The disintegration of Pakistan’s most popular party exposes the limits of populism

The disintegration of Pakistan’s most popular party exposes the limits of populism

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The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan is engaged in a somber assessment of the reasons that led to the dramatic disintegration of his party. In doing so, he would be well advised to view dispassionately the series of events leading to the ransacking and vandalizing of state properties on May 9. More importantly, he will need introspection into fundamental causes that led to this rebellion against the state.

Political movements based on norms that only generate hatred and acrimony cannot last long. They have seldom produced anything worthwhile for humanity because they serve the interests of populist leaders-- but only for a short time. Then the inevitable decline begins to take root. Populist leaders live under an illusion that they can char and galvanize supporters at the spin of a hat. Therein lies the great folly. They do not realize there are limits to populism and that objective realities soon have to be confronted.

That is what is happening to Imran Khan. He was convinced that millions of Pakistanis are captive to his sentimental outbursts targeting opponents, and that in the face of such an emotionally charged public, no one can dare harm his party. He was swayed by popular support to the extent where he believed he would be able to get away with any lies put forward, and any claims or promises made. Thus when he was unseated as a result of a no-trust move in Parliament, he brandished a purported letter in a big public meeting claiming that a conspiracy was hatched all the way over in Washington to remove him from power. He announced that the letter he was displaying contained details of the plot by the US. The idea was to garner more public support because rank and file Pakistanis would love to be part of an anti-US campaign.

Reducing expenditure is not a favoured option among those who want to avoid non popular decisions. Reducing defense expenditure is even more problematic.

Rustam Shah Mohmand

But Khan declared after a few weeks of meditation that the claim of US intervention in his toppling was not verified. He got away with that as well. He lost no time in finding another target-- former army chief General Bajwa. Khan then alleged that the plot to remove him was spearheaded by Bajwa despite the fact that he gave an extension of three years to the former army chief. 

Following this, Khan’s endless tirade continued. When the May 9 incidents happened, he expressed his ignorance in trying to distance himself by saying he was not aware of the acts of violence committed by his party loyalists. Soon he was to warn that if he was arrested again, a similar public reaction would follow. That can be taken to mean the protesters had his approval in launching the attacks.

The PTI Chairman then made an offer of dialogue to government leaders, to find a solution to the crisis that has overtaken the country. Having received a lukewarm response, he changed his stance yet again. In a statement he declared he would not negotiate with coalition government leaders because they had no authority  and that the real authority to take decisions was vested in the military. He made an appeal to the army chief for a frank and candid meeting to take the country out of the morass of turmoil. The offer was spurned. 

So far, all but a few of the top leadership of the PTI have left the party, creating a frightening vacuum that threatens to derail the party. More desertions are likely soon. These mass desertions have created a situation of despair and gloom for the Chairman. But he has only himself to blame for the brutal decimation of the party’s hierarchy.

Khan should cool-headedly reflect on the four years that went to waste when he was the country’s leader. There was no time to formulate short or long term visions for the myriad challenges that the nation confronted. Issues like climate change, poverty, decline in exports, unemployment, vanishing forests and farm land, and declining agricultural productivity mattered little to him. There was this enormous focus on exposing the deeds and misdeeds of his political rivals. It was a full-time commitment. There was this unending daily barrage of abuse and wild allegations against rivals. That was the sole preoccupation, so much so that many rank and file Pakistanis became sick and fed up with the torrent of abuse hurled on a daily basis from every platform.

Pakistan faces a crisis of leadership. Issues and challenges are mounting. Economic worries are overwhelming people. Total annual revenues are not sufficient to pay interests on the huge debts accumulated over the years. The risk of default looms and no real strategy is in sight. Reducing expenditure is not a favoured option among those who want to avoid non-popular decisions. Reducing defence expenditure is even more problematic. In situations as dire as that, the country needs a bold, dynamic, visionary leadership that can take correct decisions to address its plethora of problems.

– Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.

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