Five thoughts on the Imran Khan rally
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Five thoughts on the Imran Khan rally

Yes, I’m about 10 days late with this, but I’ve been super busy, so this is really my first chance to talk about the PTI rally in Lahore and what it implies. I am sure you were waiting with bated breath for this.


"The world is coming down, the flags are up..." Photo: AP

1. There are some parallels between Imran Khan and Zulfi Bhutto

Obviously no PPP jiyala, or even the oh-so-sophisticated cadre of supporters the PPP has in the English-speaking upper crust of Pakistani society, would buy this, but hear me out.

First, the PPP was regularly dismissed as inconsequential in the run up to the 1970 elections. It was an upstart party, but no one really thought it would do much. It ended up dominating West Pakistan (84 out of 138 seats). I don’t think the PTI has a shot in hell of anything close to that, but it bears mentioning that being dismissed as inconsequential in the years before the election does not translate into actual irrelevance. The proof will be in the election pudding.

Second, both ZAB and Imran tapped into a segment of society that contemporary politicians did not really speak to. In ZAB’s case, it was about the rural poor — supporters and detractors of ZAB agree that the one point on which his legacy is secure is in taking politics to the people. Similarly, Imran’s support in the upper middle classes of Pakistan, an essentially apolitical class if there ever was one, speaks to his ability to craft a message heard by a previously inactive sector of the wider body politic. How much this matters remains to be seen, but it is most certainly the case that the language and symbolism the PTI employs is aimed at people who were never part of the political process. That the upper middle class is now politicized is a testament to the consistency of message the PTI has deployed.

2. Getting people involved in politics is a good thing

One of my pet complaints about the discourse in Pakistan is the desire for “easy” solutions — such as an “honest leader” or some such — rather than focusing on the hard work of letting the political process play out, and institutions build over time, with trial and error.

Obviously PTI supporters have bought into this idea that Imran Khan represents a serious change from the status quo, and as such, could be justifiably accused of falling into exactly that trap, the trap that says “elect one guy, and all your problems will go away”.

But there’s another way of thinking about this, and it goes like this: Imran Khan is getting people involved in the political process. Ultimately, that’s a good thing. It gives people a stake in the system, and it ensures that they pay attention to what’s going on, rather than complaining from the sidelines.

Moreover, the very messy nature of the political process will be made evident to PTI supporters starting, oh, about now. This in turn will dampen their often vicious and often ahistorical criticism of the status quo.

For example, PTI supporters often say that every other party and politician in Pakistan is corrupt. Okay, fine. I don’t actually believe that, but let’s assume it’s true (and that it matters). But what happens when, as a result of this show of strength in Lahore, the PTI starts attracting those same unsavory characters? If you want to win seats in Pakistan, it doesn’t stretch the imagination to think that you may need a bad apple or two along the way.

As an illustration, read this piece by Badar Alam in Dawn the other day, particularly this bit:

In at least Khyber Pakhtunkhwa some of his would-be electoral candidates represent the exact antithesis of his anti-politics ideology — they are professional politicians who have changed political loyalties in the past, and some have unenviable political track records. Two of his main people in KP are Iftikhar Jhagra and Khwaja Khan Hoti. Both are the scions of political dynasties in their respective areas and both carry political baggage that may not measure up to the great expectations Mr Khan’s core supporters harbour.

Mr Jhagra is a four-time member of the provincial assembly from the Pakistan Peoples’ Party and a cousin of Iqbal Zafar Jhagra, who happens to be a senior leader of the PML-N. The former has left the PPP because he fears that he will not get a party ticket for the next election under an anticipated seat adjustment between the PPP and the Awami National Party. Mr Hoti was the PPP provincial chief for much of the 2000s before he joined the ANP just in time for the 2008 election. Even today he remains a member of the National Assembly from the ANP, though Mr Khan has claimed on a number of occasions that he will soon resign and formally join the PTI. Mr Hoti comes from the family of Nawab Akbar Khan Hoti, who was a member of the All India Muslim League. Another prominent member of the family was Nawabzada Abdul Ghafoor Hoti, who remained the governor of the then North West Frontier Province under Gen Ziaul Haq. In its earlier incarnation the PTI had Nawabzada Mohsin Ali Khan as its main man in the NWFP and, quite like Messers Jhagra and Hoti, he has been in and out of almost all political parties in the province. So much for Mr Khan’s antipathy towards family-based politics and his supporters’ disgust for politicos who represent and serve their personal and family interests whichever party they join.

