The Tragedy of Imran Khan and the Insafian Revolution

Looking back at Pakistan’s history over the last forty
years, he represented the country’s best opportunity to transform itself from a
third-world kleptocracy to a modern democracy, which is why the failure of
Imran Khan and his revolution is such a tragedy. I do not mean to imply that he
has failed in narrow political terms: It is much too early to say that, and I
would not be surprised to see him as Prime Minister of Pakistan in the near
future. What has failed, rather, is the vision that he had once promised. It
has been tainted irredeemably by his alliances with obscurantist forces like
the Jamaat-e-Islami, his rationalization
of Taliban extremism
, his willingness
to act as the instrument of anti-democratic forces
, his poor judgment of
character, his limited
grasp of history
, his opportunistic
embrace of bigotry
, and his inability to organize his movement into a
meaningful force rather than a rabble of unthinking acolytes. Ultimately, Imran
Khan’s revolution has been limited by its leader’s inability to transcend the
limitations of his own character. At one level, this is just a tragedy, but at
another, it is an unforgivable betrayal because, by promising gold and
delivering dirt, Imran Khan has set back the cause of true reform and
strengthened the very forces he had originally wished to counteract. Many of
his supporters are delighted that he has weakened the current government, which
they see as corrupt and illegitimate, and indeed he has. But this government
represents only one aspect of the rot in Pakistani society – and not even the
most salient one. What Imran Khan’s actions have really weakened is the
institution of democracy in Pakistan.
Among the factors that have brought Pakistan to where it is
today, corrupt politicians may be the most visible, but are certainly not the
most significant. They are the scavengers picking at the corpse, not the
original killers. The true source of Pakistan’s problems are the forces that,
over the country’s entire history, have not allowed the institutions of
governance and socioeconomic organization to establish themselves, and have
precluded the emergence of a stable social contract between the state and its citizens.
These forces are given many names – “the Establishment”, “the Deep State”, “farishtay”
(angels), “secret agencies”, etc. – but the only thing certain about them is
that they pervade all aspects of the state. Corrupt politicians are, at best,
servants and enablers of these forces – a symptom, not the cause, so to speak.
And this is reflected in the fact that, while the political system in Pakistan
has been extremely unstable since the country’s inception, the ideological
orientation of the country has been remarkably stable, and has moved only in
one direction. This is evident in the policies towards India and Afghanistan,
the Kashmir issue, the nurturing of extremism as a geopolitical weapon, the untouchability
of the military-industrial complex, the use of the educational system as an
instrument of ideology, the suppression of civil society and civil rights, the
dehumanization of minorities, and – above all – in the periodic disruption of
the democratic system.
Democracy is a fragile thing and does not come naturally to
humans. Its success in the West and the East has depended on being given the
space and time to establish itself. Good democracy – if it arises at all – requires
many generations to take root, and is often preceded by decades of poor, imperfect,
corrupt and just plain bad democracy. Those decades of bad democracy are
absolutely necessary for the ultimate emergence of good democracy, which
explains why the latter has never occurred in Pakistan. Every time the
democratic experiment begins and takes its natural imperfect course, a possibly
well-meaning “reformer” upends it in the name of bringing order, thus resetting
everything to square one, which is where the process starts again after a period
of political stasis. There is no time for democracy to establish itself, and
for true reformers to emerge from within
the system, which is the only way the system can ever be reformed. And this
brings us back to the tragedy and betrayal in Imran Khan’s revolution. His
diagnosis of what ails Pakistan, while partial, was (and remains) correct: The
democracy that exists now is terrible. As the leader of the second most
powerful party in the Parliament, and the party in power in one of the four
provinces, Imran Khan the reformer had a golden opportunity to begin exactly
the kind of “reform from within” that Pakistani democracy needs. However, such
a process would take time – years and decades of bad but slowly improving
democracy, if the reformers could persevere. It is quite likely that, while he
would begin it, Imran Khan would not be the one to complete the process. And
this is where his character was tested and found wanting. Like many would-be
reformers, Imran Khan obviously believes that he, and only he, can accomplish what is needed. It is a delusion common in
the leadership business, but is seldom warranted. In this case, realizing that
he was already nearing “retirement age”, Imran Khan chose to short-cut the
process and to attack the system from the outside. The claim is often made (by
his supporters) that he first spent a year – a whole year! – demanding reforms
within the system, as if a process that requires decades can be judged on the
results of a few months of half-hearted noise-making! I have no insider
knowledge of who – if anyone – pushed him towards adopting this course, but it
is obvious who benefited from it: The forces that do not wish to see the
institutions of democratic government stabilize. Whether he has weakened the
PML-N government or not, he has done incalculable damage to these institutions,
which represent whatever future Pakistan might have. That is his greatest
betrayal … but it isn’t all.
