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Can Imran Khan’s rise and ‘fall’ shape the nation’s destiny? May 9, 2013

Posted by aungsi in : Misra, Ashutosh, Pakistan , trackback

Ashutosh Misra

At the time of writing this article Imran Khan’s condition was reportedly stable and improving, but not rapidly enough to enable him to cast his vote on May 11. What an irony that a leader whose political fortunes depend on every vote will not be able to cast his own. Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) party had sustained serious head and back injuries in a terrible fall from a wobbly car-lifter, supporting one personal guard too many, as it tried to hoist him atop a container-cum-stage. This accident must have instilled a frightening sense of déjà vu in the people of Pakistan who had witnessed the shocking assassination of Benazir Bhutto just before the 2008 elections, who later succumbed to the suspected gun-shot wound in the head. In the ensuing sympathy wave the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) came to power, making Asif Ali Zardari the President, in a yet another accident of history.

It is rather inappropriate to talk about the sympathy wave that would be generated for the PTI while Mr. Khan remains bed-ridden, but one is reminded of how unforeseen events time and again have altered the course of the nation’s destiny in its 65 years of existence. The assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister, in 1951, had bereft Pakistan of a visionary leader during the critical formative years of the country, giving the military-bureaucratic oligarchy a hold over state-building, at the cost of democracy. Similarly, the execution of the first popularly elected Prime Minister Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto in 1979, following General Zia ul Haq’s military coup, had abruptly cut short Pakistan’s democratic journey and ushered a decade of military dictatorship laced with extensive Islamisation of the state and society. The consequences of these events have continued to plague the country to this day. A decade later, the unexpected death of General Zia in a mysterious air crash in 1988 changed the nation’s fortune yet again, thereby paving the way for a decade of democracy, and giving Pakistan its first woman prime minister.

This was not all. In an another accident of history triggered by the political harakiri committed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999, General Pervez Musharraf reinstated nine years of military dictatorship and authoritarianism during which the constitution, political parties, national leaders and the judiciary were trampled under a military-Islamist- Muslim League – Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) alliance. The Musharraf era of ‘guided democracy’ was to witness a spurt in extremism after the military entered the restive tribal areas for the first time to battle the Pakistani Taliban, and later  cracked down on the clerics of the Red Mosque in Islamabad who were demanding sharia rule. Musharraf’s military decisions on these two counts, undoubtedly well-founded in policy and military terms, has inadvertently made the military the target of Jihadi groups ever since, and the ensuing violence has spread deep into the urban centres of Pakistan.

Under 5 years of PPP rule, Pakistan has enjoyed a false sense of political stability, under which the economy, inter-provincial and sectarian tensions have worsened, and the centre of power has gravitated to the tribal areas in the hands of the Jihadi groups. The killing of Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan, increasing CIA-operated drone attacks and plummeting US-Pak relations have all but completed Pakistan’s international isolation. The nation awaits a messiah desperately. Whether the PTI’s, and Imran Khan’s, meteoric rise and accidental fall will change the nation’s destiny remains unclear, but the upcoming elections will certainly establish their credentials as a potent political alternative with a substantial role in shaping the country’s future course.

The 2013 elections have already seen a path-breaking outcome in the form of a life-long ban imposed by the Peshawar high court on General Musharraf from contesting elections. Musharraf’s nine years of extra-judicial and unconstitutional diktats have come to haunt him as he faces the possibility of conviction in the cases of the Benazir Bhutto assassination and the crackdown on the judiciary. Having borne the brunt of General Musharraf’s authoritarian whip not too long ago, a rejuvenated judiciary has sent a stern message to any future military dictator of the consequences of nurturing any praetorian ambitions. This in itself is a great achievement of the 2013 elections.

On another note, as the nation clamours for the much-needed respite from the unceasing bloodshed and socio-economic adversities, the 2013 political chessboard remains loaded with both promise and uncertainties. To start with, Pakistan’s political milieu is witnessing an intriguing triangular contestation between three potent contenders for power – the PPP, Pakistan Muslim League –Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) and PTI, with overlapping political bases and popular support. As per a recent survey, very little separates the three (PPP-27%, PML-N-26%, PTI-25%) in terms of perceived effectiveness in bringing about change. But on the corruption issue, PPP (56%) is rated much worse than PML-N (10%), while the PTI is expected to be most effective (34%) in eliminating corruption. But that is just one of the myriad challenges facing the country.

