For years, the Lahore urban elite loved to dub him as “Im the dim”, contemptuously dismissing Imran Khan as a dim-witted quixotic politician. The mammoth rally held by him last Sunday at Lahore’s Minar-e-Pakistan, the historic venue where the Pakistan Resolution was adopted in 1940, proved them all wrong. Now the same liberal analysts have crowned Imran as a “game changer” in Pakistani politics.
Whether Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the party the former cricketing hero heads, will be able to translate this outpouring of overwhelming support into a decisive political victory at the hustings is too early to predict. However, tremors across the political spectrum are still being felt.
Predictably, the PML(N) whose heartland has been challenged by Imran is not going to take it lying down. The party’s heavyweight and close confidant of the Sharifs, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has launched a tirade against the PTI chief.
Alluding to his former wife Jemima Khan’s family lineage, Nisar alleged that Imran started his political journey from the house of Jews and that he was a cheat as a cricketer. Instead of facing the stark political reality that the PML(N) is losing its lustre in its till now unchallenged stronghold, its leadership is conveniently hiding behind the canard that Imran is being propped by the establishment.
By cancelling the much-touted Faisalabad rally the PML(N) has implicitly conceded that its game plan to pre-empt Imran’s show by holding its own rally two days earlier was a blunder. It has realised that with Nawaz Sharif vacationing in London it will be difficult to muster sizeable crowds to match Imran’s show in Lahore.
Theoretically, general elections due in early 2013 are still more than a year away. Even if held earlier, Zardari will have them not before the Senate elections due in March 2012. The PML(N)’s strategy to force general elections before the Senate elections or to somehow send the PPP government packing through an in-house change before this deadline seems to be faltering under the Imran Khan factor. Its focus has now shifted from Zardari to countering Imran.
The Sunday rally although a decisive show of strength revealed some chinks in the PTI’s armour. Imran Khan was successful in bringing those elements of the urban elite who though vocal about the failings of the rulers rarely participate in rallies or go out to vote at the time of the elections.
Those who are sceptical about the present political lot and are disillusioned with the performance of PML(N) government in Punjab and the poor governance record of the PPP-led coalition government are flocking around Imran Khan. They consider the PPP and other mainstream parties as corrupt and inept and Imran as a breath of fresh air.
In this sense, Imran is emerging as a third force to be reckoned with. Although he vehemently denies the charge, Imran’s detractors allege that he PTI is being propped up and perhaps financed by Pakistan’s ubiquitous establishment as an alternate to both Nawaz and Zardari.
The throngs of youth who attended the PTI Sunday rally certainly do not fall under the category of “rent-a-crowd” which dominated Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s much smaller rally last Friday.
Nevertheless, Imran Khan has a long way to go if he wants to emerge as a real game-changer in the next elections. While a significant section of Lahoris were present at his rally, there was only a sprinkling of the lower middle class, the urban poor and labour. These classes form the backbone of the PPP and the PML(N)’s support base.
Imran’s speech also lacked the specifics and the vision needed to extricate Pakistan from its present quagmire. Pakistan’s economic malaise needs bold decisions based on imaginative solutions rather than quick fix solutions to lure the voters.
His speech betrayed a certain sense of naiveté on his part. He created the impression that power shortages can be fixed by building dams and the economic mess can be fixed merely by eradicating corruption. Easier said than done.
Imran Khan is a vocal critic of Pakistan’s role in the war on terror and of the US policy in the region. He has taken a consistent stand against drone attacks and his party has organised a number of protests and dharnas (sit-ins) criticising the Pakistan government’s complicity in these attacks.
It is simplistic to assume that once the US-led forces withdraw from Afghanistan, those who engage in suicide attacks against fellow Muslims and are openly clamouring for a theocratic Islamic state will suddenly become peaceful citizens.
Imran Khan is perceived as a politician with pro-Taliban leanings. In this sense, ideologically he is closer to the PML(N) and the Jamaat-e-Islami. And he is challenging these very forces by garnering support in urban Punjab.
Imran suffers from another major drawback: the lack of a slate of electable candidates and an effective party machine. He is relying merely on his personal charisma to pull crowds. But this will not be enough to garner votes for his candidates in a general election. The repeat of the 1970 general elections in which the PPP candidates, mostly non-entities, defeated their well-entrenched opponents on the basis of the Bhutto charisma seems unlikely.
In a parliamentary system, the electability of the candidates is pivotal in winning elections. It was evident from the long list of political pygmies adorning the stage that the PTI has to do a lot of hard work in attracting good candidates.
Imran’s plank is that he is Mr Clean and hence would bring in only clean candidates. But as is true about electoral politics anywhere, electable candidates are not necessarily squeaky clean.
The PTI leader will now have to make a choice between idealism and pragmatism or a mix of both. Here lies the rub. If he is not careful and brings too many turncoats in the fold, his charisma in the eyes of his supporters could wear thin by election time.
Imran Khan has shown the will as well as the grit to attract crowds around his message. Whether he will be able to emerge as a third force will depend on how he plays his cards in the coming months.
He was being dismissed as merely a spoiler who would eat into the right wing vote, primarily PML(N)’s. But this was before Sunday. The historic crowds at the rally have radically altered the political landscape.
The PPP that till now had been gloating at the obvious discomfort of the PML(N) in the face of Imran Khan’s growing popularity now has cause for concern. Imran is not merely a spoiler but has emerged as a force to be reckoned with.
The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today