Nicknamed ‘Im the Dim' and ‘Handsome Taliban', Imran Khan has been the topic of discussion and heated debate since his jalsa on October 30.
Persistence pays. At least it seemed to have paid for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan on October 30. For the first time since he plunged into politics 15 years ago, political opponents and analysts — who, at best, were indulgent towards him like they would be towards a child — were forced to sit up and take notice. Within a matter of hours, he had morphed from an “also ran” into a “potential force to reckon with” on Pakistan's political landscape that is both rocky and slippery.
Mr. Khan drew such a mammoth gathering — including an incredibly large number of the upwardly mobile Facebooking/tweeting type who are often accused of being armchair advocates of change — at Lahore's Minar-e-Pakistan that overnight he was being compared to former Prime Ministers Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto; the former for his electrifying rallies and the latter for the huge crowd she drew on her return to Pakistan from exile on April 10, 1986.
No doubt, the comparisons are a bit over the top but there can be no denying that he has changed the political narrative since his jalsa (rally). On practically every forum — television, the print media, social media or drawing rooms — the man variously nicknamed ‘Im the Dim,' ‘Taliban Khan' and ‘Handsome Taliban' has been the topic of discussion and heated debate.
Clearly, no one expected such a turnout. And, the broad consensus is that whatever be his politics — including the suspicion that he enjoys the backing of the establishment which has always liked to “engineer democracy” in Pakistan, particularly in the most populous province of Punjab — Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) can no longer be ignored.
Often accused of seeing things in black-and-white in a subcontinent that dwells mainly in the realm of grey and equating governance with leading a cricket team or building a hospital, Mr. Khan is evidently working to a plan. There has been a systematic build-up to this moment. Visibly, he has been the only political party leader addressing public meetings regularly while most others have been bunkered in because of security reasons.
Then came his book Pakistan: A Personal History that was released in the U.K. in September and formally launched in Pakistan last month. Given that his “problematic position” on the Taliban — he is opposed to military operation against it in Pakistan — has earned him the title of ‘Taliban Khan,' he uses the book to present his view of Islam that draws heavily on Allama Iqbal who is his ideological leader.
The book also provides some insight into what has kept him on his political journey despite no sign of success till now in electoral politics except for his own election to the National Assembly from Mianwali in 2002.
Even now, only his crowd-pulling ability has been established with the jalsa. Pushing 60 and after several smaller rallies, it is no longer his famed good looks or playboy past that people are talking about. No doubt the star appeal is there but 15 years in politics has shown that it takes more than just that to make an impact at the hustings.
What the jalsa did was suddenly make him look like a leader who could possibly deliver and, most important, get the apolitical middle-class out of its homes and on to the streets. While analysts and detractors were quick to expose the loopholes in his speech — pointing out that he flagged various issues without dwelling on how he would address them given that ground realities do not change with a change of guard — his fawning supporters are not disenchanted.
As it is hyperactive on the social media and known to be uncharitable to critics, the rally put them on an all-time high where rationale — nit-picking to them — is just not the order of the day. For those tired of the current crop of political leaders — their corruption and inability to stem the downward drift — Imran Khan represents a “refreshing” change.
What he has on offer may not be very different from what others promise and the PTI has already taken on board some turncoats from the very political class that he is always ranting against. But he still remains untested. All others are like spent bullets, to quote eminent journalist Najam Sethi.
Besides unveiling his vision for Pakistan, Mr. Khan also used the jalsa to meticulously project a moderate image of himself as opposed to the ‘Taliban Khan' he has been made out to be by the liberals who are uncomfortable with his stance on the Taliban — seeing it solely as a product of American intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Even to the U.S. — despite his opposition to drones — he extended a hand of friendship while maintaining that Pakistan would not be enslaved to Washington. Neither was there any sabre-rattling on India. He dropped the pre-fix ‘occupied' — a staple with any mention of Indian Kashmir — did not speak of liberating Kashmir, and confined himself to asking India to withdraw its troops and grant rights to the Kashmiri people.
The entire jalsa was packaged to project moderation. So, while it began with a prayer — as do most events in Pakistan — and broke for ‘namaaz,' it also had a lot of singing and dancing with Shehzad Roy and the Strings band; his way of telling the world that Islam and music can co-exist. For the apolitical lot who turned up, this was enough evidence that calling him ‘Taliban Khan' smacked of a bias. After all, the Taliban does not allow music and dancing.
What's more, he reiterated his support for women and the minorities. This, according to The Express Tribune, “when coupled with the fact that he was one of the rare politicians to condemn the murder of Salman Taseer, should be viewed with optimism and not cynicism.”
Even the choice of venue was filled with symbolism. The Minar-e-Pakistan is a monument built to commemorate the Pakistan Declaration adopted by the Muslim League in 1940. Suitably, slogans were coined to cash in on the significance of the venue and the moment. While his supporters billed Mr. Khan as ‘Quaid-e-Inqilab' (father of revolution), the backdrop of the stage was telling with the slogan: Tab Pakistan banaya tha, ab Pakistan bachao gae (Pakistan was made from here then, and the bid to save it will begin now.)
That he has got political opponents frazzled is clear; particularly the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) because Mr. Khan has focussed much of his energies in Punjab, and Lahore has always been regarded as the pocket borough of the Sharif brothers. With PML(N) losing favour with the military establishment in the wake of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's repeated attacks on the Army after the American action to take out Osama bin Laden, and Punjab being the party's main vote bank, the unease is evident.
Adding to the PML(N)'s woes is the picture in contrast that Mr. Khan presented to Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif who addressed another big rally in Lahore just two days before the PTI jalsa. The junior Sharif was full of bluster and the language he used to lambast President Asif Ali Zardari was widely criticised.
In sharp contrast was the PTI leader who, while appeasing mass sentiment by going after the PPP and the PML(N) for rampant corruption and misrule and threatening a civil disobedience movement, kept the language moderate and tempered his speech with cricketing jargon like using his famed “in swinger” to bowl out both Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif with one ball.
Rhetoric apart and despite the prospects of a viable third alternative emerging at least in Punjab, what even Mr. Khan's well-wishers are now wondering is how he proposes to cash in on the goodwill that he was able to unleash that Sunday afternoon. His diatribe against the entrenched political class and promises to usher in a new brand of politics notwithstanding, Mr. Khan has not explained how he proposes to get around to dealing with the dynamics of constituency power politics that is rooted in kinship and patronage.
In fact, his actions belie the promises he made. With not much of a party organisation in place despite 15 years in politics and no known face apart from himself to represent his ‘brand of politics,' Mr. Khan has already opened his doors to disgruntled politicians from other parties and will have to get more such individuals to field in the next elections. In that his rally has helped the PTI gain traction but not necessarily draw new blood that can win an election.
But the kaptaan, according to Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, “is determined, undaunted and hardly bothered by such questions, leaving them for the analysts and history to answer. The good part of his strategy is that he wants to focus on the game of politics and take it down to the masses. This is the kind of politics that no other leader has ever practised after the great Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.”
Deconstructing the myth that Imran Khan seems to have succeeded in building around himself, Herald's editor Badar Alam wrote in Dawn that the nature of his politics and the political character of his supporters are such that transforming his public support into electoral success will be a challenging task. And, most importantly, 15 years into politics, he remains high on rhetoric and low on reality.