Imran Khan emerged upon the political scene as a widely
admired sportsman, a determined fighter, a dedicated philanthropist and, above
all, an honest man. He is still all these things, though the last attribute
must perhaps be qualified now to apply only to financial matters. Those who followed
him enthusiastically and those, like myself, who wished him well with some
caution, all hoped that he would transform the social and political landscape
of Pakistan with a thoughtful, well-organized and systematic movement. What has
emerged instead is empty sloganeering, shallow thinking and dangerous
impatience. One would expect the leader of a true reform movement to surround
himself with thinkers, intellectuals, technocrats and organizers – people who
know, understand, think and act with judgment. Instead, Imran Khan is
surrounded by rank opportunists of little expertise but grandiose ambitions,
the refuse of the same system that he seeks to overthrow. One common theme that
unites them is their reluctance to criticize their leader and their willingness
to rationalize his most absurd actions. And there have been plenty of these.
One may recall the exhortation to
transfer money from abroad using a “hawala” scheme
that violated
international law
, or the ridiculous (and counterproductive)
to stop paying tax and utility bills
, or forcing all his party’s members to
resign from Parliament (much to
their chagrin
). No prominent leader in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) –
with the exception of the now departed Javed Hashmi – has dared to criticize these
ideas as impossible, counter-productive or both, though many of them must surely
know this. However, they also know the boundless narcissism of their leader who
cannot abide criticism any more now than he could when he was captain of the
cricket team. A little autocracy was not bad for Pakistan cricket, but it is
poison for national governance!
The party created by Imran Khan – the PTI – should have been
a haven for rational, thoughtful Pakistanis who could change the country
through the force of their ideas and their exemplary behavior. That has always been
the key to reform: Ideas and character. Instead, he has created a party characterized
by paranoia, demagoguery, defensiveness and abusiveness.
Every untoward event is quickly attributed by the party faithful to vast
international and domestic conspiracies, variously involving the US, India,
Israel, internal traitors, former judges and generals, government
functionaries, and Fakhroo Bhai’s lack of spine. Whatever befalls the PTI is
always someone else’s fault – the Dear Leader never makes a mistake. When – in spite
of many
– the 2013 elections were deemed
to be generally fair
, and the results turned out to be almost exactly what all
serious pollsters – as opposed to PTI kool-aid drinkers – had predicted,
the response was to serially blame officials and politicians at every level. Every
journalist who criticizes PTI policies is immediately deemed a “dollar-khor” “lifafa
traitor on the take from nefarious entities. Anyone who dares
to challenge Imran Khan’s “ideas” is labeled a bully, traitor, pervert, and
worse. The picturesque language that issues forth from the social media
accounts of PTI youth is just an amplified reflection of the attitudes implicit
in their leader’s rhetoric – the same lack of decorum, the
same inability to accept criticism, the same alacrity in blaming everything on
others, and the same lack of prior thought. The river of incoherence, factual
errors, empty threats and false predictions that has issued forth from the roof
of the PTI container on D-Chowk would long ago have drowned any rational
political movement, but froth floats even in a flood.
