Imran Khan: Where Critics like Me Went Wrong in Estimating His Popularity

Raza Habib Raja

It is often alleged that ISI is supporting him. It may actually be true but ISI is not the only one supporting him. It is alleged that reactionaries support him. Well may be true again but once again they are not the only one. It is said that a segment of urban middleclass with passion for Allama Iqbal’s Islam  supports him. Yes it does but here too, it is not the only one. Imran is now being supported by many in ADDITION to the categories I have just mentioned.

Ladies and Gentlemen, urban middleclass alone cannot fill huge venues and as far as almost all the reports are concerned, the massive rallies were attended by people from all walks of life.

Something else is happening here APART from the alleged ISI support. ISI can arrange logistics, can perhaps pressurize or bribe media, but cannot suddenly create mass scale conversion from all walks of life to Imran Khan’s PTI. Hassan Nisar, who by all accounts is a liberal and very outspoken journalist nailed it right that Imran is like a wild cat after seeing whom the opponents have simply closed their eyes. He also pointed out that while it is true that Imran’s party is a one man show even PPP during its rise was like that. Politics in our part of the world takes the same trajectory. And it is that fact which is most tragic.

And it is the time that we realize and acknowledge it: He has the mass support now. As one of my friends aptly pointed out after the Lahore rally that denial is not a river in Egypt.

YES, HIS MESSAGE AND IDEOLOGICAL ORIENTATION IS NOT RIGHT. Sorry Imran Khan supporters, your leader needs to improve his rhetoric. Yes he panders to  establishment narrative and frankly I do not think whipping Allama Iqbal style of Islam is the right thing to do. But the problem is that this is something which almost all have done at one point or the other.

Yes, it is a one man show and as someone pointed out that if Imran were to die, where would PTI go. All these are valid criticisms  but the problem is that  almost all his alternatives are riddled with the same issue. Imran is a one man show but so are other parties who are reliant on dynasty politics. Dynasty politics is also an improvised form of personal politics.

Yes critics are right when they point out that in reality Imran’s party (since it has invited turncoats)  is no different but then this also begs a question: Why vote for his alternatives then? So the voters are looking at just one factor: Imran’s personality. Yes it is perhaps a very narrow criterion but in their heads they have a justification that if all the parties are the same then the sole difference is perhaps the main leaders. So the comparison in their head  is not between PPP, PML N and PTI but between Zardari, Nawaz and Imran. It is a sorry state of affairs but this is what happens when you blindly follow and promote personalized politics. In Pakistan before Imran’s rise began, this is what the supporters of other parties have been doing: just promoting personality and legacy politics. When you do that, eventually you are yourself preparing the grounds for the rise of people like Imran. If a Sharif or Bhutto is larger than their parties, then why complain if Imran is larger than PTI?

Yes, critics are also right when they talk about Imran’s appeasing attitude towards Taliban but his surge of popularity has not come due to his appeasement towards Taliban. And in recent times even his stance about Taliban is changing as now he has to cater to people from a wider ideological bent.

Due to complex interplay of many factors he is becoming larger than life. For someone who has been called a media construct by a host of journalists ( I am also one of those though technically I cannot be called a journalist), the rise is amazing and this fact is difficult to fathom as it runs completely contrary to our earlier assertions. I have myself called him a political minnow and so have some very famous journalists whom I respect a lot.

We have mocked at him, called him a political minnow, a political nobody and have portrayed him as someone whom only some urban middleclass professionals, right wing zealots and a  few crazy internet trolls could like. Well, all of them still like him but now the support base has increased to include many others.

It is obvious that massive rallies have shocked all the political analysts  and consequently the reaction is understandable: It has to be solely the grand conspiracy of establishment  and its mouth piece, the electronic media.

Yes it is partly true but in my opinion it does not explain all the reality.

