Wednesday May 31, 2023

Politics of cults

April 14, 2022

The era of Imran Khan is over — at least for the time being. He will now be spending his time as an opposition leader and devising a plan to regain the power he lost in that historic vote of non-confidence late Sunday night.

There are many who have rejoiced over the exit of Imran and the manner in which all institutions finally came together to uphold the constitution of Pakistan. But there are also many others who are deeply disappointed; these are people, many of them young or comparatively young, who say they wanted Imran Khan to stay in power rather than see a return to corrupt leaders.

Of course, they have a point. Our political leadership in the past has been so poor that people saw in Imran a ray of hope, a possibility of a better future. We all wish he had been able to deliver on it rather than become completely entwined in the politics of vendetta, revenge, and accusations against anyone who did not take his side in matters of the state or indeed other events.

Imran in many ways has become a cult figure. He is not a politician in the ordinary sense and the same holds true for Donald Trump, a man Imran says he admires and respects.

Whereas at one point politics was a much simpler affair based on ideology and belief, it has become far more complicated. In past years, both in Pakistan and elsewhere around the world, in an age of globalization votes were cast based on what kind of ideology people wished to follow. The right wing voted for parties which leaned in that direction. Socialists voted for socialist parties or those that lean that way and in Europe, for example, those who saw the environment as a serious issue to be defended in the future, voted Green. Of course, there were many nuances and many dips and falls in between. After all, when a classical political spectrum is put before us, there are always some issues in which we tend to go the opposite way to where our ideological leanings take us. This can be witnessed in classrooms and in think tanks around the world.

Imran Khan’s ideology, if it can be called that, was as he put it: to create a better, stronger, less corrupt Pakistan. This would have been wonderful. But the manner in which he went about the task was so inept and so ridden with both mistakes, incompetence, and, yes, corruption, that in the end he was bound to fail. Instead, he has turned into a cult figure, hero-worshipped, notably by the youth who still believe he can bring them something and is different to other politicians who have in the past led the country. We can only wish this was true.

Beyond his cult status, Imran appears to have little in the way of ideology, with the statements about a new Pakistan leaving one hoping only that the older Pakistan could come back. At any rate, creating a new Pakistan is not really a policy pledge but more a wide declaration of what is intended. Certainly, what Imran intended was probably good. But he simply lacked the capacity and lacked that important ability to listen to good advisers and to find them which may have helped him achieve his goals.

As a cult leader, Imran also inspired violence amidst many and hatred amongst almost all who followed him closely. His ministers have tweeted out extremely obnoxious comments on many issues in all languages and over all matters. Other politicians have been targeted, as have journalists, and social media users. This is a dangerous trend and the fascist in Imran, which some of his cricketing colleagues saw occasionally on the field, rose fully to the surface once he had taken the seat of prime minister and moved into the Prime Minister’s House.

We need to see now if in the future Imran Khan and whatever team he selects has the capacity to change and to grow. Will they learn from mistakes, or will they simply bury their heads in the sand? The answers will come in time, but it certainly seems the party lacked any respect for the law and any respect for the constitution. The same is true for the followers of Imran, who simply do not understand constitutionalism or how crucial it is to running and holding together a country. Without a constitution and without a readiness to follow what it lays down, there can be no state and no stable governance. The PTI failed to see this. It lambasted all other institutions again and again after initially clinging on to the most powerful institution to seek guidance and help in all matters. Once the crutches were removed, the collapse came quickly.

There are no doubt a limited number of choices before people. In Punjab, many will be relieved to see Shahbaz Sharif back in power in the centre and with some control over the province, possibly through his son Hamza. Like Imran and his men, Hamza too will need major lessons in politics and how political enterprise must be separated from violence, tensions and other evils.

We will have to see how far the new leadership succeeds in this and how it goes towards the next elections which the ECP has now said it will try and conduct within a matter of months if called upon to do so. The cult factor in the Imran Khan story is very real and somewhat alarming. Because of his charisma and his standing as a hero, Imran was able to attack many. But perhaps he did not think about what he would do once these people have been brought on board and how he could offer them what they had been promised. While the schemes the PTI had promised were well intended, there is no sign that all of them worked per plan. The Ehsaas programme too has had limited success and development is nowhere on the same scale as it was under the Sharifs. Without these factors in place, governments are doomed to fail.

Had Imran concentrated on uplifting the lives of the people rather than insisting that there was no real inflation and that it was far lower than in the rest of the world, perhaps he could have managed to put in place programmes and carry out charitable work as he has done before. He chose a different path and this in the end was his undoing.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

She can be reached at: