As he emerged atop his container to address a crowd of thousands who had come out in response to his call for “Naya Pakistan”, he roared that he would wrestle Pakistan out of the clutches of corrupt regimes that took turns in destroying their beloved Pakistan. Also, the 2013 elections were massively rigged and demanded that four out of the 272 National Assembly general seats contested during the elections, should be opened up for verification. Instead of investigating and opening these four constituencies, the ruling PML-N ignored his demands, prompting Imran Khan to resort to street violence. Ironically, his party could only win one of these four seats in the 2018 election.
The 2014 Azadi March led by Imran Khan started on 14th August and culminated in the tragedy of the Army Public School Massacre on 16th December 2014. This would be remembered as the longest street protest, termed “Dharna” (Sit in) ever in the history of Pakistan. The Sit-in on the Constitution Avenue alone and subsequent political unrest caused a loss of about 547 billion to the exchequer by September 2014 and shattered investors’ confidence. It led to an exchange rate depreciation of 4.3 percent, a debt burden of Rs. 228 billion and a stock value decline of Rs. 319 billion. The protests also resulted in the cancellation of the visit of the Chinese President scheduled in September 2014.
Where did Khan go wrong?
Khan didn’t care about Pakistan’s core economic interests or foreign relations then and even now when he fans anti-US sentiments in the country despite the fact that he was removed because of his poor economic performance and losing the majority in the national assembly. It was precisely for this reason that Khan never got a call from the White House, nor received a warm welcome in Beijing during his tenure as Prime Minister of Pakistan as no saner investor or world leader would pose confidence in him for being so erratic, chaotic and master of U-turns.
Khan lured the nation to his narrative where the key component was to be nothing but chaos and civil unrest, whether he is the Prime Minister of Pakistan or out of power on the streets. Khan never actually stepped down from his“Container” mindset to assume the role of a leader of Pakistan.
Richard Nixon in his insightful book “Leaders” provides a litmus test for placing a leader among the greats based on three elements: a great man, a great country and a great issue. According to him a leader’s greatness could only be fully measured when he was challenged to the limits of his abilities. Without the challenge, the leader would not have shown his courage.
Going by the gold standard given by Nixon, one is tempted to evaluate Imran Khan’s performance as a great leader, leading a great country with a great cause. Apparently, Imran Khan claimed to have joined politics to improve lives of the poor and downtrodden, for justice and rule of law. He failed on all three counts for the country is poorer than when he took over power in 2018. The challenges faced by Pakistan in 2018 were huge; the US had indicated to pull out from Afghanistan, the economy was not doing so great due to constant political instability caused by the Azadi March and legal battles in the courts that virtually paralyzed the country.
While PML-N left the growth rate at 5.3 percent, Khan’s economic mid-managers brought it down to negative; Pak. The rupee lost much of its value and inflation spiked to double digits, foreign investment declined and stock markets crashed. The carefully crafted narrative of “Riyasat-e-Madinah”(referring to the time of the Prophet in the 7th Century Arabia) was bombarded on the illiterate masses while they lost much of their income and were shown the door of Shelter Homes and Food Distribution Points.These could never cater to the needs of more than 40 percent of the population below the poverty line. With the benefit of hindsight, Khan appears to be the one who instead of leading the country through crisis, was actually the one who created them in the first place.
“Riyasat-e-Madinah” remained an elusive concept when it came to Rule of Law. His apathy towards establishing the rule of law, prevalent in Madinah then was one of his most neglected sectors. This was despite the fact his political Party, Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf has Justice as the foundation of his politics. The Rule of Law became a joke as his cronies and partners made billions at the cost of ordinary Pakistanis and foreign funding case remained in the background while Khan trampled the Constitution with impunity. Pakistan fell to the lowest bottom of corruption and Rule of Law index during the “pious regime” of Imran Khan.
