The future of Khan’s appeal

The future of Khan’s appeal


s Imran Khan popular? If you believe so, do you imagine that this will continue to be the case in the coming months heading into the elections? And why is Imran Khan popular, at least among a substantial percentage of young urban youth?

These are the kind of questions many have recently asked, and I have been on the receiving end on a few occasions. In general, as a matter of academic principle, I try not to analyse the day-to-day events of national politics. As someone who believes in academic empiricism, I have come to realise that there is rarely sufficient quality data on Pakistani politics. Much of our politics takes place behind closed doors through opaque procedures. The best an outside observer could do in such a situation is to speculate based on rumours, and as a subscriber to Occam’s razor, that is an enterprise I try to avoid under the best of circumstances.

I do, however, believe that Imran Khan’s undeniable and persistent popularity stems from two long terms issues that have less to do with what PTI or Imran Khan have to offer and more with how politics have been approached in Pakistan.

The first of these issues is the inability or the unwillingness of the traditional political elite to allow a more competitive political environment. Dynastic politics is, of course, the most obvious, rather cliched, manifestation of the issue. However, without exaggeration, one can observe the prohibitive entry barriers to meaningful politics for any outsider. In fact, there is little hope for insiders to go through the ranks beyond what has been designated for them commensurate with their proximity to the leading family in each dynasty.

Such a systemically exclusive political system was understood and accepted as fait accompli by earlier generations that had largely resigned and reconciled with politics as exclusive domain of the entitled classes. The younger voters, especially those in the urban areas, have much less baggage of the sort. The economic anxieties have further exacerbated their discontent with the system and those they deem presiding over it, providing them with unambiguous targets at which to direct their rage. The resentment against this traditional political class is hardly limited to Pakistan. One can see the descent of the Indian National Congress and the rise of Trumpism in the US in the same terms.

There are also clear retorts to the point presented here. First, if the entry barriers are so high, how did Imran Khan manage to get to the top of Pakistan’s political hierarchy. Needless to say, Imran Khan might be an outsider to politics, but much like Trump, Imran Khan had been a widespread celebrity without which it would be impossible for him to make the kind of mark that he had made. He was also understood to have established credibility in the public eye through his work for a cancer hospital. The other obvious question my line of reasoning could raise is that Imran Khan may not be from the traditional political class, but he has surrounded himself with people many of whom are hardly new to politics. However, the point here is not whether the PTI or Imran Khan are outsiders and that they represent a change in real terms, it is that this is how their followers perceive them.

The second reason why Imran Khan has come to occupy the space that the traditional political elite have left is the lack of ideological diversity in the politics of the country. Over the past seven decades, the state has ensured that all ideological cleavages are evened out to the extent that the only viable voices remaining in the political sphere are towards the right of centre. If Pakistan had true political diversity, the situation would be ripe for a leftist or at least left of centre political force that would make wealth redistribution as its principal platform. As it stands, instead of a credible leftist alternative, people who are disgruntled with the current political configuration have stood behind Imran Khan and the PTI who have, at best, an unclear position on whether and how to focus on wealth redistribution favourable to the more deprived classes.

Will Imran Khan continue to remain a major force in Pakistani politics? Unless something unforeseen happens, I believe he will remain a key figure. The only way his popularity could diminish in the coming days is if he returns to power and fails to deliver on his promises and claims. And this brings me to my final two observations: one, it is best to proceed with the elections without unnecessary delays because the idea of a leader often proves to be more desirable than the reality of their policies. And two, Imran Khan may not be the answer to the questions our youth raise against our current politics, but that alone cannot be sufficient reason for brushing aside their questions.

The author is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Peshawar. He can be reached at

The future of Khan’s appeal