In Punjab, Mr Khan’s choice of candidates is even more suspect. In a 2010 by-election in Lahore he gave his party’s ticket to one Mian Hamid Meraj, who happened to be the son of Mian Meraj Din, a one-time excise minister in the Punjab government of Shahbaz Sharif in the 1990s who was forced to resign from his cabinet post under allegations of electricity theft. The main reason why Mr Din and his family remain in the business of politics is that they come from an influential local family of Lahore that has its biradri vote bank in some parts of the city. Zaheer Abbas Khokhar, a possible PTI candidate in the next election, became a member of the National Assembly on a PPP ticket in 2002 before joining the PPP-Patriots, which eventually dissolved itself into the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam, the much-maligned faction of the League under the much-maligned Chaudharys of Gujrat. He is also the nephew of Malik Karamat Khokhar, who was a PPP candidate in the 2008 election. Another intending PTI candidate is Rasheed Bhatti, a one-time PPP member of the Punjab Assembly who created a small stir in 1989 by insisting that he will use only Punjabi in his speeches in the assembly and who is known for his many family feuds and property disputes. His brother, Jameel Bhatti, was once the head of the People’s Students’ Federation, the student wing of the PPP, at Quaid-i-Azam University in the early 1990s. The two latest entrants in the PTI from Lahore are Mian Azhar and Farooq Amjad Mir. The former was the governor of Punjab when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister in the 1990s before the two had a falling-out. After Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf took over power from Nawaz Sharif, Mr Azhar was the head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Likeminded — the first batch of League people who opted to side with the military ruler after his 1999 coup. He eventually lost not just the leadership of the faction to the Chaudharys but also lost two successive elections — in 2002 and 2008 — on a PML-Q ticket to relative political lightweights. Mr Mir was the naib nazim of Lahore in 2004 when he fought and won a by-election for the National Assembly from Lahore as a PML-Q candidate. In 2008, he lost badly to a PML-N opponent and has been in the political wilderness since then before resurrecting himself in the PTI, which is, in fact, where he had started his political career in 1996.

In my view, this is a good thing. It shows PTI supporters what “normal” politics looks like, and that “change” — such as it is — won’t come about by revolution, but bit by bit. Once they see their own party engaging in this type of behavior, it will (hopefully) dawn on them that the idea of politics as a “clean” enterprise is ridiculous.

3. Imran Khan should be compared to other politicians fairly

I have been guilty of this myself, so let me be the first to say that it is wrong to grade Imran and the PTI on a different curve than other parties. We often complain that Imran’s agenda policy-wise is essentially non-existent, and that his ideas for reform are simplistic and naive.

That may well be the case, but it is also the case that other parties’ agendas are quite bare (I once wrote a piece for Dawn on this issue, if you happen to care). So if Imran’s reform agenda is quite light on the policy side, well, there’s plenty more where that came from.

My buddy Farooq emailed me on this point, the idea that we should have the same metric of judging Imran as we do for the other parties and leaders. Here’s his email in full:

I’m not disputing that Imran’s solutions are vague and simplistic and that his supporters are defensive. But don’t they have to be given the particular strategic position they are in and the tricky terrain that is the political landscape?

Look, Imran’s platform is basically “Zardari/Nawaz are such hopelessly shit alternatives that ure better off electing a bunch of dogs to run the country and because dogs cant read, write or speak you may as well vote for my party instead”. Now, isn’t that fair enough? That’s his proposition and if you think that the PPP and PML(N) can do a better job than just ignore him.

But to expect a guy who has minimal political capital and no established grass-roots vote bank to answer difficult and politically sensitive questions is a tad bit unreasonable. I’m not saying we should just ignore the weaknesses in his policies and let his good looks and charisma take him straight into the office. But i think it’s damn unfair to expect him to take on questions regarding the religious right and the military, two of the most polarizing issues in our political system. Just strategically, it doesn’t make sense for him to ask those difficult questions because he risks being marginalized more than he already is. You don’t seen PML(N) going after extremist elements in Pakistan with any particular zeal. And PPP, by virtue of being in power, is very measured in its limited critique of the army. What I’m saying is that it would just be a bad move strategically for him to take a view or focus on really difficult issues. Lets take an example. Lets say I’m a new entry into the political arena like Imran and running on a platform which seeks to diminish the influence of religion in our legal system. It would be STUPID of me to even try and touch the blasphemy law because (a) i risk alienating a HUGE cross-section of society and (b) i might get my ass killed.

I don’t see PTI supporters as defensive. I just don’t think they should be scrutinized, critiqued and questioned with the same verve reserved for larger more established parties. Pakistan is a complex country struggling with convoluted issues. There is no easy answer and any one solution will undoubtedly destroy your credibility with a set of voters. To expect a new, alternative party to come up with such answers and risk losing ANY voters with proposed solutions is unfair.

