Imran Khan — spoiler or game changer?
By Imtiaz Alam
Our great cricket hero and philanthropist had to wait far too long in the political wilderness to strike high political ground in the bastion of the Sharifs. His rally in Lahore on October 30 attracted a new kind of crowd — almost apolitical but disgusted — overwhelmingly consisting of students and youth who wanted ‘change’ and some kind of ‘fulfilment’. A strong masculine achiever, in every respect, was there to give them ‘hope’.
A new populism was born on the wave of mass dejection with the disappointing manner in which the county is being run and widespread anti-Americanism. Contrasting perceptions about ‘corrupt’ ruling politicians and a ‘clean’ Imran Khan provided the latter much-needed moral high ground. A lack of political motivation among the participants was creatively compensated for with music and the rallying of nationalist sentiment by playing the national anthem.
Imran Khan’s appeal is less of a charismatic leader and more of a successful role model in this land of so many despicable characters. Yet, like all variants of populism, his rhetoric is ambiguous and ideologically contradictory. He wants to reach out to the religious right and conservative constituencies with his moralistic stance on the one hand, and the jean-wearing youth dancing to the tunes of western music, on the other. His ideological stance is that of a conservative nationalist who wants economic autarky in a globalised world while also boosting the national ego against American hegemony. In the ‘war on terror’ he shares the platform with religious extremists, while his views on economic and financial self-reliance seemed to be borrowed from Shahbaz Sharif.
As for substance, he fell short of presenting any seriously thought out agenda. His layman economic theory revolves around eradication of corruption, a commendable task by itself, but not enough to bring the economy back on track. Similarly, his ideas on bringing good governance have little to do with systemic reform to improve governance and eradicating of various forms of institutional rent-seeking. Economists should be laughing at the naivete contained in the great leader’s economic recipe. By throwing out the patwari and replacing the thanedar, and not breaking the stranglehold of the feudal elite, he wants to emancipate the rural poor.
Imran Khan’s project is self-centered. It is he and he alone who is destined to deliver the nation of all its woes, and this was his message to the cheering crowd. He rightly rejects the traditional ways of building a party or of going into an electoral battle. He seems to be in favour of building a mass movement in a country divided on ethnic and sectarian lines. But does he have any programme to attract the poverty-ridden millions to convert his campaign into a mass movement? In a typical paternalistic manner, he being a Muslim considers it his obligation to treat the ‘slaves’ well — choosing not to fight the exploitation and tyranny the poor peasants and labourers have to experience on a daily basis. Given this approach he will have a hard time attracting the real poor to his side.
To begin with, Imran Khan poses a formidable threat to the PML-N in the urban areas of Punjab where he can potentially win over a great lot of abandoned PPP activists, but not the poorer segments who are still loyal to the Bhutto name. He can also win over, to some extent, the PPP-ANP combine in Khyber Pakthunkhwa (KP) while causing some dent in the JUI’s votebank. If he wants to expand his constituencies he will have to win over to his side the bazaar, which is still with the Sharifs, and the rural and urban poor, who are still committed to the PPP.
For that he will have to come up with a dynamic programme, an able team and a long campaign to take his message to the masses. In the short-term, he could be a spoiler and in the medium-term, a game changer in Punjab and KP.
Source: Imran Khan