Well media is not monolithic and has various channels and so to assume that somehow or the other all the channels have been bought over by the army to prop up Imran is stretching it too much. Yes, it is somewhat pro Imran but then it has been pro Imran for many years now and the reasons are generally commercial because media’s main target market, the urban middleclass likes to watch Imran. However, Imran’s surge in popularity is recent and it is no longer just confined to urban middleclass. This is crucial to understand because we can no longer deny that Imran is popular now. In fact for the past many months all the opinion polls conducted by foreign reputable firms have been indicating Imran’s surge in popularity and that popularity cut across the supporters of all the political parties and various income groups.

Of course, at that time I brushed their findings aside (with mocking comments), but was stunned into believing when I saw the Lahore rally and also various snaps taken by my previously apolitical friends showing not only that the crowd was huge but consisted of people from eclectic backgrounds. And yes the crowds included a lot of women and even children.

And then I know that many people with moderate and even liberal orientation were also there and coming out impressed. The new support base has broadened across ideological spectrum also.

So what are the dynamics here?

Well whether we like to admit it or not the fact is that political parties, particularly PPP and PML N have not delivered. Yes, they may like to blame establishment and army and lament that they do not have any power but then if you have excuses then you should not be asking for people to vote at all. I mean why ask for vote when you also claim that you don’t have any power at all. It is common sense, which unfortunately is not common, that saying that we do not have ANY power and still asking for votes ( with promises that we will deliver) is severely contradictory.

Yes army is a meddling institution and THE worst blood sucker of Pakistan but even then political parties have a substantial domain to operate. And if they had not, then they would have simply ceased to exist. And Imran even if supported by military still has to appeal to the people and will be competing for votes.

The point what I am trying to make is that where BOTH the political parties had the leverage, they failed.

Imran’s surge in popularity is the direct outcome of the perceived failure of BOTH the parties coupled with a general perception that he is sincere and has rendered outstanding services to Pakistan. And let me admit here that he has rendered outstanding services to Pakistan. It is public perception of Imran’s personality in CONTRAST to the worsening public perception of the current political lot, which has primarily resulted in the rise. Of course Imran had a positive repute before also but the perception about PPP and PML N leadership had not worsened to that extent. When a particular threshold was crossed, the mass scale conversions began. Momentum once achieved had dynamics of its own. Once sceptics see huge crowds they are ready to join due to increase in electability. Plus Imran has never been into power, therefore many want to give him a chance.

During these four years, whereas substantial progress has been made on constitutional issues, but economic situation has really deteriorated squeezing people. Disillusionment has grown due to worsening law and order situation and constant political fighting between centre and Punjab. On top of it, the nepotism has worsened and severe violations of merit have taken place. In Karachi, we have seen constant bloodshed while money mafia continues to threaten people and exhort money.

Eventually people get sick. GOVERNANCE IS IMPORTANT. It is not merely a middle class cherished ideal which “liberals” allege is divorced from the “real” concerns of life, nor it is a right wing “abstract” propelled by media. It is something which eventually will be factored in. YES IT WILL BE FACTORED IN and HAS BEEN FACTORED IN.

Yes they are right when they say that establishment has tried to sabotage but at the same time their own incompetency has not helped either.

And add to that their selection of media communicators. I am really sorry to say that when your spokespersons consist of people like Baber Awan, Rehman Malik, Firdous Aashiq Awan, Rana Sana Ullah and Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan then you are merely worsening an already hostile environment.

Which parties in their right frame of mind would employ the services of such people?

And constant references to historic struggles (PPP during Zia and PML N during Musharraf times) have outlived their utility. SORRY once again.

In times of despair, it is natural human tendency to clutch at any glimmer of hope. If people are thinking that Imran is the last hope then for God sake try to do some soul searching as to why situation has reached that extent rather than imagining grand conspiracies everywhere.

And finally, be credible in criticism of Imran and learn to give credit when it is due. If he has apologized to Baluch then have a heart and acknowledge it. If he has mentioned about minorities then once again at least acknowledge it rather than complaining as to why no minority was allowed to speak.

Criticism looks appealing when it is credible.

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