Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) casts a huge shadow over today’s Pakistan. Party loyalists sit atop commanding heights of state power and lord over the destiny of all citizens. Twenty-four years since its founding, the party that Imran Khan built is a behemoth that seems to have actualized its ambitions.
Has it touched its zenith?
To answer this question, one will have to dissect the evolution of the party from a veritable one-man show to various stages of expansion, to the defining moment of the famous 2011 Lahore jalsa, and then its gradual ascent to power. Through this journey, PTI has traversed alien ground and made compromises all in the name of navigating its way successfully to power.
This is why the ethos of the party on display today is quite different from the one at its genesis.
The story of PTI can be told through its people. The party changed with each wave of new entrants. These new entrants made the switch as per the dictates of those times and the demands of electoral realpolitik. Each wave was embraced by the party for reasons that were a peculiar product of those times.
Often when the reasons receded, so did the people who had tagged along. But some hung on and pollinated the party with their ideas, thinking, and priorities. The core message of the party survived these ravages of times but the battering did indeed squeeze it down to the bare minimum. Today, even that may be under threat.
The loyalists saw the professional politicians as hired muscle that needed to be ‘rented’ so the party could climb its way up the slippery power slope
The original team from 1996 formed the core that held the small party’s head above political waters for a good fifteen years. Figuring nowhere in the larger scheme of things, Imran Khan and his core team of original loyalists soldiered on against adversity and impossible odds.
They stayed on the original message of war against corruption and status quo, represented in this narrative by the PML-N and PPP. They were never really considered serious contenders for power because other than Imran Khan none on his team had any real electoral muscle.
Just when the cause seemed hopeless and the party fated to roam the wilderness, lady luck began to smile. Two important developments intertwined in a strange mix of timing, planning, and happenstance. First, some powerful people in powerful places armed with the ability to make powerful choices, decided Pakistan needed a third option in terms of political parties.
The religious party option had already been exercised in the past in the shape of the MMA government in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, and had failed to deliver results that were needed. Different times needed different solutions, baked with a different set of ingredients. The focus turned to Imran Khan and his band of loyalists.
Secondly, the electorate was also pining for some sort of change. Imran Khan, through his dogged determination, had succeeded in building a narrative that resonated amongst the urban youth, and a wide cross-section of the middle class that had traditionally remained apolitical.
Here was a man who was in contrast against the traditional, dynastic, patronage-based political class which had taken turns in ruling Pakistan like a fiefdom. By the time 2011 rolled in, much work had already been done on both fronts and PTI was ready to take in the first wave of established politicians into its fold – prodded along of course by both powerful people and attractive opportunities.
Once again, parallel sets of evolution took place. At the leadership level, prominent and quasi-prominent politicians started to join the party, sensing this is where the future could lie. They had very little to do with the core message of the PTI, and many had even less to do with the core team of the PTI.
They looked at the original loyalists as political lightweights whose only value was that they had the ear of the leader. The loyalists saw the professional politicians as hired muscle that needed to be ‘rented’ so the party could climb its way up the slippery power slope. The only thing common between these two groups was the leader himself.
In August 2018, PTI finally entered the corridors of power as the ruling party of Pakistan. But this PTI was a lot different from that PTI that had begun its journey in 1996
This new wave of ‘immigrants’ into the party was still a trickle by October 2011 and did not have enough influence to start changing the ethos of the party itself. The stirrings on the ground had started but very few were willing to recognize it or admit it. In September 2011, a month before the famous Lahore jalsa, Imran Khan ran into a writer at Islamabad airport.
He was heading out to the UAE for some fund-raising. Before he left, he said to make sure to attend next month’s rally because, as he put it, ‘there was a massive groundswell of support that he was sensing and this would be visible at the Lahore jalsa’. He could not have been more right.
Rebirth and New Patrons?
The October 2011 jalsa was the re-birth of PTI. It was also the end of the original party with its core message and core team. After the stupendous success of the jalsa, a second wave of politicians started lining up to join the party. This time the level of applicants was much higher in profile and electability.
They had calculated that Imran was on the verge of gate-crashing the ‘big boys club’ – with the right support from the right people – and now was as good a time as ever to hitch their wagons with him. Between 2011 and 2013, PTI’s ranks swelled at an unprecedented speed.
The strict criteria of what kind of people could join Khan – the so-called clean and upright category – was shunned aside and the doors flung open for anyone who could bring in resources, influence, and votes. It was a power game, the PTI sheepishly argued, and the party needed power-brokers.
A hastily-stitched weak justification was put together: it didn’t matter if the people joining were unclean as long as the leader was clean. This was the first of many justifications, that would have to be conjured up by the party in the coming months, to explain the changing ethos of the party, which was once fuelled by a core message carried by a core team.
Through the run-up to the 2013 elections and then the polls themselves; through the defeat, the rigging allegations and the dharna; through the APS tragedy and the post-dharna slump and the damp squib of the rigging case – through all of this the party that Imran built dragged itself along, with a team that was disjointed, bulky, uncoordinated, contentious and constantly lunging at each other’s throats.
It was Imran that held all factions, groups, and cliques together. The party was less a party and more a coalition of the willing, who were willing to tolerate each other because they had bet on Imran to bring them into the corridors of power, whatever it took.
Panama: Cursed Blessing
It took Panama for that to happen. The scandal fell into the PTI’s lap like a gift from the sky. And suddenly, just like that, a depressed, demoralized, dejected and defeated party was re-energized. By this time more powerful people in powerful positions armed with the ability to make powerful choices had discovered, renewed and refreshed powerful reasons – most of which had to do with the Sharifs – to look upon kindly at Imran.
So here then was the third wind in his sails. And with the third wind came the third wave of political characters. The sedimentation of PTI seemed to have become an institutional process.
There was the ideology of anti-corruption that resonated with the electorate, and there was also a theme of social justice that defined the vague ethos of the party
As the PML-N government got savaged by Panama-related developments, PTI started preparing for its final ascent to the summit. But the summit is always farther than it appears. By the time 2018 rolled across, the polls were still showing PTI lagging behind the PML-N. This despite all the goodwill of all the people who mattered in every sense of the word. So, from early 2018, the fourth wave of politicians started to join.
Controversy surrounds these joinings. Some say these people – most of them hardnosed electables, whose ideology was power and power alone – saw the light of day, or were made to do so. Others say they calculated that the wind was whispering Imran’s name and the wind rarely lied. Still, others suggest that many were persuaded with forceful arguments, to join Imran and contest on a PTI ticket.
As late as the summer of 2018, the numbers were still not adding up for a clear PTI victory. So, a fifth and final wave of politicians entered the PTI tent – an entire block of PML-N electables from South Punjab, one fine day walked across to PTI. It was safe for the party now.
In August 2018, PTI finally entered the corridors of power as the ruling party of Pakistan. But this PTI was a lot different from that PTI that had begun its journey in 1996.
Here now was a conglomeration of politicians who had found a new home under a new leader for a new situation. There was the ideology of anti-corruption that resonated with the electorate, and there was also a theme of social justice that defined the vague ethos of the party. But beyond this, there was not much else except the leader.
That leader is now undergoing the most severe test of his life. At stake is not the party – because what is the party except a hotchpotch of electables – but the leader himself. Could the stakes be any higher for Imran Khan? The answer is being whispered by the wind.
Fahd Husain is resident editor Dawn in Islamabad and has a TV show named In Focus with Fahd Husain on Dawn Channel. He is graduate from the Columbia University School of Journalism. Tweets@Fahdhusain
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.