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Queering the ‘Pitch’ of Pakistan Politics

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 08, 2011

    Belying all cynics and sceptics and stunning his dismissive rivals, Pakistan's former cricket captain and now skipper of his own political party, Imran Khan, pulled off in what is being billed as the biggest political rally in decades. The rally was held in Lahore, the city that is often considered the best barometer of politics in Pakistan. Notwithstanding all the hosannas being sung about the impressive political show of force, it is still too premature to talk of Imran Khan emerging as a game changer in Pakistan’s politics. The emergence of Imran as a new political force, some would say even a real and viable alternative to the established parties and their jaded leaders, means that it is also no longer possible to ignore him as a fringe player in Pakistan's politics.

    With the flush of excitement over the stupendous success of the rally having worn off, serious questions are now being asked on the impact that Imran Khan is likely to make on Pakistan's political scene. Will he be able to translate his growing appeal and popularity into votes? Does he have the party machinery, the winnable candidates, and the resources to maintain the momentum generated by the Lahore rally and win the next general election? Is he only an urban phenomenon and that too in a few cities in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or will he also have an impact on the rural voters? Will he only cut into Nawaz Sharif’s right-wing conservative vote bank or does his appeal and support extend across the political spectrum; across all ages, biradaris, interest groups like traders, agriculturists, nationalists, Islamists; and beyond sectarian affiliations, provincialism, class divisions, ethnicity, and tribal loyalties? Is his role only that of a spoiler for Nawaz Sharif or does he have a realistic chance of actually becoming at least the kingmaker if not the king himself? Apart from insinuations that he is being propped up and supported by the powerful military establishment, there is also a big question mark on how he will deliver on the policies and programmes that he is promising.

    By overshadowing a much vaunted anti-Asif Zardari rally by the PML-N held just two days earlier, the impressive show of strength by the Tehrik-e-Insaaf (TI) in Lahore has badly rattled the PML-N which saw itself as the government-in-waiting. While the PML-N is putting up a brave face and downplaying not just the growing popularity of Imran Khan but also his potential to damage the PML-N vote bank, it is clearly worried. For now, the real problem for the PML-N is not so much that TI is posing a serious challenge in its bastion, but that it doesn’t seem to be able to connect to the urban middle class youth in the same way as Imran is able to. Like Anna Hazare in India, Imran Khan has been able to galvanise a hitherto depoliticised section of society. The PML-N understands that it cannot afford to be complacent and allow Imran Khan the political time and space he requires to come into a position from where he can actually threaten the PML-N. Most Pakistani analysts are of the opinion that if Imran Khan is able to build upon the Lahore rally and hold more such rallies in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he might well become a serious contender for power. But for this he needs time. In other words, a general election on schedule in 2013 suits Imran. A mid-term poll however will most likely leave Imran Khan in the lurch.

    Until now, the PML-N was trying to force a mid-term poll with the objective of denying the PPP a majority in the Senate when elections for half the Upper House seats are held in March next year. But the introduction of the Imran Khan factor has added a new sense of urgency to the PML-N’s move to force a mid-term poll. The only way an early election is possible is if the PML-N is able to create conditions through a combination of street pressure and political brinkmanship, including mass resignations from the assemblies that will render the current dispensation totally untenable. Time, therefore, is of essence for the PML-N. If it does decide to go whole hog to pull down the government, then it must do so in the next couple of weeks so that it can force a new election before March next year and kill two birds with one stone i.e. deny Imran Khan his chance and deny PPP a majority in the Senate. Any delay and the chances are that the PML-N will be left with the worst of both worlds. At the same time, the PML-N will also have to take into account the fact that any major anti-government political movement will naturally result in heightened political instability which will have an adverse impact on both the economy as well as the war on terror.

    Unlike the PML-N, the PPP as yet isn’t overly bothered by Imran Khan’s growing political profile. If anything, the PPP is revelling in the discomfiture that the TI is causing in the PML-N rank and file. Although Imran Khan doesn’t have a single good word for Asif Zardari and the PPP, the focus of his attack is PML-N and Nawaz Sharif. Imran’s strategy is understandable given the general perception that the PPP is probably already a goner in the next elections which leaves Nawaz Sharif as the guy to beat. The fact that the prospect of Nawaz Sharif forming the next government is rather unpalatable for the military establishment has added a sinister angle to Imran Khan’s politics. The PML-N is accusing him of being a proxy of the army whose sole purpose is to cut into Nawaz Sharif’s votes and deny the PML-N the numbers required for forming the next government. But the PML-N’s accusation against Imran Khan cuts both ways: while it cements the PML-N’s anti-establishment credentials, it also highlights the fact that the PML-N hasn’t quite been able to rebuild its bridges with the military establishment, a factor that is bound to rob the PML-N of the crucial support of the army and intelligence agencies at the time of elections. Ironically, even as Imran Khan takes pot shots at India on Jammu and Kashmir by saying that an army cannot hold a people captive forever, he seems to have glossed over the fact that the Pakistan Army has managed to keep 180 million people captive for over half a century.

    The PPP’s smugness is also a result of a political calculation that Imran’s appeal is primarily urban, and since the PPPs vote bank is essentially rural, it won’t be adversely affected. Even in the urban areas, the PPP is believed to have a core constituency which remains loyal to the party no matter what. If this condition holds in the next elections, then not only will the PPP retain its vote in the rural areas (where discontent against the government has to a large extent been contained by the boom in the rural economy on account of shifting terms of trade under the PPP government) but could also benefit from a split in Nawaz Sharif’s vote bank. In a sense, Imran has come as a godsend for PPP which had even given up the pretence of being a serious player for the urban seats especially in central and north Punjab. But the possibility that the PPP, which has expended most of its political energies and capital in merely trying to survive in office, might be misreading the situation cannot be ruled out. Indeed, if Imran manages to create a wave in his favour, then the PPP could also get swamped.

    Assuming that there is a wave that catapults Imran into the driving seat, what will it mean for Pakistan? Frankly, at a time of such monumental, even existential, challenges, if all that Pakistan can come up with is a vacuous demagogue like Imran Khan, then its future is pretty bleak. The support that Imran Khan has managed to gather is largely the result of his rabble rousing and appealing to the most reactionary and base sentiments in a neurotic society that is not only in denial but also suffers from a mass psychological disorder that is a combination of religious fascist tendencies and a persecution complex. Hear Imran Khan speak over a length of time and it becomes clear that he is a man of extremely limited intellect who keeps harping on a few themes and statistics which have been formulated by analysts and academics of dubious credentials who double up as his advisors. Ironically, despite his ranting against the West, even Imran has to rely on some obscure former CIA analyst to buttress the intellectual sounding nonsense he peddles on issues like Taliban and war on terror.

    While Imran’s sloganeering is seductive for his supporters, it is quite clear that he offers infantile solutions to extremely complex social, security, economic, political and administrative problems and suffers from what appears to be a national affliction in Pakistan – the inability to think things through. A couple of his interviews with arguably Pakistan's toughest interviewer, Iftikhar ‘Fitna’ Ahmed, are enough to expose him. In the end, the song ‘Aloo Anday’ sums him up aptly: ‘good looking Jamaat Islami.’