The winds of change appear to be blowing through Pakistan and Imran Khan is the force behind them. He has a vision - a vision that seeks to bring about stability, a cleaner political landscape and much-needed social reforms. But he has not yet been in power and so has no record to defend. All he can do at this stage is outline his vision and ask the country to trust him. But judging from criticisms of Khan, he is incapable of doing anything right because he is undemocratic, pro-Taliban, and leads only a cult of personality.
He is the puppet of an establishment that wants to destroy democracy, they say. All the while he is holding rallies attended by thousands of people – the people who will vote him and his party into Parliament. He appears on every other political talk show – appearances that allow voters to assess his agenda. He flies to Dubai, Britain and America to get donations from Pakistani ex-pats – donations that will be used to fight elections. Rallies, talk shows, fundraising – not very undemocratic. Khan has said that he would resign if any government that he heads cannot assert its authority over the military. But still they call him an establishment puppet.
In holding his latest rally, Imran Khan had to deftly handle the powder keg of ethnic and sectarian violence that is Karachi. But due to the fact that the rally wasn’t disrupted by MQM hoodlums or a Taliban bomb is a signal to some that Khan has signed a pact with the political gangsters of the MQM or is in cahoots with the Taliban. It is not enough that he has avoided a repeat of the violence in Karachi that ended only a few weeks ago. No consideration is given to the fact the Taliban won’t be too pleased with the man who was married to a woman said, wholly falsely, to be part of the Jewish lobby. Nor would the Taliban back someone who plays music at his mixed-sex rallies and wishes Pakistan's Christians Merry Christmas. Some appear to want to criticise for the sake of criticising.
Pakistani politics is dominated by personality cults. Asif Zaradri is only president on the back of his wife’s legacy - something reinforced to the masses by his constantly being in short radius of a portrait of her. Nawaz Sharif has been on the scene since I first visited Pakistan as a toddler. During his premiership he expressed the wish to be conferred the title Ameer-ul-Mumineen. He is still leader of his party – a party that is named after him no less. The power of personality is a feature of the country’s politics – a feature that cements the existence of dynasties and maintains political power in the hands of the few. But in Imran Khan’s case he has the personality but not the dynasty. His personality he cannot escape – but he has been vocal in encouraging meritocracy and the emergence of fresh political leadership.
Ordinarily, criticisms about the cult of personality would be placated by new faces entering the party. But not in the case of Imran Khan. Each new entrant is labelled a “lota” (turncoat) by the party’s detractors. Even big hitters from other parties who have joined Khan like Javed Hashmi and Shah Mehmood Qureshi have not been enough to show that the party is more than just the persona of its leader. Perhaps some politicians are finding it hard to shake off the cult of Bhutto and Sharif. But they will only end up being dismissed as lotas when they do rustle up the courage to leave.
Imran Khan is a politician at the end of the day and citizens have the right to ask questions of him and pick holes in his arguments. But when this questioning is based on unfair premise and appears never to be willing to be persuaded, it doesn’t bode well. Accusing him of being a puppet of the Army is short-sighted – has the Army been behind every popular politician in Pakistan? By not involving his party in street fights and keeping his supporters safe from suicide bombers has he signed a deal with the MQM or the Taliban? And since when has being popular and charismatic been a bar from elected office?
The incessant and insatiable criticisms of Imran Khan reflect an inability on the part of many Pakistanis to believe that as a nation they are capable of lifting themselves out of their current malaise. A mild form of such self-loathing is something I would normally associate with my fellow Brits. But Britain has become a stable, progressive, modern world player despite it. In the case of Pakistan, the self-loathing appears set to push the country further into the abyss.
Deleterious discourse is of course not limited to Khan’s detractors. Some of his supporters, who appear to be mostly foreign-domiciled Pakistanis like myself, respond to criticism of Khan by resorting to racist, sexist, and immature name-calling. Where the criticism, however contradictory and blinkered, is at least honest, it is met with offensive juvenile retorts – earning on Twitter the unfortunate hashtag #PTItrolls. This is evidently reflective of the disconnect between Pakistanis living in the country and facing at first hand its problems and those Pakistanis living abroad and immune to the country’s hardships and nuances.
In place of conspiracy theories, sloganeering and petty point-scoring Pakistan’s politics needs substantive debate and considered critique. Khan’s PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf) may not win the next election, but as a new political force that has staying power, it can be an effective opposition. As such it offers the chance to adapt the county’s political agenda to one that does not shy away from issues such as corruption and the role of minorities. The absence of a dynasty-in-waiting and talk of meritocracy can open up politics to a wider political class. PTI won’t usher in Camelot but it can help Pakistan to work towards it. Lets not kill the hope before it even gets off the ground.