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) edict 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 irregularities – 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 journalist” 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 clearer.
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.