By Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Imran Khan’s detractors, both in the media and numerous opposition parties, have aggressively attacked his person, political ideas, and more undesirably, his political standing and electoral legitimacy ever since he assumed the office of Prime Minister. His personal life, marriages, political experience, and even his competence to run this country have been constant subjects in the tens of political talk shows on television channels. His grandiose, and often unrealistic goals and targets to change the country ‘within months’ didn’t work in his interests, as time zipped by.
As an outsider and during his first time in power, he was a stranger to the multiple and deep structural problems of economy, governance and delivery of public services. Although he had teams of experts that briefed him before going into elections on many of these issues, and perhaps warned him on how well entrenched the vested interests were, which he often refers to as ‘mafias,’ he didn’t come to power with a clear and firm roadmap. In short, he was not prepared to roll out reforms that he had promised. It is something he has been very candid to acknowledge.
Khan confronted more problems on the political front after the 2018 elections than he had expected. He got caught between political ambitions and principles he had espoused as a very popular and energetic opposition leader. One could see the signs of desire for power trumping virtuous political ideas when he began courting ‘electable’— strong candidates with considerable personal following— drawn from the rival parties he had been attacking. To create a governing majority in the largest province Punjab and at the center, he had to embrace into his fold political parties like the MoHajjir Qaumi Movement and Pakistan Muslim League-Q that he had consistently condemned; the first for corruption, and the second for violence in Karachi. Political coalitions in this part of the world are not about common ideology, manifesto or great, shared ideas, they are about getting a piece of the power pie– the bigger the better. The independents, smaller parties and factions within his own party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have continued to play games, off-balancing him even in the face of aggressive opposition.
Within hours of PTI emerging as the front-runner in the elections, suddenly the parties that had been destabilizing and overthrowing each other’s governments in the past closed ranks. The leader of a religious party with a stronghold in the religious education networks spearheaded a destabilizing campaign, starting with a ‘long march’ on Islamabad, meaning besieging the capital with tens of thousands of workers, hoping to paralyze the federal government. It fizzled out but then the pandemic and the formation of a broad alliance of opposition parties holding its power shows and rallies in every corner of the country presented Khan with the stark and dirty realities of Pakistani power politics. A hostile media and opposition parties found a lot to attack him on– many of his policy ‘U-turns’ and rising inflation mainly due to structural adjustment program of the International Monetary Fund. For about three years, Khan remained defiant but defensive.
Recently, came the issue of Americans seeking ‘bases’ to handle the post-withdrawal situation in Afghanistan: Khan’s ‘absolutely not’ response raised his stature further within his conservative, nationalist constituency. An image of standing against the most powerful country, real or made up, in the anti-West psychological climate that Pakistan’s political leaders have rightly or wrongly created, serves well into generating a powerful image of a leader.
Behind all this confidence is about 4 percent of economic growth when regional and world economies went into minus, spending hundreds of billions to handle the pandemic effectively and handing out cash to the most vulnerable sections of the population. Scores of welfare programs that include youth training and self-employment through loans, thousands of scholarships for poor students, direct subsidies to farmers and housing building loans for low-income families seem to have played well into strengthening his credibility as a leader for change and one who can do the work to re-imagine the country.
These meagre achievements may have failed to get considerable traction if the opposition parties had remained unified under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement. Good for Khan however, that the alliance lost steam due to infighting and finally seems to have withered away. Khan has the momentum, and going by his electoral victory in Azad Kashmir, he remains a formidable political force– with his eyes set on the 2023 general elections.
(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @RasulRais)