“Comparison is the thief of joy” -Theodore Roosevelt
When cornered, IK started comparing himself to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, founder of the Pakistan People’s Party. There may be an odd similarity but there are stark differences in the personalities and legacy of the two. Imran Khan does match him in charisma and his crowd-pulling capability, arrogance, zero tolerance for differences of opinion with his political opponents. While Bhutto could go to any extent “to sort his opponents out”, he could also bring them to the negotiating table and get what he wanted from them. Examples are Shimla Accord, consensus building for the 1973 Constitution and negotiations with Pakistan National Alliance leaders in 1977. On the other hand, Imran Khan would openly state that he would not “shake hands with the opposition leader” in the NA.
Bhutto was all excellent when it came to diplomacy and foreign policy. He was a master orator, negotiator and leader who could gather all the rival Muslim leaders in one room. As a visionary, he laid the foundation of Pak-China friendship and Pakistan’s nuclear program and when it came to highlighting the Kashmir cause, there is none who could match his energy and commitment. He changed Pakistanis politics from being an elitist hobby to empowering of the poor people through bringing them to the parliament.
Yet, there may be similarities on the political front between Imran Khan and Bhutto; both not only antagonized their erstwhile party leaders but subjected them to hardships. Like Bhutto, Imran Khan also surrounded himself with sycophants and flatterers instead of people who were the engine of their struggle and could call a spade a spade. Starting with revolutionary ideals and then morphing into a policy of appeasement of pressure groups, were exactly the mistakes both made that brought their downfall.
Bhutto has remained an enigma, to his friends and foes. While we eulogize his standing up to not one but two military dictators, his succumbing to the religious bigots is lamented. While his socialist agenda and narrative were catchy, his failed economic policies left a deep mark on the country. Bhutto became a hostage of his own rhetoric and the same happened to Khan. Contradictions within their personalities and even their policies are evident from internationalism and nationalism. ZAB’s reaching out to India for the Shimla Accord, his recognition of Bangladesh and his rhetoric of a thousand years war with India over Kashmir are some behavioral examples.
Imran Khanprobablyborrowed the “Naya Pakistan” from Bhutto’s speech after taking over the Presidency of a broken country in 1971. He addressed the demoralized nations, “My dear countrymen, my dear friends, my dear students, laborers, peasants… those who fought for Pakistan… We are facing the worst crisis in our country’s life, a deadly crisis. We have to pick up the pieces, very small pieces, but we will make a new Pakistan, a prosperous and progressive Pakistan, a Pakistan free of exploitation, a Pakistan envisaged by the Quaid e Azam”.
“The only way to practice democracy is to practice democracy.”- Hu Shih.
To start with, was Imran Khan ever a democrat? He actually never went through the political grooming process and hence, always considered himself as the captain of a cricket team which he could twist, bully, manipulate to fall in line. His authoritarian style was visible through the insecurity, chaos and confusion that remained a hallmark of his government where advisors and ministers were frequently swapped, Chief Secretaries and Heads of Police in the provinces replaced, the core members of PTI who would advise him honestly were thrown out.
The room for dissent did not exist and fascism prevailed. An aura of invincibility was built around him by his social media team the sponsors of the hybrid regime. While hounding his opponents, he would go to any length from filing of frivolous corruption cases to arrests through Federal Investigation Agency. In the process, he further discredited all institutions within the country. His recent tirade against the armed forces of Pakistan can be seen in the same light where he refuses to admit the failures of his government and removal through a constitutional process.
Instead, he went all out against the military institutions and encouraged his cult-like followers to chant anti-army slogans. Imran thrives on chaos and unrest. He did the same in 2013-2014, continued the same while he was in power and now that he is out of it; much to the detriment of the country, its credibility and image.
To be or not to be?
When Imran Khan advised the nation to watch the popular series “Ertuğrul Ghazi”, it was reflective of his desire to be seen as a great leader who was fighting to bring Pakistanis together for a greater cause. The educated middle class and those who had left Pakistan for greener pastures abroad were yearning for a leader who could change the conditions of Pakistan overnight. The Turkish historical fictional play fed the population exactly what they wanted. Pakistanis who were already going through the turmoil of poor economy, loss of Kashmir through revocation of Article 370 by India, found the series as a healing balm for the hurt pride.
