The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.
In his speech in Islamabad, PTI Chairman Imran Khan amazed many by using the example of Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and creation of the perfect Islamic State of Madina to explain his own political struggle. According to Mr Khan, just as Allah’s most precious Chosen One had an ordeal before reaching his sublime goals, he (Khan), too, could see destiny unfold before his eyes after what he believes has been a tough political journey.
These are spectacular statements, and only Mr Khan (or Dr Tahirul Qadri) can have the heart to utter them. Ordinary mortals don’t cite the lives of iconic religious figures as a reference point for their personal ambitions. No matter what the angle, drawing such analogies is dangerous – and of course totally misleading.
But Mr Khan’s central point was about the possibility of him becoming the prime minister of Pakistan and from that position changing the fate of this struggling nation through his revolutionary zeal and vision. It has to be said that this is not the first time that he has come close to the House on the Hill; so close that could probably smell its freshly-cut grass in the manicured lawns. He has been up and down the winding road that leads to the prize.
He was in with a real chance during Gen Pervez Musharraf days when the military strong man wanted him to replace both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Gen Musharraf told me in front of a few others that the whole idea behind getting Imran Khan to win the Mianwali election in 2002 was to “position him for the post”.
According to the general, who at that time was all in all and had little reason to lie, the deal fell apart because Mr Khan did not want to co-host the political show with the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, whom he at that time opposed as bitterly as he opposes the Sharifs these days. His next near-PM House experience was actually a non-chance; in the 2008 elections he could only see the PPP spurred by the killing of Benazir Bhutto edge past the N-League and form a government at the centre. He sat out the elections in the hope of making a strong arrival plan later. The polls in 2013 were probably the best possible electoral attempt Mr Khan made to land himself the position he aspires to. That was very close. But not close enough, which contextualises why he continues to believe that the 2013 elections were stolen from him.
With the PM House gates politically closed to him, Mr Khan attempted to crash through by launching what has to be one of the most elaborate attempts in modern times at dislodging a government. The dharna (or sit-in) was not supposed to a be a sit-in: it was meant to be a fast-moving tide of protest that would smash through the towering walls of the PM House, hose its occupants out of their offices, and with the help of the high and mighty of the land, pave the way for his inauguration.
But as it turned out, some among the high and the mighty were not that high to let him have his cake so easily while others weren’t so mighty as to pull it off for him. Then other things intervened and that chance was wasted.
Now in the shape of the Panama leaks, Mr Khan senses another opening for him to pull down the Sharifs and create that desired opening at the top. However, this opportunity, like all other opportunities he has had in the past, exists only in proportion to his capacity to avail it. This capacity is not just personal politics but also, and primarily, the organisational affairs of his party.
At a personal level, Mr Khan has proven himself to be a tireless campaigner. There are very few in this field today who match his energy when he hits the trail. Even fewer come close to his electrifying impact on the crowd. He is made for stage. He is blessed with a unique protection against substantial critique. Persons much bigger than him have been destroyed by baggage lighter than his. While others are haunted by their past, he can invent a past every day at will and present it as authentic to a largely unquestioning audience. That is why he is called Teflon Khan. However, charisma, charm and personality when unaccompanied by consistency of political vision dwindle in significance. As they mature, political leaders are required to sharpen their ideas for genuine popularity and effect. Mr Khan has been fairly ordinary in that department. He takes dancing crowds and his tweets for political vision as harbingers of revolution. And even these slogans have flavour-of-the-month quality. They change with the direction of the political wind and are caused by events. That gives Mr Khan’s personal politics the unfortunate quality of a rolling stone. The reason he has not consistently gathered the moss of mass appeal is because he does not stand on a well-defined platform of ideology. ‘Go-Nawaz-Go’ may be a popular slogan but it says nothing about the ways mr Khan hopes to adopt to make Pakistan akin to the State of Madina.
Tree plantation drives and rallies against corruption are like fake-hair implants: skin-deep measures that make you look presentable but do nothing to arrest ageing. For all the years that he has spent in politics and the fabulous popularity he has gathered in the process, Mr Khan is still light years away from presenting a convincing blue print for steadying the national ship in choppy waters.
And there are also many organisational challenges he faces. Among all the chances and near-chances that he has had in making it to the Prime Minister House, one thing stands out: his party does not function like a well-oiled machine at critical times and thus thwarts possibilities of his ambitions becoming reality. Even now when the Sharifs are facing one of the biggest challenges of their political life, Mr Khan’s PTI is a like wax house, melting away by fires within. Factionalism and personality clashes have become so extreme that even the mighty Khan’s dinner table isn’t a place any more for showing grace and courtesy.
Most of these internal wars are concentrated in the most crucial political area: Punjab. Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Chaudhry Sarwar, Jehangir Tareen, Aleem Khan, Shafqat Mehmood, Hamid Khan, Ejaz Chaudhry are not individuals with clashing, colliding aims; they are symptoms of the oldest affliction of the PTI – internal disorder and chaos. Since Mr Khan has no experience in handling organisational matters, he has used the Shaukat Khanum Model to manage his politics: hire the most competent hands to do the job and keep a general command on them all. Bad idea. Political management is as different from hospital management as the lives of Prophets are from those of ruthless power players.
Consequently, Mr Khan, for all his effort and potential, is still not comfortably placed when it comes to handling his party. His reliance on his political managers has become addictive. He does their bidding without even realising how that undermines his own standing and hurts the party. He has turned the PTI into JKTI, reducing the organisation’s aims to protecting the interests of the favourite few. Worse, any feedback that points to these structural hijacking of the party by bullying billionaires is killed without kindness by Mr Khan himself. That makes his journey to the PM House a circuitous one.
The building is in his sight, but will it be in his grasp? He may think so but his party’s internal divisions and his own peculiar brand of politics and campaigns are barriers that lie ahead. He has been a prime minister in the making for decades. Now is the time for him to seriously reflect on what really prevents him from the oath-taking.
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