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Imran Khan: the 12th man rises…

by Omar Ali
Pakistan’s greatest cricketing hero and second most successful philanthropist entered politics 15 years ago, promising a progressive, Islamic, modern, corruption-free Pakistan. His position as the most successful captain in Pakistan’s cricket history, the founder of Pakistan’s finest cancer hospital (providing free modern cancer care to thousands) provided him instant cachet, but for a long time he was unable to convert this personal popularity into votes in actual elections. With a political platform heavy on slogans (particularly against corruption) but short on specifics and without any obvious connection to already existing grass-roots politics, he remained little more than a fixture on the talk-show circuit for a very long time. Brief flirtation with Pervez Musharraf also set him back, as did a tendency to spout fables about Jirgas and hobnob with jihadi ideologues like Hamid Gul. But his biggest problem was his failure to create a team that could carry his party forward. The Pakistani Tehreek e Insaf was a one man show, with Imran Khan its only impressive asset. Even in parties dominated by one strong leader, there are other leaders in the wings and a semi-coherent ideology that delivers a section of the vote-bank on ideological grounds alone. Imran had no visible team and no clear ideology beyond a promise to “eradicate corruption”.

He did seem to genuinely believe in the formulaic slogans and historical framework of the 6th grade “ideology of Pakistan” he learned in Aitcheson college. He has some vague notion of “the two nation theory” (basically, “we are not Indians”) and an even vaguer “respect” for Quaid E Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Allama Iqbal, twin icons of Pakistan’s history. But like his middle class fans, it is a superficial and shallow belief system, with little to show beyond a few empty slogans like “Pakistan first”, “Islamic welfare state” and “we are all Pakistanis now, so we are no longer Punjabis, Sindhis, Pakhtoons or Balochis”. Behind the automatic repetitions of such slogans there does lurk an odor of “one folk, one party, one leader” fascism (as it does behind all crude nationalisms) but this is not to imply that Imran Khan is consciously thinking of leading a fascist takeover of Pakistan. His commitment to some notion of democracy seems genuine enough, though his priority (and this is not unusual among middle class nationalists) is nationalism, not democracy; in a crisis, he can easily convince himself that we may have to kill democracy to save the country. In any case, lacking organization and experience and without a good grasp of actual grass-roots politics, he was easily brushed aside by older established political parties.

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