Larger than life

September 18, 2022

Critics wonder why Imran Khan’s supporters refuse to see his glaring faults

Larger than life


mran Khan is the only politician in Pakistan today who in the eyes of his adoring devotees can do no wrong. No matter what evidence one marshals against him for his malfeasance, they refuse to accept it and contend that all that is said against Khan is plain lies or false propaganda. His word is taken as gospel truth even in the face of shrieking evidence to the contrary. In this perspective, one can say that he is made of teflon so that no accusation of wrongdoing or unethical behaviour sticks to him.

His critics wonder why Khan’s lionising flock refuse to see that he is guilty of serious misconduct like violation of the constitution, repeatedly breaking laws of the land and undermining the army, the judiciary and the ECP. They hold that Khan is a flawed leader and given his performance during four years of his rule, it is obvious that he simply cannot deliver. In this perspective, one wonders why do his doting fans generally and certain sections of the society (women, youth and the middle class) in particular continue to believe that he is Pakistan’s only messiah?

Khan’s followers answer that he is honest and clean and thus the sole hope as all others, particularly the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris, who have had long innings in Pakistan’s politics and only lined their own pockets rather than improve the people’s lot, are responsible for the terrible mess in which Pakistan finds itself today. They are convinced that he was successful as PM and if he failed in certain areas it was because powerful mafias of all kinds, who are galore in Pakistan, obstructed his path at every step; that state institutions like the judiciary, the NAB and the ECP, instead of giving him a helping hand in this, did not cooperate with him in the noble task of fixing the economy and nation building; and that the all-powerful invisible forces, like Mir Jaffar and Mir Sadiq, joined hands with Pakistan’s enemies. As if this were not enough, these forces at the behest of the US, which did not like Khan’s independent foreign policy, in alliance with the opposition, conspired to bring about a regime change and impose quislings and looters on the nation.

In short, they regurgitate the arguments that their hero repeats ad nauseam at almost every public rally.

As for Khan’s continuing popularity in the face of a concerted vilification campaign against him by his opponents, his admirers explain that he is incorruptible, sincere, and a ‘gift from God’; that he is utterly committed to Pakistan as evidenced by the fact that unlike his political rivals, he has no assets, movable or immovable, abroad; that he is the only hope for Pakistan because all other political leaders have been tried and found wanting.

Here the question arises how far do these arguments carry conviction and if we can give Khan a pass for his failings. We believe that they are largely fallacious and no more than an apology for Khan’s failings. For example, the opposition removed his government through a vote of no confidence which is absolutely constitutional but his followers continue to say that he was removed illegally. Similarly, the ECP went an extra mile to accommodate Khan as evidenced by the longevity of the prohibited funding case but they are convinced that the Commission is biased against Khan. Also, there was no foreign conspiracy to remove him but they are adamant that there was.

The opposition removed his government through a vote of no confidence which is absolutely constitutional but his followers continue to believe that he was illegally removed. The ECP has gone an extra mile to accommodate Khan as evidenced by longevity of the prohibited funding case.

The question is why does his fan club continue to believe in Khan’s messiah mystique? Is it because of the PTI’s constant and ubiquitous social media blitzkrieg as Khan’s adversaries contend? This factor, while important, fails to fully explain his teflon character because even many of his admirers who recognise his failings continue to keep faith in him as Pakistan’s redeemer. We believe that the theory of charisma, propounded by the 20th Century German sociologist, Max Weber, furnishes an adequate answer to this riddle.

According to Weber, a charismatic leader is one whose followers believe that he possesses supernatural, superhuman or exceptional powers; a superman who can work miracles. Secondly, he proposes to address a situation of extraordinary distress or importance. He does not bother about routine matters. Thirdly, given the desperate situation in which the society finds itself, he needs to dispense with rational and traditional authority. He is to override established institutions whose job would be restricted to routine matters. Instead, he works through emotions, faith and trust of his flock. Simply put, he is a law unto himself. He is there to provide desperate remedy for a desperate situation. Hitler’s example admirably illustrates this theory.

Applied to Khan’s case, Weber’s theory seems to adequately explain why he has the teflon quality. Consider the following: Khan undeniably enjoys a huge charisma based on his winning the cricket World Cup, establishing a state-of-the-art cancer hospital and a university. Because of these conquests and his inspirational speaking ability, he claims and his fawning flock of fans concede him a messiah mystique.

The powers that be realised that Pakistan’s terribly poor economic situation posed an existential challenge to the country and that they needed to think out of the box to meet the challenge. That is when Khan came into the picture. They thought he had all the credentials to undertake this herculean task. They contrived to put him on the throne but unfortunately our hero was not up to the task. In the process, he became a law unto himself - ignoring or overriding state institutions. Thus, parliament became irrelevant; the NAB was blackmailed to fix his political opponents; the ECP was made to submit to his diktat; the media was muzzled and independent newsmen and newspapers, including this one, were mocked as being lifafas.

His supporters, however, don’t see any wrongdoing on his part. Instead, they blame these institutions for his failure to deliver. For them, Khan is flawless and if things have gone awry it was because of the opposition, Khan’s advisors or ministers, the establishment, foreign powers, etc. In short, anyone but their hero.

As to the middle class in general, it responds to Khan because he symbolises the values that they espouse, namely, nationalism focused on an anti-India and anti-US stance, Islam as Pakistan’s grundnorm and Urdu. Regarding the zealous support of particular sections of the society for Khan, it is universally recognised that he has a macho and Adonis image. It cannot be gainsaid that Khan, even at the age of 70, symbolises these qualities. Some support him because Khan appeals to their emotions. Let us not forget that they live by emotions, not reason. The couplet that ‘there is not to reason why/ there is but to do and die’ admirably captures the idea. The youth, too, are guided by emotions and not reason. The well-known saying that “if you are not a revolutionary at 20 you are a fool, and if you are still a revolutionary at forty you are a bigger fool” embodies this. Youth is made of stuff called dreams which Khan vends all the time. It would indeed be odd if the youth did not flock to his rallies.

The writer is former dean, QAU, Islamabad.

Larger than life