the newly-established National Accountability Bureau to create a ‘Patriot’ group among PPP’s parliamentarians and gave this construct the finishing touch by merging PMLQ, PPP Patriots and National Alliance led by former president Farooq Leghari into PML.

The irony is that Khan was campaigning for Musharraf until April 2002 referendum when all this political restructuring started and he left the military ruler’s camp frustrated and disgusted at such shenanigans. Today, he appears to be the beneficiary of a fresh round of a purported military-backed political shake-up and does not seem to have any problems with it. As someone who has spent more than 16 years in the political wilderness, Khan cannot be faulted for savouring the sudden rise in his popularity, no matter how it came about.

Analysts see his views on Pakistan’s relations with Washington, Islamabad’s involvement in the America-led war against terrorism and his rather vague answers to questions over the military’s dominance of domestic politics and foreign policy all pointing to just one direction: the army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi. Suhail Warraich, a senior Lahore-based journalist and political commentator, feels Khan is actually airing the establishment’s views on the war on terror and Pakistan’s relations with America when he favours dialogue with the Taliban, strengthening doubts that he is being propped up by the powers-that-be.

Khan’s opponents gleefully agree. “How come a politician is transformed into a popular political force overnight, threatening to eliminate the country’s two major political forces?” wonders a federal minister, who prefers to remain anonymous. Alvi rejects the criticism and argues that the crowds that Khan is attracting are not because of some covert support from the military and intelligence but the result of patience and hard work. “The Lahore rally was a result of 16 years of hard work,” he says.

Having tasted the fruit of patience, will PTI and Khan successfully carry the political momentum they have achieved into the next election? This is a critical question as some of their core supporters may be already re-evaluating the situation. When Basharat Ahmed, a resident of Lahore’s Muslim Town area, and his six friends went to PTI rally at Minar-e-Pakistan, they had already made up their mind to vote for Khan as the “new face of change and hope”. A few weeks afterwards, their resolve is weakening. “I fear that the fight for votes between PTI and PMLN will benefit only Zardari,” he says.

Ahmed is not the only one who has this apprehension of a division in the anti-PPP vote, at least in Punjab. As the initial euphoria of the Lahore rally wears off, there is growing anxiety among religious parties and traditionally anti-PPP voters over the possibility of such a development. Warraich explains this when he says that Khan’s support is the strongest in Punjab’s urban areas like Lahore, Gujranwala and Faisalabad, which traditionally represent right-wing politics and where PMLN has had a strong electoral showing in may polls in the past.

The onus is ultimately on Khan to probe to his supporters and the rest of the right-wing voters that he is a serious contender for power and not just a spoiler who is out to marginalise PMLN and its leadership. But that is not the only challenge he faces. He is yet to show to the people that his popularity is not confined to parts of the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – mostly areas such as Bajaur and Peshawar valley – and among Punjab’s educated urban middle class, especially the youth, whose vast majority doesn’t generally vote.

“Khan’s core followers are Punjab’s educated, urban middle-class people, mostly the youth, who are completely disgusted with the major political parties and politicians because of corruption and poor governance,” points out Waseem. “Apart from that, he has anti-America rhetoric,” he says, and adds: “Khan’s social support base does not have the critical mass, and the majority of the people he has mobilised so far do not vote.”

Others concur. “Khan has thrown a challenge to the major parties by organizing a big rally in Lahore but he has a long way to go and needs to establish himself at an all-Pakistan level to beat them,” argues Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst. For Warraich, too, Khan’s Lahore rally is not the ultimate evidence that PTI will sweep the next election. “The ultimate evidence of his popularity will be the number of people voting for him in the election,” he says.

To translate his support into votes, Khan is relying on his personality as well as his much-celebrated stance on the corruption allegedly committed by the members and the leaders of the two main parties. His other pledges to restore the country’s honour and sovereignty – which he says the ruling coalition has undermined by allowing America to carry out drone attacks and plunging the country and military into the war on terror – is something that is close to the heart of the urban middle-class as well as right-wing groups (see Show Me The Difference).

Many link his emergence as a political force with the agenda of people like General (retd) Hameed Gul to consolidate the hold of the right-wing over national politics, a process that began with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s declaration of Ahmedis as non-Muslims in 1974 and peaked under General Ziaul Haq.

Alvi responds by saying that PTI is neither a secular party nor a theocratic organization. He insists that it is misleading to say that “we have never condemned terrorism,” adding that “our leader and our party are totally against terrorism of any kind — whether it involves an individual, a group, the military or state.” It will be difficult, however, for PTI to distance itself – without paying a political price – from what its opponent call its pro-Taliban stance to show the world that it is not a right-wing party. Khan’s recent statement declaring himself a liberal has already cost him the wrath of the Taliban who described him as a “slave of the United States and Europe”.

A day later Khan made a visible effort to explain his position in a press conference. “There must be a misconception in the minds of the Taliban about the definition of liberalism. Yes. I am a liberal. I’m a follower of Allama Iqbal who was a liberal,” he told the media gathered to see former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief Masood Sharif join PTI. Then he said it seemed that those forces which had played a role in blaming the Taliban for Benazir Bhutto’s assassination were behind the statement. Was he trying to absolve the Taliban of issuing the statement against him? And what forces was he alluding to? The answers remain unavailable.

Later, when in an interview with an Indian television channel Khan avoided naming Jamatud Dawa as a part of militant groups he would stop from operating out of Pakistan after coming to power, his discomfort and dilemma both became apparent. He told his interviewer that he did not want to become a hero by naming names. But even while speaking with such great caution, he could not avoid falling on the wrong side of some right-wing groups, potentially containing his supporters, when he explained how Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down by his own guard , Mumtaz Qadri, now seen by many as a hero.

And this is where the problem lies for some of his actual and potential supporters. Many people are worried about his half-cooked stand on issues critical to the future of the country. A senior journalist, requesting anonymity, explains the pushes and pulls of contradictory forces on Khan’s politics and the challenges they pose. “Khan is born out of a marriage between Zia’s Pakistan and Musharraf’s Pakistan . A large number of Pakistanis who support him are hopeful that he will be able to reconcile the legacies of both dictators,” he argues.

But this reconciliation cannot happen without losing something here and gaining something there. Khan and PTI cannot keep everyone happy all the time. “Khan will find it extremely difficult to maintain a balance between friends such as militancy and extremism that is generally traced to Zia’s time and the assertive middle-class whose values are rooted in affluent Pakistan of the Musharraf days. Others before him have tried but failed,” says the journalist.

While he argues that past failures do not mean that people are no longer willing to make political compromises, Waseem points to another problem with Khan and his politics.

“For his supporters, Khan is an exit option [from today’s politics],” he says. “But they don’t know what is beyond him and they don’t understand the ramifications of his views.”

This article was published in the Herald's December 2011 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a chief reporter at the daily Dawn in Lahore.