Friday, 13 January 2012

Is Imran Khan Pakistan’s Knight in Shining Armour?

It is said that politicians will always aspire to become leaders while true leaders are chosen and ushered to the front by the people when the time is ripe. The clouds move and the sky clears when it is time for the right person to emerge. Pakistan has not, in the recent past, faced such a plethora of problems all erupting in quick succession — the Raymond Davis issue, in which two people were gunned down by what Pakistan claimed was a CIA operative, saw popular anger reach a feverish pitch; the Abbottabad raid that saw Osama bin Laden killed exposed Pakistan and its Army-ISI to the world, and there was the November 26 US drone attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers severing Pak-US ties. If this was not trouble enough then came Memogate. It is alleged that President Zardari, through then Pakistan ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani (who through businessman Mansoor Ijaz) tried to request Washington to avert a military coup in Pakistan at a time when Pakistanis have written off their civilian government. Then on October 30 in Lahore and in December in Karachi cricketer-philanthropist-politician Imran Khan held a political meeting which received a phenomenal response.
If one were to go by these recent events and the media — especially international — Imran Khan is tipped to be the next messiah who will guide Pakistan in its time of trouble. While there is some truth in this theory, to believe that Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which is still considered an ‘also-ran’ in politics, will topple traditional political powerhouses like the Zardari-headed Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, is to grossly underestimate the complex equations that constitute politics in Pakistan.

TINA Factor
This is not to say that Imran Khan is a novice in politics. Gone are the days when the people saw him as a dashing cricketer-playboy who turned to politics in the belief that he could cash in on his popularity. Imran Khan, who established the PTI in 1995 has till recently been viewed by political observers as an outsider or as ‘one-of-the-many-fringe-parties’. What have worked in his favour is his clean, corruption-free image and his philanthropy. He has made a conscious effort to distance himself from his playboy days and has reiterated that his turn to politics was a spiritual call more than anything else — in a recent interview he said, “… faith has made me a responsible member of human society and that is why I have entered politics. Otherwise, I would not have entered politics.” He has established a cancer hospital (in memory of his mother who died of the disease) and a university to promote technical education. His flood relief fund raked in much more than Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani could achieve.
It is also said that Imran Khan’s mass support now is because of the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor. Pakistan’s ruling parties cutting across the spectrum are incorrigibly corrupt and the people are fed up with the way things are shaping up. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who is better known in the western world as ‘Mr 10 Per cent’ for his involvement in corrupt deals while his late wife Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister, has still got one foot in the court. Nawaz Sharif faces corruption and nepotism charges and former president and military man Pervez Musharraf is on a ‘sabbatical’ from his homeland fearing arrest for his dealing of the judiciary. Pakistan’s economy is on life support (read foreign aid), corruption is rampant and development is stalled. Add to this law and order issues and terrorism — Pakistanis have had enough. It is here that Imran Khan comes in as a whiff of fresh air. Many of the people who recently sat up to listen to Imran Khan  at his rallies do not believe that he can deliver or give them the change they are craving for, but he is better than the other options.
How can one leave out the Pakistani Army, and the ubiquitous ISI, from this political maze? It is unfortunate but true that any discussion of politics in Pakistan is incomplete without a mention of the army; after all it is the army which has ruled the nation, often through bloody coups, for a better part of its history.

People and Judiciary
Given the events that have involved, and affected adversely, the army, and taking into account the country’s history one would not be wrong to bet on a military coup. However, the change this time is the people and the judiciary. The people, pushed to a corner, are voicing their displeasure like never before and the judiciary, under Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, is more proactive than ever. Credit should also be given to General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani for moving cautiously till now as often momentary decisions and mood swings of military heads have decided Pakistan’s course.
What might tip or has tipped the scales of the West and the military in favour of Imran is his stand towards the Taliban. Imran is for negotiations with Islamic militants — this fits Washington’s plan for a dignified exit from Afghanistan, and the military cannot disagree with the idea of getting cosy with the Taliban. His resentment of foreign aid and chastising of American action in Pakistan has won him popular support. A good example of this is a tweet of his on January 10: ‘US: We will be your friend, not your slave. We will help you withdraw from Afghanistan, but will not launch military operation for you’.

Chink in Armour
Imran’s clean image is his USP but the question is how long will it remain so? Many political heavyweights have recently moved to the PTI camp and they come with a lot of baggage. Imran Khan has long advocated reviewing the taxation system in the country which allows the rich to glide by while the middle class and others go through the eye of the needle. Imran was earlier critical of the MQM for the killing of around 40 people and was pursuing a case against the outfit. But the absence of any mention about the party at his December 25 rally in Karachi has raised speculation of a patch-up.
Another issue that is wanting in the Imran camp is the lack of a popular support base. While his rallies are receiving tens of thousands of people it is not enough to win elections. The biraderi ties are crucial. Biraderi is a clan-based, kinship-based loyalty that can spread across regions. Imran does not enjoy this support. Moreover the media that shows Imran’s popularity is yet to penetrate the rural interiors.

Imran and India
It will be safe to say that as a cricketer Imran Khan was not a pleasant experience for India. But those days of cricket rivalry are long gone and today Imran is a philanthropist and politician standing at the threshold of realising his political dream.
Given the popularity he commands, his views towards Pakistan’s ‘traditional rival’, his success is important for India. New Delhi does not see his pro-Taliban approach as palatable. So far his views towards India are not radical and he believes that cordial relations with the neighbour are beneficial for both countries. But once in the seat of power, over which the ISI wields immense power, it is hard to predict the course Pakistan’s leaders may take, especially in matter relating to India.
(An edited version of this article has appeared in The New Indian Express on January 13)