Imran Khan’s 22-year journey into politics has finally reached its climax -- now what?
Imran Khan Niazi (that is his full name) is now the 18th Prime Minister of Pakistan (excluding the interim/caretaker PMs). Some of their prime ministers held office at the pleasure of the president when the country had a presidential system, but all of them held office at the pleasure of one supreme master: The Pakistan army.
For Imran Khan it has been a long journey to this office, a journey of 22 years to be precise. Known for his extraordinary fame in the world of cricket -- leading his country to several cricket victories internationally -- the debonair Khan traded his cricket bat and ball for politics rather unexpectedly, using his parental place of Multan in Punjab as testing grounds.
Although ethnically Pashtun, the Khan family hailed from the Niazi tribe of Multan, and was not known for dabbling in politics unlike other political families of Punjab such as Daultana, Leghari, Sharif, Khokar, and others.
Imran’s father was a civil engineer, and his grandfather a physician.
But the family was wealthy, and Imran’s father gave him the best education that money could buy. For his high school Imran went to that princely Aitchison College of Lahore -- an institute that the British had built for scions of tribal chiefs; and for college to Oxford.
But the fame that he would achieve later in life was not because of his educational institutes, but cricket -- the sport of former British colonies.
Soon it transpired that, although he had neither political lineage nor any big-league political infrastructural support, he had the blessings of the kingmakers of his country.
This would become apparent when his ragtag political party Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was able to hold political rallies in major Pakistan cities and draw large crowds.
A populist rises
His populist calls for ending corruption and an emphasis on ultra-nationalism bore fruit to signal to that Imran Khan might be able to create a new party that is dissociated from the old order of politics of Bhuttos and Sharifs, but was strictly wedded to Pakistan’s established ideology based on religion.
Imran Khan’s initial attempt at gaining an electoral seat for his fledgling party in 1997 failed, but nevertheless he soldiered on by fraternizing with General Pervez Musharraf, who ousted an elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a coup in 1999.
With Musharraf’s tacit support, Imran would hold more political rallies and gather a larger political following mostly from the right. But when his first nation-wide attempt failed to win anything more than one seat for himself, Musharraf withdrew his support. But he would have the rapport of the army once again after Musharraf’s ouster.
From 2002, PTI thrived in its populist movements. In 2007, PTI joined the movement against General Musharraf, but Khan did not participate in the 2008 elections, calling them fraudulent. But he did participate in 2013, winning 31 seats -- which he later fraudulent as well.
Sadly, the populist calls that Imran Khan had been making to draw people are no different from what one of his famous predecessors had made five decades ago.
Imran’s calls for ending corruption, justice for all, and his stand against the US, resonate well with Zulfiqar Bhutto’s call for “Roti, Kapra, aur Mokan” for all and standing tall against foreign aggression. The slogans of Bhutto won him votes for his People’s Party in 1970 in Pakistan -- it appears that similar rhetoric has earned votes for Imran Khan nearly 48 years later.
Will rhetoric be enough?
For one thing, much as he protests that he will bring a complete overhaul to Pakistan’s politics, this overhaul will be merely cosmetic since the country’s politics are not managed by political leaders but instead by the army establishment.
Democracy never even registered.
Second, Pakistan is structured by class and status. According to numerous political analysts, a fundamental element in Pakistan’s politics is “biradari” or clan loyalty.
Government in Pakistan is not determined by choice of political ideology, but biradari. Imran Khan used his biradari for his political campaign but depended on the army to weigh in to counter similar campaigns.
There is apparently no nexus between the PTI and the army just as there are no visible signs of army control of Pakistan’s politics. But of course, elections have been held, sometimes with some amount of transparency, but after the participants had been vetted by the army.
The army’s role in Pakistan’s politics had been fated by the Partition. When Pakistan was created in 1947, it had inherited only 17% of the revenues of undivided India, but 31% of its armed forces.
The army naturally wanted a large share of the new country’s resources and hence access to power. Inefficiency of political leaders provided a helping hand to the army and its later control of government.
The army used religion as a rationale to bridge the diversity in ethnicity and language of the new country on the one hand, and its obsession with Kashmir and Indian aggression on the other to strengthen itself. Now it will be up to Imran Khan to see if he has the will or power to tame this powerhouse.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.