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January 24, 2015



Has the leopard changed his spots?

Imran Khan, the present pope of popular politics in Pakistan, has the knack of shifting his stance from time to time – and in a seesaw manner. On January 18, while his highly charged supporters were waiting for him to unravel his ‘Plan-D’ to bring the federal government down, he vowed to devote all his energies to improving governance in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province which is ruled by his party. Does the decision mark simply another U-turn in Khan’s politics? Or is the leopard finally changing his spots?
If one word could sum up the way Khan played cricket, it would be ‘aggression’. By the same token, if one word can epitomise his politics, it is again ‘aggression’. And this is hardly surprisingly for a man who is apt to drawing analogies between cricket and politics. If attack, speed and variety could do wonder for Khan in cricket, they may as well serve his cause in politics. Simple logic, isn’t it? Not surprisingly, he keeps both his friends and foes guessing what he is up to.
Khan embarked on his political career in 1995 but remained in the wilderness for the decade and a half. In the course of the struggle to carve out a niche for himself in politics, he backed the martial law regime of Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf (a move he later regretted) and as a quid-pro-quo for the support, his 2002 election to the National Assembly was ‘facilitated’. However, his expectation that he would be rewarded big by the regime came to naught. He remained an MNA and nothing more.
But just when he was being written off, Khan sprang up a big surprise by staging a mammoth public meeting in Lahore – the city where political fortunes are made and lost. That was in October 2011. The rally gave the proverbial fresh lease to his hitherto disappointing political life and made him a force to reckon with. Khan’s detractors would smell a rat in the sudden rise in his fortune, attributing it to the same old ‘invisible hand’ that has the reputation

of making and breaking political alliances and governments in our country.
Be that as it may, Khan posed a serious challenge to the country’s leading political dynasty, the Sharifs, and that too in their own power base – Punjab. In the run-up to the 2013 elections, he seemed close to killing the lion in its den. But that turned out to be a case of too near and yet too far. The Sharifs’ PML-N swept the polls with Khan’s PTI finishing third behind the PPP. The PTI however formed government in KP.
Khan alleged that the polls were ‘fixed,’ a position he has maintained to date. Other than the army, there is hardly any national institution he has not pointed the finger at.
Despite announcing and executing various plans to oust the government – a four-month sit-in in the capital’s otherwise most heavily guarded square, starting a civil disobedience movement, staging huge public meetings in big cities and threatening to have ’shutter-down’ protests and strikes throughout the country – Khan’s campaign did not bear fruit. However, the movement has weakened the civilian setup so much so that it seems just one kick away from falling apart.
Until recently, the edifice of Khan’s politics rested on two pillars: the pro-Taliban narrative and the promise for radical change. Khan always questioned the counterterrorism campaign and advocated dialogue with the militants as the only solution to the militancy.
The narrative had three keynote elements: that the war on terror was not Pakistan’s own war but that of the United States’; that with a few exceptions (bad Taliban) the militants were essentially men of honour (good Taliban) who had taken up arms in protest against the US policies in the country and the region; and that through negotiations the good militants could be won over. Khan, like his archrival Nawaz Sharif, had subscribed to and popularised the narrative with a view to winning the right-wing vote bank – an endeavour that was partly successful.
The massacre of children in Peshawar forced Khan, and many others, to discard the pro-Taliban narrative. Khan’s position was even more awkward as his party rules the city that was attacked, and is primarily responsible for its security. Not surprisingly, when the skipper visited the Army Public School in Peshawar, angry parents took him on.
Khan is an enigmatic figure in that he represents a rare blend of a revolutionary and a constitutionalist. The two are poles apart. A revolutionary, with his hawk-like approach, has an inherent dislike of constitutional, legal means of solving problems, which work at a snail’s pace.
A revolutionary is seldom a pacifist. And Khan has been such a confirmed pacifist that to the very end he opposed a military solution to the militancy. But the same Khan threatened to personally execute policemen who would dare mess with his party workers during his dharnas. Perhaps he has the head of a constitutionalist and the heart of a revolutionary.
Over the years, Khan has held out several promises which only a person cast in a revolutionary mould could have made: rooting out corruption in three months; putting an end to the thana- and kutchery-based political culture, weeding out external influence on the country’s security and economic policies, and what not. But those lofty promises were to be realised by going through the rigmarole of the same old methods and working in the same snail-paced system.
Khan’s critics maintain that his revolutionary zeal consists in getting the seat of power in Islamabad – nothing more; that he owes his rise to the present ‘unjust’, ‘corrupt’ and ‘rotten’ system; that he joined hands with those who, like him, are among the highest beneficiaries of the system; and that all along his political career he has counted on forces that have the highest stakes in the preservation of the present system.
Though they may have a lot in common, cricket and politics are different ballgames. In cricket, one side either wins or loses; so there is a win-lose outcome. In politics, however, both sides can triumph and both can get decimated. A good politician is one who goes for a win-win outcome. The stand-off between Khan and Sharif has left both sapped of their strength – and the establishment has emerged as the winner who takes all.
In this context, Khan’s pledge to go all-out for improving governance in KP is a welcome move. Every choice has an opportunity cost. Khan’s anti-government campaign made him neglect the very people who voted him to power and who still make up his power base.
A fly in the ointment is that Khan seems to know only one way of doing politics, which sooner or later may bring him to the roads again. Let’s see how the future unfolds itself.
The writer is a freelancecontributor. Email: [email protected]