Agreed. On the other hand, it’s also worth considering this angle from Mosharraf Zaidi:

Since police reform is such an important topic, it would be prudent for the PTI to have some kind of plan to tackle the issue. Right now, other than the fiery rhetoric it is not entirely clear that such a plan exists.

Other parties also spew the same rhetoric. And other parties also do not seem to have any plan. But the PTI supporters can’t just excuse their party with this kind of an explanation. They’ll have to do much, much better. Why? Because they claim to be much, much better.

4. Imran Khan still scares me

I have tried to be nice and reasonable in this post, but allow me to say that Imran’s view on foreign policy, and in particular the war against the Taliban, are legitimately dangerous. His views completely miss the point of what the threat is, where the threat is coming from, and what can be done about it. The fact that his foreign policy/war “advisers” seem to be the likes of Shireen Mazari and Hamid Gul is very, very scary. Just read this bit from Declan Walsh’s piece on the PTI:

“Anyone who thinks this country will be taken over by Taliban are fools. There’s no concept of a theocracy anywhere in the Muslim world for the past 1,400 years. If I came to power, I could end this conflict in 90 days – guaranteed.”

Khan’s choice of allies, many of them veterans of previous political dispensations, has also been controversial. Khan’s foreign policy adviser, Shireen Mazari, is famously hostile to India; when editing a national newspaper she ran stories that branded British, Australian and American journalists as “CIA agents”.

“I don’t agree with her on everything. We give her hell on certain views,” he says.

Yet Khan is defiantly proud that his newfound success is vindication against what he calls the “liberal, westernised elite” – wealthy, English-speaking Pakistanis who, he claims, are out of touch with the realities of their own country. “I call them coconuts: brown on the outside, white on the inside, looking at Pakistan through a westernised lens,” he says.

Ah yes, the Coconuts! God, isn’t it awful how English-speaking Pakistanis go around blowing themselves up in mosques, markets and shrines, and go about shooting politicians like Salman Taseer and Shahzad Bhatti, and bombing girls schools, and killing Hazara Shias in Balochistan? If only there were no Coconuts in Pakistan, the country would be so much more peaceful!

Also, “there’s no concept of a theocracy anywhere in the Muslim world for the past 1,400 years”? Really? I mean, really? How is an educated person supposed to respond to this comment?

5. Success breeds success, but PTI better not get its hopes up outside Punjab and KP

It is obviously the case that awesome shows of strength, such as the Lahore jalsa, will attract turncoats from other parties, and thus lead to a greater likelihood of a greater number of seats. Those turncoats flipping will in turn encourage yet others sitting on the fence to put their lot in with PTI. So in that sense, from an electoral point of view, I can see PTI being moderately successful in the next elections (I guessed a while ago on Twitter that it would be about 10-15 seats, I may go as high as 20 at this point but no higher).

However, it’s important to note just how circumscribed this support is. As Aasim Sajjad Akhtar lays out,

It is important to ascertain the exact ethnic and class composition of Imran Khan’s (growing) political camp. The first thing that stands out is that the PTI has almost no presence south of Jhang. In other words, his major sources of support are in northern and central Punjab, and in some parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). This is reflected in some of Imran’s long-standing political demands that revolve around fairly abstract notions such as ‘sovereignty’. For example, the motif of drone attacks has driven many of the PTI’s political actions over the past few years. When push comes to shove, such concerns may be shared by a not insignificant segment of society in upper Punjab and KPK, but resonate with only pockets of people in Sindh, the Siraiki belt, and Balochistan.

This hypothesis will only be tested if and when the PTI attempts to organise another mass gathering in, say, Hyderabad, Sukkur or Multan. The ultimate test will of course be the general election itself when voters are asked to determine if they really do want to make Imran Khan the ‘third option’ (notwithstanding the prospect of the omnipresent intelligence agencies manipulating what is supposed to be a popular mandate).

Plus, the PPP and MQM are so safely ensconced in Sindh, that I really see no one breaking up that duopoly. This is not to say that gains in Punjab and KP are or will be insignificant, only to note the boundaries of PTI’s support.

In other words, the prospect of Imran Khan becoming Prime Minister is highly, highly unlikely. The PTI will not have the numbers. Any electoral alliance that involves them will feature someone more “deserving” of leadership roles than him, based on seniority and cache alone.

To feature in a governing coalition, PTI has to almost by definition be allied either with the PPP or PML(N). In neither case would the other party simply hand over control of the government to what remains a relative political novice. In almost any permutation of an electoral alliance that controls the parliament, PTI and Imran would be a junior member. (The only exception I can think of this would be a right of center alliance between the JI, JUI, MQM and PTI, but I hardly think those parties would have enough seats, even if the Q League types join them).