he political horizons in Pakistan are dominated today by uncertainty, confusion and disappointment. There is widespread and deep-rooted frustration among the masses due to economic and governance crises. Elections are round the corner but having failed to perform, no political party is in a position to launch an effective electoral campaign.
Some argue that it is time for an alternative leadership to emerge. There are many aspirants to fill this vacuum, including some celebrities. Let’s investigate their potential to become political leaders. In Pakistan, the political landscape has been dominated by the socio-economic elite. The political leadership has emerged from landed aristocracy, businessmen, professionals, bureaucrats, generals, spiritual and tribal leaders. The elite capture of the political system of Pakistan is clearly reflected in its leadership pattern. It has predominantly emerged from the upper echelons of society and from those who had extraordinary financial resources at their disposal.
Among the celebrities, Imran Khan has been an exception. He entered the political arena as a cricketing hero, having won the 1992 World Cup for Pakistan. He had launched a successful donation campaign for the construction of the first cancer hospital in Pakistan. During a nationwide donation campaign, he was well-received by the youth. This, later prompted him to enter politics. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) was launched with the agenda of social and economic reform. It recruited a new political class from urban educated middle classes. The party decided to contest the 1997 general elections with the promise of reform and provision of justice. As a celebrity and superstar, Khan was at the pinnacle of his popularity. He attracted large crowds and received positive projections from the media as a clean man and emerging ‘third force’. The PTI received only 2 percent of the vote; its supreme leader was defeated in all nine constituencies he contested. The PTI repeated the same performance in the 2002 elections, the only difference was that Khan won a seat from his native Mianwali. Later, under establishment’s patronage, some electables joined the party, transforming its political role and stature until it became the leading political force. Khan consistently maintained his celebrity status and frequently referred to his cricketing career and the construction of the Shaukat Khanum Hospital as his landmark achievements. He emerged as a great crowd-puller and is arguably the most popular leader today.
Exceptions aside, historical patterns suggest that the electorate does not prefer celebrities for political representation. Humanitarian worker Abdul Sattar Edhi’s case can be a benchmark. In a 1975 by-election in Karachi’s NW-134 constituency, he decided to run as an independent candidate. Jamaat-i-Islami also extended support to him. Despite his brilliant career as a social worker, he received only 7,611 votes and stood third after the Pakistan Peoples Party’s and JUP candidates. This rejection by the electorate proved a blessing not only for the poor and orphans of Karachi but also for Pakistan. Edhi abandoned his political ambitions and directed all his focus on the Edhi foundation. In the 1977 elections, the PPP fielded Hakeem Muhammad Saeed, the founder of Hamdard Foundation, and Jameel-ud Din Aali, a leading literary figure. The voters rejected both. Later, both went on to make outstanding contributions in their respective fields.
During 1984-85, PTV drama serial Andhera Ujala became the most popular serial, with Muhammad Qavi Khan playing the lead role. He decided to contest the 1985 partyless elections from Lahore’s NA 84 constituency. He polled 9,132 votes, securing the fourth position. Later, he continued to focus his energies on his artistic career and was able to earn popular admiration of the audiences.
In neighbouring India, too, some celebrities and super stars have entered the political arena. They were welcomed by political parties and awarded tickets. The celebrities benefited from the parties’ vote banks and the parties benefited from their fan following. Due to his personal relations with the Nehru family, Amitabh Bachchan contested the 1984 election to the Lok Sabha and won a thumping victory with 68 percent votes, making it a record victory margin from Allahabad. His artistic career suffered during his brief stint in politics. After some controversies, he left the party as well as politics. Later, the Bachchan family remained associated with the Samajwadi Party and Jaya Bachchan was elected to the Rajya Sabha. Sachin Tendulkar, a legendary cricketing hero, also entered the Rajya Sabha but failed to perform in the political arena and ultimately, left politics. There were some success stories as well like Jayalalitha, once a famous actor who later served as Tamil Nadu’s chief minister for 14 years. Navjot Singh Sidhu, a cricketing hero and television personality, entered politics as a representative from Congress and successfully maintained his multiple roles.
In Pakistan, celebrities like Tariq Aziz, a popular TV show host, and Akhtar Rasool, a legendary hockey player entered politics through the platform of mainstream political parties. They were able to win many elections. Other celebrities like Abrar-ul Haq and Salman Ahmad joined the PTI and gained some political prominence. The Billo famed singer Abrar was the founder of the Sahara organisation and had been engaged in philanthropy. He contested elections from the Narowal constituency against Ahsan Iqbal and was defeated twice.
Musarrat Shaheen, a Pashto film actress, established her political party and decided to contest elections against Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman. This created a hype in the media but failed to impress the electorate. She was defeated and received only 3,131 votes in the 1997 elections.
Former chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry too entered politics, founding his political party, the Pakistan Justice and Democratic Party, in 2015. He had resisted the Musharraf regime after his dismissal in March 2007 and was restored after the successful Lawyer’s Movement, which was able to mobilise urban educated middle classes for the rule of law and supremacy of the constitution. After his restoration, his judicial activism created political controversies. His party contested the 2018 elections but failed to inspire the masses. It secured only 12,637 votes and came in 35th in the electoral ranking.
Jawad Ahmad, a famous pop singer, also decided to enter the political arena. In the 2018 elections, he decided to run against three prominent political leaders – Imran Khan, Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto. He was rejected by the electorate and his party received only 2,702 votes.
When supported by mainstream political parties, some celebrities have managed to win elections. But generally, celebrities have been mostly rejected by the electorate with the exception of Imran Khan.
The writer has a PhD in history from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is an assistant professor of Pakistan Studies at Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad. He is interested in electoral politics in Pakistan. He can be reached at sajidkhanhistoriangmail.com. His X handle: sajidkhanqau