At this rate, all Imran Khan will have left is an empire of ashes
Love him or loathe him, there’s no escaping Imran Khan. He is ubiquitous. No other topic – economic devastation, poverty, extremism, eco-destruction, poor governance and near-bankruptcy – survives for long before the conversations in newsrooms, offices, streets and homes, invariably veer back to Khan.
Few dare dream of this pole position. The former prime minister is at the peak of his popularity – and he has been the country’s all-time favorite sports star for the first half of his life – virtually becoming synonymous with Pakistan in his second philanthropic-cum-political half.
And this larger-than-life persona is now turning out to his – and one of the country’s – biggest challenges ever. He may not be in power any more but key national institutions including the executive, parliament and judiciary, plus the military, can’t seem to do much else except deal with him and continue to fight each other in the process of managing to do a whole lot of nothing else.
Even in ‘normal times’ Khan operates on a constant confrontational mode and is hard to handle – he emotes, articulates and plays the angry man part like no one else, endearing him to most of Pakistan’s swelling ranks of millennials old enough to be his grandchildren and the cynical urban elites who are all convinced his political opponents are every bit the crooks and no-good that he says they are even without legal convictions.
The reductionism of his political narrative has made him as popular as Bhutto, Benazir or Nawaz ever were, if not more. But his politics of populism, growing steadily after he lost power last year in the country’s first parliamentary voting out of a prime minister, is now on steroids after the dissolution of the legislatures and his own governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces to force the ruling coalition to national elections.
While the ruling alliance of all his key opponents has foiled that attempt despite a polarized but critical mass of the judiciary still supporting Khan’s legal challenges, he has managed to keep the political pressure high enough to force the government into failed governance. Simultaneously, he has managed to cultivate an aura of invincibility by dodging over 100 legal cases slapped against him by the government and using the public spectacle to beef up his public appeal as well as by pointedly targeting the military leadership as being out to eliminate him.
Khan has proven his strength and there’s no need to prove more of the same – after all this is politics, not war.
This popular appeal exploded into an astonishing display of public fury when he was finally arrested last week but freed within two days by the apex court in unprecedented legal relief. But not before his supporters went on a rampage with unbelievable scenes of military installations, cantonments and houses of military commanders ransacked and torched. He has demonstrated no remorse and once released, promptly blamed the current army chief and warned of more to come if he was arrested again.
This is crossing a red line by someone who has promoted the philosophy of himself personifying a red line. To use a key physics conundrum, what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Since the judiciary is seen by power wielders to be over-protecting Khan, there are dark mutterings of him being tried beyond the pale of normal law – under the army act that carries a minimum life term. Indeed, the army chief promptly announced to punish all involved in the May 09 ‘black day,’ while ministers speak of banning the party. Something will surely give after this imperial overstretch by Khan.
Khan may have painted himself into a legal and political corner, but he has simultaneously managed to plant himself in the startling position to unleash public fury on scales never witnessed before. What will he do with all this power that renders his political opponents unable to counter him through the system? Will he take this further if cornered further? He certainly indicates so. He should not – why not convert this threat into an opportunity? Khan has proven his strength and there’s no need to prove more of the same – after all this is politics, not war.
Instead, he should demand space within the system rather than insist that it be reshaped around his vision that excludes everyone else. He can set conditions that allow a central role for him in the process of reforming the state. All parties except his are clamoring for a charter of economy that can help Pakistan align its politics with the economy to expand and deepen space for political stability and socio-economic development.
Khan should opt for a happy ending for the longer term rather than a possibly tragic outcome that will only deliver poisoned fruit in the shorter term. By setting everything alight outside the established playbook, he will have only an empire of ashes to preside over.
— Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.