By Raza Habib Raja
In recent times there has been a surge in the popularity of Imran Khan in the urban and internet savvy youth of the country. In fact if elections were to take place on Facebook, the debonair Khan would be the hands-down winner by a large margin. Whether this Facebook “politics” and “activism” characterized by sharing Khan’s speeches and pressing “Like” button, actually translates into anything material for still struggling PTI remains yet to be seen. Nevertheless it does make an interesting case for further analysis: Why the youth of this country (rather urban youth) are pinning their hopes on Mr. Khan. Moreover the latest Pew Research poll also places Imran as the most popular leader with 68% approval rate. In fact a further breakup reveals that a majority of PPP voters (61%) and PML-N (81%) have a favourable image of Imran. However, there is a huge question mark whether merely having favourable opinion can actually lead to good performance in the elections.
Generally the liberal section of the English print media offers the familiar explanation that modern day youth, even if belonging to affluent “yuppie” section of the upper middleclass, are actually closet Taliban and therefore Imran’s apologetic defense of the Islamic hardliners strikes a chord with them. I am not in full agreement with this analysis because the urban youth is relatively a large heterogeneous group with variations in lifestyles and beliefs. I have personally known several people who are hardly religious and conservative in their outlook and yet they are apparently supporting Imran.
Compared to Jamat-i-Islami, Imran draws his support from more eclectic backgrounds and people who are westernized in their appearance and even general outlook are included in it. Yes some may be supporting him due to his “gharait” narrative and his apologetic defense of Taliban, but not everyone. In fact ghairat narrative is not the sole monopoly of PTI as others have also been whipping it. Actually it is a combination of factors, ghairat included, which explain the surge in popularity of Imran in one particular age group.
In my opinion Imran’s appeal in the urban youth primarily comes from his “New and Untested Face” image. Generally the widespread belief is that current breed of politicians and political parties are corrupt and incompetent and therefore we need a new face with some sort of clean public record. Imran becomes an obvious candidate due to his cricketing heroics, which were untarnished by match fixing allegations and his excellent record in philanthropy (let’s admit that Shaukat Khanum Hospital and Namal University are monumental testimony to Imran’s services to Pakistan). Add to that his suave personality, Oxford education, excellent articulation abilities and you have a hero for the impressionable youth to emulate. For many of these youngsters, PTI’s support is mostly a political manifestation of their personal hero worship and fascination with Imran. Imran tried to promote merit during his captaincy, contributed towards welfare through philanthropy after retirement and now speaks of rule of law and elimination of corruption. Moreover, his political message resonates with what has been taught in Pakistan Studies classes since 1980s.
The ideals which the Khan articulates are those ideals which the urban middleclass and particularly the youth want to follow.
Now I am against Imran’s twisted fascination with Taliban and his irrational brand of patriotism, but at the same time I do admire him for his services to Pakistan. I will be indulging in intellectual dishonesty if I try to portray him as an insincere person. Moreover while his pro Taliban message should be condemned but there is nothing wrong with efforts to whip up anti corruption sentiments.
However the central problem is that other than drones and hollow sloganeering about sovereignty, anti corruption is the only political message by the PTI. This though important cannot and will not translate into any kind of mass support. One of the major reasons is that PTI is not a mainstream party like PPP and PML (N) and secondly unlike these two parties it does not represent any economic and ethnic constituency. PPP draws its support from the lower segment of the society on a countrywide basis and also has strong ethnic support in Sindh and Sareiki belts. Likewise PML (N) has solid support among trading and salaried classes and moreover represents Central and Northern Punjab along with Hazara region. Both the parties have a captive and politically responsive support of people who actually vote rather than merely indulging in drawing room discussions and Facebook activism.
The well entrenched support of captive voters makes both the parties much more potent to bring any change compared to a fringe party like PTI. The supporters of Imran, if they want to improve governance will be better placed to engage with the mainstream parties rather than indulging in Facebook support of Imran. Eventually changes in a democratic polity come through convincing a large number of people and these parties have the votes and street power. Yes it can be argued that politicians belonging to these parties are “tested” or “corrupt’ but mainstream parties in essence represent the society as it is and capture the aspirations, dreams and interests of the society.
Youth have to form a pressure group within a party of their ideological leaning and then try to change the party priorities. It works the same ways across the globe. In USA, the libertarians have formed “tea party” which tries to selectively support Republicans. There also the libertarians have realized that it would not be effective to actually form a new party and therefore have tried to influence an existing mainstream party of their preference. Likewise the trade unions regularly act as pressure groups within the Democratic Party in USA and the Labour Party in UK.
For those young people as well as the members of civil society who think that corruption and governance are issues worth addressing effectively, they need to go mainstream. It also holds for those who are trying to muster support for repealing of controversial laws such as Hudood. The yearning for “New” and “Untried” faces does not have high chances of success.