Apart from the worsening security situation, Pakistan is plagued with rising unemployment, acute energy shortages, currency devaluation, a crumbling health and education system, growing inflation and foreign debt, with much of the blame being levelled, and justifiably so, on the incompetent and credibility-deficient current President and PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari’s public approval remains appalling, owing to his past dubious actions under Benazir’s reign. His initial aversion to restore the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary owing to personal grudges had made the PPP a target of the civil-society, PML-N and the judiciary combine. The party is now also being accused by the PML-N and PTI for warming up to the military to stay in power, abandoning its traditional anti-military image. Amidst all this, internal dissension between Zardari and his son Bilawal (PPP co-chairman) has only diminished the party workers’ morale at a critical juncture. The party can however, hope to build upon its moderate image, which had made it the target of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) attacks, and the welfare schemes such as the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) under which the dole is provided to thousands of impoverished families. The party hopes to reclaim power with the support of its allies in the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), both also targeted by the TTP.

Imran Khan’s PTI, on the other hand, is going to benefit the most from people’s rising disenchantment with democracy and the deteriorating state of affairs. From being an inconsequential party till the 2008 elections, the PTI has exploded dramatically onto the political scene, and is expected to make a severe dent into the vote banks of the PPP and PML in Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. The biggest asset of the PTI is Imran Khan’s larger than life iconic image coupled with a clean political slate. His youth appeal has become his greatest advantage, and his personal charisma has found admiration among the older generation too, which has seen the plunder of the state under the PPP and the PML-N regimes. PTI’s reputation is also being buttressed by several former ministers with a good record, noted journalists and representatives of the intelligentsia who have crossed over from the PPP and PML-N. Imran Khan’s political manifesto addressing corruption and economy seems to have appealed to the masses and floating voters, but his overt sympathy with the TTP and anti-American rhetoric – music to the ears of the military and the ISI – means that Pakistan’s security nightmare will continue regardless of his coming to power.

PML-N, on the other hand appears most likely to form the next government under its supremo Nawaz Sharif, who was barred entry into Pakistan by General Musharraf during the last elections. The party’s strong-hold in Punjab which comprises over 50% of the 272 National Assembly seats is expected to gain 100-plus seats there, though conceding a few, unlike before, to the PTI. The party also expects to get the support of the political entities in Balochistan and Sindh, which have been the target of the extremists, military establishment and the previous PPP government.  The political maturity show by Nawaz Sharif in supporting the PPP government from outside, after withdrawing support in 2008, had also won him accolades from the people for keeping the interest of democracy above his political interests. His unremitting pressure on the PPP government to ensure the restoration of the chief justice and other judges, cordial relationship with the west, particularly the US, support of the businessmen, traders and corporates, and five years of PML-N rule in Punjab (considered better than that of most provincial governments), and two previous stints as Prime Minister, add ballast to his political candidature and suitability. His recent decision to cease all Imran Khan-centric political attacks immediately, following the latter’s accident, will win him some praise too.  Undeniably, the party does face stiff competition from the PPP, the PML-Q and PTI, and may even lose more seats to them than anticipated, but may manage just enough to go past the post with their allies’ support.

The current political trends suggest that the PPP may lose power to the PML-N, with more legislators from the PTI entering the parliament than expected, comprising a formidable opposition, which hopefully will improve the health and quality of Pakistan’s troubled democracy. Should the PTI manage to form a coalition government, it will encounter a vociferous opposition in the PPP and PML-N, unless the PPP decides to support it in a desperate bid to keep the PML-N at bay. Realistically speaking, for the PTI to form a majority government on its own, Imran Khan will have to generate a much greater swing in voting on May 11 than he used to in his illustrious bowling career.

Dr. Ashutosh Misra is an Associate Investigator at the Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, Griffith University.


1. Ercelan - May 10, 2013

uff! such sweeping statements on the political history of Pakistan :(

romantacising the past is okay, perhaps inevitable, in the nostalgia of personal relationships (actual or imagined).

But, to assert e.g. that the (state) murder of Nawab Liaquat Ali Khan deprived the country of a visionary leader is bunkum.

2. Ashutosh Misra - May 10, 2013

Mr. Arcelan, I am a historian so tend to wander in history more often than not, as I do believe that many of present day challenges facing India, Pakistan and India-Pakistan relations have become assumed intractable characteristics because we have ignored history. Many of the answers which we search today can be found in the annals of history. Call it ‘nostalgia’ or ‘romanticising’…I consider it essential from the conflict resolution perspective. As for Liaquat Ai Khan’s stature, we may differ in our perceptions of him, but I will say (not ‘assert’) that if today Pakistan can find a leader, even a fraction of what he was, the Nation should consider itself fortunate. You can see for yourself by the quality of leadership you all are surrounded with now days. Good luck!