Raza Habib Raja
Before I start, let me admit one thing here that I got it wrong and underestimated Imran’s ability to actually bring his facebook supporters to the street. Ok, I admit this is something I had not imagined to be possible in the past. In fact I have been mocking PTI for a considerable period of time for being a political “nobody” apart from being a reactionary party. But no matter what spin I try to give, the fact is that PTI is a force to reckon with, at least in Urban Punjab. Yes one successful political rally does not mean that PTI has conquered Pakistan but it has shown itself to be a rising force in terms of popularity. Reactionary it may still be but it is somebody today!! And Imran deserves full credit for that.
About two days before his rally, I started to hear (on facebook again!!) from several of friends and cousins that they actually planned to attend PTI’s rally in Lahore. Most of them are either young or belong to the white collared urban middleclass which always has expressed severe doubts over the political process and democracy. Most of them have been extremely apolitical in their lives and to find out that they were actually taking the trouble to go to a rally was a big surprise. And despite the fact that I don’t approve of who they were supporting (Sorry I don’t politically support Imran ), a positive surprise.
Today I was watching the clips on the You Tube and was bewildered by the crowd and a huge number of youngsters who had shown up. Imran Khan has been able to galvanize the students and the youth, including those who are often categorised as “Generation X”. Despite having severe disagreement with Imran’s conservative outlook, I could not resist myself from being appreciative of the sight.
And what a sight it was! I will be dishonest if I say that it was not an impressive show. Youngsters, women, children and those who had long become “cynical” were all there. Whether they are backing the right horse is a separate question but the fact is that they were participating. And yes even from the blurry video of You Tube, I could feel what the crowd was feeling in those moments: Hope.
What was in front of my eyes was democracy at work. May be Imran Khan is ISI backed and therefore in essence shady in democratic credentials, but those who had gathered at the venue came their out of their own accord and tried to show their support through an essentially democratic process. Some of my friends have been working for months on galvanising support for today, a fact which has just come to my notice and they by no stretch of imagination have anything to do with ISI though you can argue that they are “influenced” by its narrative.
As a political person, I am interested not only in ideologies but also in the grand scheme of things. Democracy can only function in a sustained manner when apolitical becomes political and when youth starts to participate. Yes mistakes will be made and at times even “reactionaries” will become popular but that is the learning curve of the democratic process. Also if people who never bother to vote and are just busy in their professional lives, start participating in the political process then the democratic process is strengthened.
Now comes the big question? Why are previously apolitical people and youth supporting him? Is it because of his opposition of drone attacks? Is it because he often gives apologetic defence to the Taliban? Partly yes, but this is not the main reason behind the surge of popularity. I think the liberal press has become too obsessed with Imran’s pro Taliban statements to understand that not everyone who is supporting PTI is a Taliban supporter.
I know several who by no stretch of imagination are Taliban supporters but are supporting Imran. Their reason is that the present parties have misgoverned and lack “sincerity”. Imran’s surge in popularity in Urban Punjab is an outcome of complex interplay between changing demographics ( as number of young people have increased), the increasing power of the still nascent social media, potency of the electronic media and the “image” issue of the current political players. Most of the people who are supporting Imran are unanimous that he is sincere and honest so they want to give him a chance. For many of them their political support for Imran is the extension of their personal respect for Imran’s services to Pakistan and not because of Imran’s apologetic defence of Taliban. Yes a few do support him on that count also but that is not the major reason.
The first objection I get from several of my friends whenever I say anything against Imran is that he is a clean person who has rendered great services to Pakistan. They also remind me that in my youth I too used to worship Imran Khan and even used to copy his bowling action. It’s that cricketing and philanthropic record, which is untainted coupled with the fact that right now country is facing a severe load shedding and deteriorating governance quality, which explain his increasing popularity. My friends say that they want rule of law and Imran, being a sincere person will work sincerely to end nepotism and corrupt culture. In urban areas of Punjab, issues like corruption do matter and when finally a person with “clean” image starts looking electable, this may actually translate into some electoral success.
So does Mr. Khan have a political future? Well, in my opinion he will not sweep the elections, but IF HIS MOMENTUM CONTINUES (Folks election are still 1.5 years away and one Jalsa does not mean that you have conquered Pakistan), Urban Punjab will see a definite change and so will some areas of Khyber Pukhtunkhawa. And that is where the buck stops. I really don’t find that Imran Khan’s narrative swaying many in rural Punjab, Sindh (urban and rural) and Baluchistan. The demographics and the ideological bent there are too different. Rural Punjab can be dented somewhat if “strong” candidates join PTI. In future as urbanization grows, if momentum stays with Mr. Khan and provided he has time (he is already 58), yes there may be a permanent shift.
One of the lessons which need to be learnt by the main two parties is that governance is not merely an electronic media generated abstract but a real concern which the rising urban population will eventually factor in. If you don’t improve it, then you will find yourself ceding political advantage in CITIES to clean but reactionary politicians. So PPP and PML (N), I hope you do understand this and so do your supporters.