Imran Khan’s anti-American campaign has strengthened his populist base

Imran Khan’s anti-American campaign has strengthened his populist base

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Nothing illustrates the unpredictability of Pakistani politics more than the dramatic surge in Imran Khan’s mass popularity. Having fallen from grace just a few weeks ago, the former prime minister is back in the arena leading a mass movement in what he describes as a “freedom struggle” against the ‘foreign conspiracy of regime change.’

While blaming America for the ouster of his government, Khan vows to bring down what he calls an ‘imported regime’. Given deep-rooted anti-American sentiments in Pakistani society, the public response to the conspiracy narrative has not been surprising. 

The narrative of a ‘foreign conspiracy’ may have failed to prevent the unravelling of the former ruling coalition, but populist, ultra-nationalist rhetoric has galvanized Khan’s supporters as evident from the large public rallies across the country.

Imran Khan’s move to weaponize this and whip up nationalist sentiments has dangerously polarized the country. It has not been uncommon in Pakistan’s power game to use the ‘anti-state’ label against political rivals. Almost every political leader in the country has, at one time or the other, been branded a traitor. 

But Khan has taken the patriotism mantra to a new level. He has declared himself the sole defender of national interests, while painting all his opponents as ‘American agents’. 

Khan may be the latest politician to weaponize nationalism but he is far from the first. And in all likelihood, he will not be the last to invoke this tried-and-tested narrative.

Zahid Hussain

Interestingly, as is now clear, the conspiracy narrative has been built around a cable from the outgoing Pakistan ambassador to Washington, based on his conversations with senior-level US State Department officials. It is simply a diplomat’s analysis of the existing views in Washington regarding the Khan-led government.

Pakistan’s National Security Committee that comprises top civilian and military leadership has recently reiterated that there was no foreign conspiracy to topple the Khan-led government. But it hardly matters. PTI supporters and the party leadership have stuck to the narrative.

The long history of external involvement in Pakistani politics — particularly the decades-long Pak-US relations rollercoaster ride, which has certainly had its ups and downs — has made it easier to whip up anti-American sentiments. This is what makes the ‘imported government’ narrative such a powerful tool. The distrust towards America strengthens this narrative.

Indeed, this distrust has built up over decades. Public opinion in Pakistan about the US has not been favourable. This is backed by a decades-long history — a history not only of the volatile relations between the two countries, but how these sour relations have been leveraged within Pakistan for political mileage. 

One of the reasons for Khan’s increasingly strident anti-American stance is said to be the cold response from the Biden administration. Khan’s attempts to get Biden on the phone last year yielded no results. And surely, the former prime minister’s insistence on igniting anti-US sentiments has not gone unnoticed internationally.

For the past several years, Washington has seen Pakistan purely from the Afghan prism. With the end of America’s two decades of war in Afghanistan the alliance between Islamabad and Washington has come full circle. The relations have now gone into a deep freeze. 

Meanwhile, changing regional geopolitics have created a new alignment of forces. The growing strategic alliance between the US and India on one side, and the China-Pakistan axis on the other, reflect these emerging geopolitics. Pakistan’s growing strategic relations with China and the escalating tension between Washington and Beijing too cast a shadow over US-Pak relations. 

The development has also fuelled a sense of betrayal against America among the population that’s being exploited by the former minister. Khan may be the latest politician to weaponize nationalism but he is far from the first. And in all likelihood, he will not be the last to invoke this tried-and-tested narrative.

Interestingly, they are mostly among the urban educated middle classes that Khan’s foreign conspiracy narrative has found traction. Khan also has  a huge following among the retired military officers and soldiers who seem to have been carried away by his ultra-nationalist rhetoric. 

The return of an old and tested dynastical rule has also been the reasons for the younger generation getting increasingly disenchanted with power politics. Imran Khan’s political rise is also attributed to the youth looking for change. 

Imran Khan’s main political strength is his cult following.  A major question is whether the former prime minister can build and sustain a mass movement to force the new government to call early elections. He has called his supporters to storm Islamabad in the last week of May. 

His single-track strategy may not have worked in the past but his loyalists believe that the massive public response to his call could force a weak coalition government to succumb to the demand of early elections. But many other contend that the powerful security establishment could intervene directly or indirectly in the event of a collapse of the system. 

- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain

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