Ebbing of the tsunami
WHEN Imran Khan refers to his political movement as a tsunami, he forgets that these killer tidal waves subside soon after they reach their peak. I fear his Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf may also have hit its high water mark a year ago, and is now ebbing.
Just a year ago, when Imran Khan held his big rally in Lahore, we could have been excused for thinking that this was a transformative moment in Pakistani politics. There was a sense of endless possibilities opening up for Imran Khan and his young supporters. Enthusiasm and energy crackled at the event.
Even hardened cynics like me thought we were witnessing the emergence of a new force that would inject much-needed idealism into our venal political system.
But success attracts opportunists much as honey attracts flies: at the Karachi rally a few weeks later, we saw many of the same old faces that had been a feature of our politics for so many years. Now, sensing power shift towards Imran Khan, and possibly hearing the seductive whispers of our omnipresent intelligence agents, they decided to hitch their wagons to the rising star.
Some of them are now having second thoughts. At least one PTI hopeful in a rural district was furious at having been let down by Imran Khan. She had been categorically told that her leader would visit a flood-affected area and invited local notables to meet him.
Imran Khan cancelled his visit at the last minute for fairly flimsy reasons. The local party stalwart suffered a major loss of face, and in a society like ours, slights such as these are a cause for huge resentment. While Imran Khan claims he has a better understanding of rural society than liberal hacks do, this incident highlights an unattractive arrogance.
While this might be shrugged off as an isolated instance, over the years, the PTI chief has demonstrated a total indifference to the views of other, lesser mortals. His belief that he, and only he, is right comes through in every TV appearance. As we all know, there is no shortage of these.
And when he is proved wrong, I have yet to hear him admitting his error. For example, when the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked by terrorists in Lahore in 2009, Imran Khan was quick to point the finger across the border, saying the killers simply could not be Pakistani as we all love cricket and would not dream of trying to kill members of a visiting team.
But when it became clear that the terrorists were Punjabi Taliban, Imran Khan never admitted he had been wrong.
He is fond of comparing his movement to the PPP wave that swept the polls in the 1970 elections. The basic difference is that 42 years ago, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto introduced a large number of unknown faces as his party candidates. Thus, they did not taint the fresh vision of roti, kapra aur makan that his party announced as its underlying philosophy.
While Imran Khan has announced a new political direction, the team he has put together is widely associated with the old, stale order that he wants to sweep aside.
So people, even those who support him, are justified in being disillusioned. Their hero defends his selection of these old-timers by asserting that they are ‘electable’ in their constituencies, and would thus be assets.
Perhaps they will indeed get elected in next year’s elections, but is it worth alienating so many supporters for a handful of seats? Would it not have made better sense to try and actually achieve a sweep with a fresh slate of candidates as Bhutto did in 1970, than get 10 or so safe seats?
And while this might outrage PTI diehards, 10-15 seats are around what the PTI will probably end up with. Talking to keen observers of the political scene, this seems to be the consensus. Looking back to the heady days of the Lahore rally, it’s almost sad to see the swift decline in the PTI’s fortunes.
The truth is that while there is very little that I agree with when it comes to Imran Khan’s often contradictory views, I did rejoice in the fact that he motivated so many young people to take an interest in politics. Until he revived his message, young Pakistanis had been completely switched off politics, seeing it as a game played by aging politicians for their own benefit.
I do wish that Imran had used his undoubted charisma to lead the younger generation in a progressive, modern direction instead of the virulently anti-Western, reactionary path he has chosen. I agree with much of his critique of our political parties and their failed policies, but sadly, the alternative he offers does not appeal.
Another thing Imran does not seem to realise is that in our first-past-the post electoral system, personal popularity does not necessarily translate into a large number of seats. While he might record landslide victories in urban constituencies, this does not mean he will do well overall.
Already, he seems to be preparing the ground for a poorer showing next year than he had promised by talking about ‘pre-poll rigging’.
This has echoes of Asghar Khan’s claim that the PNA alliance would win the 1977 elections, and would accept no other result. In the event, the PNA’s movement to topple the PPP government led to Zia’s coup after Asghar Khan torpedoed the agreement arrived at between the PPP and the opposition.
One reason Imran Khan was seen as an attractive alternative by so many people was his refusal to compromise on his principles. Now, he has shown himself to be as ready to make deals as any street-smart politician.
Take, for instance, his earlier refusal to have any truck with the MQM. He even took documents supposedly implicating Altaf Hussain in various crimes to Scotland Yard. Now, he says all that’s in the past and he has no problems with the MQM.
But far worse than these changes in his position is his consistent wooing of the right-wing religious parties that have done so much harm to Pakistan. However, despite my many reservations, there is a deep regret for all the wasted opportunities Imran’s decline represents.
The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.