To say that the series gripped the identity-starved Pakistanis more than the Turk themselves won’t be a misstatement. The series was watched by 133 million in Pakistan within the first 20 days of its release on April 25th, 2019. By May 2019, the drama was viewed over 200 million times on PTV’s YouTube channel and in 2020 it crossed 390 million views. When compared to Turkey, the drama had little or no viewership in 2014 when it was launched and the viewership started picking up in 2017 and 18 when it touched maximum 69 million views.
Imran Khan wanted to appear as Ertuğrul Gazi, father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. But he also wanted to be Erdogan and Mao and Xi, Stalin and Putin and Mahathir and Bhutto and even Trump. He wanted to appease, control and tame the all-powerful military as successfully achieved by Erdogan in Turkey and while playing Ertuğrul, he wanted to be seen as the flag bearer of the Muslim Renaissance and to re-establish sharia in an already over-Islamised country. The quest for identity was served by looking Turkwards. Just like the main characters of the TV serial, disseminating spiritual and sometimes utopian life lessons while resolving moral dilemmas, Khan went on to use and abuse religion and spirituality to remain in power.
He established “Rehmatullil Alameen Authority” with little or no clarity and appointed a dubious character as its head, who was subsequently unceremoniously removed. This all reflected on his half-baked, ill-conceived ideas in the drawing-room to split the religious vote in PTI’s favor, ultimately falling in the lap of Tehreek Labaik Pakistan, an extremist Brelvi Sunni organisation.
While Erdogan went on to strengthen the country’s economy and enhance its sphere of influence through Turkish-speaking countries association, Khan had nothing to hold on to than to invite the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to resolve the Afghanistan issue and appear as a global leader. This normative idealism of pan-Islamism promoted by Imran Khan or to convince the masses that they somehow belong to the Turkish empire or race was misplaced but delivered on creating a cult-like following for him.
Turkey’s Erdogan had the economic muscle and political stability to radiate its political power in the region, Imran Khan had bankruptcy knocking at the door with major blame lying on the shoulders of his economic mis-managers. The nation, however, remained glued to TV and learnt that Imran Khan was a savior and his constant blurring of religious chants and slogans coupled with a specially designed media campaign of discrediting all others as corrupt left no choice or hero for the nation to celebrate.
Interestingly, throughout the series, Ertuğrul is faced by external enemies like the Templars or Mongols who are plotting against his rule or dealing with tribal feuds and conspiracies by fellow Turks (branded as traitors). The fantasy world created by Ertuğrul allowed the viewers to temporarily escape from harsh economic and political realities and bask in the glory of the Turkish empire which had been an essential historical memory deeply embedded in the nations’ psyche through the Khilafat movement and reinforced through Pakistan Studies curriculum redefining the identity of Pakistani nation. Imran Khan, probably never read this quote from Ibne Khaldun, “(Blindly) following ancient customs and traditions does not mean that the dead are alive, but that the living are dead”.
In Ertuğrul, Imran Khan found the perfect narrative and persona which he could easily adopt as his own. The masses bought the idea that it was Khan who was fighting for his great nation with a great cause of trying to lay the new world order by reaching out to Russia and breaking from the shackles of the United States.
The power of Gen z
Themes of Ertuğrul perfectly fitted within the Imran Khan’s populist appeal. Since the minds of the Pakistani nation and particularly women and youth were already prepared through repeated scenes of conspiracies and betrayals in the drama, it was an easy ride for Imran Khan to stir public sentiments. Imran Khan became a cult leader whose personal wishes and whims became “National Will” and whose personal ambition to hold on to power while trampling the Constitution seen as justified and sanctimonious. His Pharaoh like addresses to the nation became more arrogant and superficial while he called his cult followers to tear down the Constitution, burn their passports, attack his opponents, here and abroad and brand all others as traitors further polarizing the already polarized society.
Imran Khan benefits from the deep gulf between the old guard and the Gen Z which does not buy the state narratives, be it from any institution of the state. Tech and media-savvy as they are, they would name and shame any who would not conform to their perceived reality or truth. This generation is against the prevalent patronage culture, nepotism, dynastic politics and Imran Khan has cleverly used their sentiment for his own grand agenda of remaining ruler (Prime Minister, President or Khalifa) of Pakistan without knowing the demands of the role and responsibility the titles require.
With little or no movement on the economic front, employment generation or poor performance of his government that has brought Pakistan on the verge of bankruptcy, Imran Khan still rides on populism and the Gen Z wave. Gen Z cuts through the rural and urban divide with their access to smartphones, ability to connect and network, and identify themselves and their problems a result of policies of the past governments (not including his)and political parties (not including his).
For the last two decades, a persistent campaign was launched to discredit all the state institutions and political parties. This caused deep mistrust among the youth and polarization in society. Imran Khan has cashed in on these sentiments and the blank cheque of Gen Z through his catchy narratives despite the fact his performance of 3 years has been abysmally low and contrary to his claims.
Gen Z did not experience Zia’s Islamisation, nor Musharraf’s enlightened moderation
They have no fancy for central authority or government which has failed to address their problems such as provision of decent employment, reduction in poverty or establishment of rule of law. They see the system as failing and reflective of elite capture which is in fact true and hence ready to support any leader who overturns the whole system including the Constitution.
The expatriates had left Pakistan for it did not provide them with adequate opportunities for growth and when Imran Khan was launched, he was presented as an alternate. They wanted genuine change in the country and hence funded PTI heavily. Their economic interests became tied to the current regime for their hard-earned remittances got them better exchange rate as rupee nose-dived. On ground, the situation didn’t change for masses. Not that corruption is being sanctioned but by way of comparison, Pakistan is worse off during the years when PTI was in power than the “corrupt regimes” of the past but the expats and youth think otherwise.
Quoting Nixon again that the small man leading a great nation in a great crisis fails the test of greatness. It is about leaders who lead nations, with not only power such a position carries, but also the responsibility. Imran Khan has played petty and failed the test of greatness. Instead of leading Pakistan out of the crisis, he has plunged the country deeper into bigger crisis. As of Feb. 2022, the public external debt stock has reached US $ 92 billion against 71 billion left by the PML-N government. The total public debt (external and internal) amount to Rs. 44,138 billion as of Feb. 22 which is equivalent of US $ 249 billion, bringing Debt to GDP ratio to 76.4% which was 63.8% during 2018. The Paris Club suspended debt servicing due to Covid-19 allowing Pakistan deferred debt payment of US $ 3.6 billion during 2020-2021. This amount is also due for payment during the current financial year.
With Khan on the streets holding power shows, the casualty will be the Pakistani state and the people.
It has been said that those who fail to study history are condemned to repeat it and conversely, that if the leaders of one age see further into the future than did their predecessors, it is because they stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. Imran khan discredited them all and hence he lost sight of the future under his arrogance and desire to claim the title as Prime Minister of Pakistan but not acting as one responsibly.
What should be done?
Will the new Molotov Cocktail in place as the Government continues with internal conspiracies against each other or is there any chance of a change in politics?
With the former attitude, they will not be able to stop the Khan juggernaut and the already nascent and fledgling alliance would fall under the internal implosion and external onslaught. So far it looks more of the same. The alliance could crumble; Nawaz Shareef and not Shahbaz Shareef is the alliance builder among the two. Shahbaz is more of a manager than a leader.
Whereas it may seem paramount to break the myth of Imran’s invincibility, his larger than life image and cult following, the question would be whether this should be done through witch-hunt, own better and more visible performance as leaders and governance or as is the catchphrase en vogue- a hybrid system?
While the current regime may allocate a portion of its energies to exposing irregularities, corruption, and poor governance of Imran Khan and his regime, it must allocate a greater part to better governance and providing relief to the people.
As for Imran Khan, he must take some time out of his proverbial busy schedule and give some time to himself; point a few fingers at himself. What went wrong, why and where? Equally important, if not more how to rectify these deficiencies, especially his personal leadership qualities and redeem himself. He could, for a start go to his hardcore supporters who helped him in his initial days and I am not talking about the “Establishment” men who launched him and led him down the path of “small men”.
Bhutto was unfortunate because there was no independent electronic media or social media then and did not get time to redeem himself. Imran Khan too may not have that luxury considering his age but he could try.
The writer is an Inspector General of Police (Retired) and Former National Coordinator of National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) Pakistan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.