Then leaving aside style, let us turn to substance. Through
2012 and 2013, as Pakistan was engulfed in violence perpetrated by jihadi
Taliban, Imran Khan and his party kept up a
steady drumbeat of apologetics for the extremists
, calling them “our
alienated brothers” and suggesting
they open offices
in Pakistani cities. To be sure, the PML-N of Nawaz
Sharif was no better on this, though the two differed slightly in their choice
of preferred extremist outfits. However, this was a much more problematic
position for a party supposedly championing reform. When it came time to form a
government in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, PTI forged an alliance with
the mother-ship of religious obscurantism and political thuggery in Pakistan,
the Jamaat-e-Islami.
They were given only two ministeries, but one of them was education – an area fraught
with ideological conflict. Predictably, the need to mollify Islamist coalition
partners has resulted in devastating
changes to the educational curriculum in KP
. PTI still does not dare to
criticize Islamist militants as terrorists. Even as I write this, PTI mouthpieces
are out on social media and TV news shows trying to deflect the blame for yesterday’s
deadly blast at Wahgah away from the Taliban (who have already claimed
responsibility) and towards India. One has to ask: Whom is this benefiting? And
once we have an answer to this question, many things will become magically
 I am often asked why
I am so adamantly opposed to Imran Khan’s leadership if I think he is not
corrupt and means well (I do). Why not give him a chance as opposed to the
corrupt lot currently in power? My answer is that, given the stakes, I prefer corrupt,
incompetent opportunists to committed, single-minded ideologues. The former are
not harmless, but are incapable of being truly dangerous, because the success
of their “business” depends on the system’s survival. The latter scare me
because they are the type who would gladly burn a village to save it. I fear that Imran Khan today is unleashing forces within Pakistani politics that even he will not be able to control in the future, and sadly, they are mainly destructive ones.
In the hard-fought
and bitter American presidential election of 1960
, more than 68 million
votes were cast nationwide, and John F. Kennedy won by only 112,827 votes – 0.165%
of all the votes cast – and winning only 23 states to Nixon’s 26. It was
well-known that Mayor Richard Daley’s “machine” in Chicago had conjured up
thousands of questionable votes, including votes from dead people. The state of
Texas was delivered by JFK’s running mate, Lyndon Johnson, by means still
shrouded in mystery. Yet, that most greedy of politicians, Richard Nixon,
accepted defeat with grace and left the field to his opponent, living to fight
another day. Then in the election
of 2000
, the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, actually won half a million more
votes than his opponent, George W. Bush, and clearly should have won the state
of Florida – and thus the Presidency – had all votes been counted properly.
However, the US Supreme Court, with a majority of Republican judges – including
three appointed by Candidate Bush’s father or President Reagan (when Bush Sr.
was Vice-President) – arbitrarily stopped the recount and delivered the
Presidency to George W. Bush. Many urged Gore to challenge this, but he stepped
aside gracefully to show respect for the system. This is how mature leaders
behave. In both cases, the losers’ supporters (myself included, in the case of
Al Gore) gnashed their teeth and stamped their feet in frustration, but no one
talked of overthrowing the government. Contrast this with the behavior of the
Republican ideologues after 1994, who ended up impeaching Bill Clinton, or the
even more reckless ideologues of today’s Tea Party, who have repeatedly brought
the US government to the brink of disaster because of their personal hatred for
President Obama. In this, and in too many other things, the party created by
Imran Khan resembles the Tea Party of today and the ideologues of 1994: The
same unwillingness to listen to contrary facts, the same paranoid conspiracy
theories, the same indiscriminately abusive language towards critics, and –
most sadly – the same preference for ideology over Reason. The PTI has become
the party of “you’re with us or against us”, the party that trusts its gut feelings
more than objective facts, and the party that seeks to “reform” the system by
demolishing it. For all his claims of being an honest reformer, Imran Khan has
turned out to be yet another well-meaning authoritarian wannabe – albeit in
civilian clothes for a change.
Brown Pundits