Ever since PTI’s massive Lahore jalsa on 30th October last year was followed by an even bigger one in Karachi on 25th December, analysts and critics have tried to explain why Imran Khan has managed to gain so much support in, what appears to be, a relatively short period of time.
When asked to explain why his popularity has grown so rapidly, why he leads nearly every opinion poll as the best loved political leader in the country, Imran himself, perhaps with an element of tactical humility, declines to take the credit. He points to the corruption and mismanagement that has been the hallmark of current and past political governments and says that people now want something different. Their motivator, he says, is the need for change!
Many agree. The reason, they assert, that Imran is so popular now is the failure of both the PPP and the PML-N. It is their negative image, based on their inability to make any positive difference to the lot of the new generation of Pakistanis, which causes these young people to see Imran as the messiah. This generation, they add, has not seen BB’s and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s history, they do not know of the Muslim League’s struggle for democracy, but they do know that in the last 10 years unemployment, economic decline, inflation, the energy crisis, crime, corruption and the destruction of national corporations has been the legacy of these incumbents.
Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, they explain, are seen as “spent cartridges”, and now this generation, in the pursuit of “change”, wants to give Imran Khan a chance. They don’t know exactly what they would like to see changing, but they know that they want change. And although they do not understand the impracticality of Imran’s policies, they do not see the contradictions in what he claims to stand for and they do not really know what kind of society would be best for them and the country, it is only this yearning for change, for something different, is what drives them to stand behind Imran.
As I hear this, and think through the implications, the message I hear is that the popularity that Imran has garnered is not because people know or agree with what he stands for, or because they have been impressed by the PTI’s policies or their roadmap. It is only because they are sick and tired of all the “conventional” players and their track record that, almost by default, because he happens to be around, they have rallied around Imran Khan. In my view, this message is misleading in two ways.
One, it does not give sufficient credit to the people of Pakistan (particularly given the cross-section of society that was present at the mega jalsas in Lahore and Karachi) to assess, at least a high level, whether or not they agree with Imran’s vision of what he wants the Pakistan of the future to be; a country where rule of law prevails “through credible democracy, transparency in government and accountability of leadership” [quoted from the “Our Ideology” page of the PTI website].
I believe that most Pakistani’s know, understand and, most importantly (and this is the key differentiator from other leaders) trust Imran when he says that his vision is of a corruption-free Pakistan, where voter lists are complete and authentic, where political leaders are accountable, declare their assets and pay their taxes and where government ministers’ energy is expended on improving the lot of the country and its people rather than on increasing personal wealth.
They trust him to make a sincere effort, despite hurdles and roadblocks, to deliver his dream of a self-sufficient country, engaged with, but not subservient to, global powers, playing it’s role in regional affairs, but primarily focused on national interests based on strategies developed by the best minds in Pakistan.
Two, I think it is unfair to paint Imran as the opportunist who is benefitting from the disenchantment of the young generation by using his star-power to promise them an abstract dream of “change” and whipping up a frenzy of unrealistic hope and aspiration that is already doomed to be dashed on the rocks of real life, even if he does manage to become Prime Minister.
Firstly, Imran appeals to Pakistani’s of all ages, not just the youth. His supporters cut across all sections of society, all ages, all sects, all ethnicities, men and women, young and old, alike. The Lahore and Karachi jalsas have demonstrated that better than anything else could, but if further evidence is needed, look around you, ask your friends, your colleagues, your family members, your business associates, your cook, your driver, your watchman, your maid. Nine out of ten will tell you, “Imran is a good man, all the rest are thieves,” or words to that effect.
Secondly, there is a fifteen year political struggle behind him; a journey that has taught him a huge amount, through mistakes that he has made, through betrayals and through many trips and falls, he has learnt tough lessons that have made him a stronger leader, a cannier politician and a better man.
The credit, in my view, goes to Imran himself, for having the courage of his convictions, for setting himself steadily tougher goals and then delivering on them. First the jalsa in Lahore, followed by an even bigger one in Karachi, which was seen as a big risk by many within his party. Then came a whirlwind of smaller events all over the country, the presentation of a policy paper on energy and one on local government. Followed by, most recently, the Quetta jalsa where he stood, without protection, in an environment of violence and tension, and led the 50,000 strong crowd in slogans of Pakistan zindabad and in singing the national anthem.
The latest challenge he has set for himself is the membership drive and the internal party elections. This is an unprecedented move, full of risks and pitfalls and there are many who are secretly laughing at Imran, waiting for this move to backfire. My prediction, however, is that they will be disappointed and Imran will, once again, deliver what everyone calls a pipe-dream. The word “impossible” is just not in his dictionary.
More importantly, credit must be given, I believe, to the people of Pakistan, who are smarter than many analysts give them credit for, who know what they want, even if they cannot always articulate it in the face of a television camera with a microphone shoved under their noses, and who see in Imran a man who is from among them. Neither a self-important, intellectual, leftist liberal nor a fundamentalist, insular, rightist fascist. Neither ghairat nor bayghairat, but somewhere in between. Like so many of us.