By Aryaman Bhatnagar
The rise of Imran Khan this year has been one of the most positive developments in Pakistani politics. What can account for his newfound popularity? Is he capable of ‘sweeping’ the 2013 elections as he claims? What are his relations with the military? And what impact can that have on his political fortunes?
Imran Khan has had a highly lacklustre political career so far. His party, the Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) has only won one seat so far – Imran Khan’s in Mianwali in 2002 – since its formation in 1996. However, the massive PTI rallies held in Lahore, and especially Karachi, which can hardly be considered his political domain, seemed to have announced Khan’s arrival at the centre stage of Pakistani politics and put him forward as an alternative to the established political leadership.
His recent wave of popularity, which Khan refers to as the ‘tsunami’, can be attributed to the growing disillusionment of the people with the incumbent government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and its principal opposition, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). Khan by focussing on highly emotive and relevant issues has managed to exploit this dissatisfaction to his full advantage. For instance, he has been a strong opponent of corruption and has pledged to end it within 90 days of coming to power. Similarly, his stance against the alliance with the US, and especially his criticism of the drone attacks, are winning support. Moreover, his own clean image, charisma and fame as a former cricketer set him apart from the other politicians allowing him to muster a large enough fan following to be considered a force to reckon with.
However, Khan is yet to come up with any serious prescriptions for solving Pakistan’s problems. His speeches are full of rhetoric and high-sounding phrases rather than details on how he intends to tackle the most pressing issues. When he has offered solutions they have been described as being ‘idealistic to the extent of being simplistic’. For instance, he believes that by setting a good example himself, he would be able to tackle the endemic problem of corruption and inspire people to pay taxes, which is crucial for reviving the crumbling economy.
Moreover, Khan’s support base, for now, seems to be restricted largely to the urban and young middle class of Punjab. He has very little to offer to the rural population, which constitutes more than 60 per cent of the total population in Pakistan. According to Haider Nizamani, a lecturer at the University of British Columbia, “no party can have a shot at forming a government without having adequate roots in rural Pakistan.”
In the absence of a coherent political message, ideology or programme he is unlikely to make a significant dent in the traditional vote-banks of the other political parties. This is especially true for Sindh and Balochistan, where (apart from Karachi) he is completely out of touch with the local problems and aspirations. Take his focus on development to end the Baloch alienation, for example. It overlooks the fact that ‘development’ has a negative connotation in the Baloch perception as it is associated with the systematic exploitation of Balochistan’s natural resources and a constant denial of political rights. Thus, at this stage, it seems that Punjab may remain the main political arena for Khan, where he can hope to achieve some success by eating into the votes of the PML-N. This will not help Khan to exceed the very moderate tally of the estimated 20-40 seats in the National Assembly.
Kayani’s preferred politician?
A number of political analysts and Khan’s political opponents have claimed that his sudden rise has been possible only due to the silent backing of the military. Mushahidullah Khan, PML-N’s information secretary claims that the “PTI is getting closer to the establishment with every passing day” (The Express Tribune, 26 December 2011). It is believed that the massive rallies in politically important cities like Lahore and Karachi and the defection of prominent politicians to the PTI would not have been possible without the blessings of the military. Moreover, Khan for all his talks about respecting democracy has not once criticized the military, even at the two major rallies.
If the military is backing Khan, it is important to question how much of an impediment his shortcomings would be to his political fortunes. At face value, it would seem that the establishment’s support could help Khan to sweep the elections. However, according to an Indian expert on Pakistan, the military, while definitely propping up Khan, would also like to maintain its distance from him at the same time. This is because the rigging of elections in favour of Khan could have a boomerang effect on the already unpopular military, especially since the people expect free and fair elections and the established parties have yet to lose their capacity of winning votes.
Thus, at present, it seems that even with the military’s support for Khan, he could at best form a formidable opposition, but his political naivety and lack of a proper plan of action could prevent him from doing any better.
Research Intern, IPCS
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