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30 December 2011, Gateway House

Imran Khan: Yet another messiah?

Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistani political party Tehreek-e-Insaaf, means well, and has the support of many in his country. But without any solid reforms manifesto, and almost no one in his party to implement his plan, what really are his chances in the upcoming elections?

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The Pakistani leadership is so venal that if a slug seated atop a toad were to crawl into Islamabad, they would be welcomed by the people as the promised messiahs. Comparisons are odious but they are necessary because no reasonable answers can be obtained without some cross referrals. The Imran Khan ‘tsunami’ swept into Karachi last week, impressing people by its sheer numbers. As the waves recede and reflective thinking moves to the foreground, many now understand that it was a storm without substance. Almost ritually, Khan prayed in full view of the masses – a repeat of the 30th October Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Lahore rally and a chilling inclination of possible things to come. Having made peace with his Maker, Khan launched into a broadside against corruption, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and others, with little in way of facts. Between pop tunes, he called for reforms and vowed to end corruption within 90 days after his party forms the government with the help of computers – because they can’t take bribes! He changed the game plan of attacking some of his political opponents and studiously avoided any mention of his former sworn enemy, Altaf Hussain, the leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) who communicates with his followers only via telephone from London. Allah be praised indeed!

Like many Pakistanis, jaded and cheated again and again, a part of me wants Khan to succeed. But I also fear that his is a very simple mind tackling problems that are too complicated and too deeply intertwined to get solved. Khan speaks common sense. He has spoken it for years but common sense does not run affairs of a country drowning in debt and run by a leadership that sees no harm in robbing the dead.

Like cricket, any prediction is foolish. Cricket may be like life, but life is not like cricket.  Khan may be putting a few well-remembered clichés over the ropes, as did another leader almost four decades earlier – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s roti, kapra aur makaan (bread, clothing and shelter) – who left the people none of the three. Khan’s mantra is even less rooted in the soil. It is in the air and to date, he has yet to make a single solid proposal to ease Pakistan out of all its troubles including an external debt that runs beyond $ 59 billion and an internal debt of $ 66 billion. If Khan is the promised messiah, the good Lord is playing jokes. Where is this money going to come from? Khan says ‘no more aid.’ Okay, but what will people eat? Air? Grass? Someone in Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has to start doing the sums, crunch the numbers and come up with plans beyond the 90-day formula that Khan thinks is enough time to solve all his country’s ills.

Pakistanis are impressed with numbers. Khan has notched up two centuries back-to-back. First the Lahore rally on 30th October was massive. The second was a double century at Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s uneasy resting place in Karachi on 27th December. But five swallows don’t quite make up a summer particularly if the summer is in the subcontinent. Crowds can be impressive but people have so little to do here that they can wander for miles without reason. Yes, in terms of an outpouring from a citizenry fed up with Crooks Inc., and demanding change, the gathering was momentous and meaningful. But how many of those, the chattering classes included, will show up on Election Day and cast their votes to change Pakistan? And how would Khan’s PTI, with no declared source of funding, find the means to bus the largely unwashed to the booths?

Elections here are a game of caste-loyalty and sheer logistics. Political parties, horrible as they are, have the funds to commandeer massive truckloads full to the brim with country bumpkins who are told to affix thumb prints where shown. They are then fed, paid a stipend and freed. The lucky ones find a ride home. The rest hoof it. PTI doesn’t look like it has this vital detail covered – not so far certainly but then this is far too early to comment on. Khan’s third outing is planned for 23rd March 2012, Lahore Resolution Day, in Quetta, Balochistan – a province much used and abused by every one. The Ides of March?

Khan has often projected himself as a self-sacrificing idealist out for justice. A few years ago, he took on the fight to have MQM chief Altaf Hussain, wanted in many cases registered against him in Pakistan, who was then living in ease in London, extradited. Khan lodged criminal cases, spoke at seminars, addressed the media and took the case to Scotland Yard. Nothing happened. Today no one remembers it, but it did get Khan into the public spotlight and Pakistan’s chattering classes lounging in their plush living rooms sipping imported Black Label, sat up – then sank back into ennui. Khan later gained public attention with his anti-Musharraf and anti-dictatorship stance. By this time, people had forgotten that dictator Musharraf’s first five years after overthrowing a democratically elected government had received Khan’s full support. By late 2007 he was siding with anti-war and pro-democracy groups, incarcerated for a week after being roughed up by the thuggish cadres of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).

But it’s a queer pitch and for the last three years Khan has been romancing with the beards; many PTI supporters are upset at this new-old, rekindled love. Khan’s resounding Lahore rally in October, which launched his candidature in a serious vein, was largely organized by many former JI members. A senior commander of that right wing brigade, Mahmood ul Hasan, now occupies a key and senior position in Khan’s party! In the true tradition of Pakistani politics, PTI has never had an election. There is talk that Khan is already the ‘chosen one’ by Spooks Inc., or as it is lovingly referred to – the ISI. Khan denies this. Only time will tell.

Khan means well. Many of us want him to succeed. He has no baggage but neither has he any game plan. He has captured the limelight because he has made people realize how grossly they have been betrayed. However, Khan has no solid reforms manifesto worked out in detail – not yet anyway. His much vaunted team (shades of the 1992 cricket winners) contains not a single good man or woman to implement his ‘game plan.’ What he has are quality turncoats, genuine mediocres, light weight leaders and debauch feudals. This is not a winning team and cannot lift Pakistan out of the abyss in which it lies rotting. So far Khan is simplistic and woolly-headed and that is not how a winning captain should be.

Masood Hasan is a Lahore-based columnist who has written for English dailies over a long period. He has been a regular contributor to The Khaleej Times, Midday and other newspapers and periodicals and the author of the book “The Doggone Years.” He writes on social issues, politics, the human condition and cricket.

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