The Imran Khan Moment: Pakistani Spring or Mirage?

Commentary by Takuya Matsuda – 21 August 2012

A poster of Imran Khan/ © Takuya Matsuda

As the Middle East is experiencing great political upheaval, South Asia is going through a not entirely dissimilar phenomenon that expresses long-held aspirations of ‘self-determination’ and ‘justice’, demonstrating exasperation with extant politics. In 2011, as protests crippled authoritarian regimes across the Arab world, in India, the anti-graft campaigner Anna Hazare held a symbolic hunger strike against widespread corruption. In Pakistan, the people’s frustration is boiling over, causing an unprecedented ‘tsunami’, an ill-chosen term often used to describe the political movement of the country’s biggest political star, Imran Khan, which may change the political dynamics of a country plagued by violence and sectarian strife.

Imran Khan, a former cricket star and founder of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (Pakistan Movement for Justice, also known as PTI), has quickly become one of Pakistan’s most popular politicians. Despite his sporting fame (he captained Pakistan towards victory in the 1992 cricket World Cup), his party never escaped the shadow of the dominant parties since his entry into politics in 1996. However, over the past two years, Khan’s political rallies have attracted huge crowds in Lahore, Karachi and other major cities. I have seen the immense popularity and momentum he is gaining through the local media, witnessing first-hand a pro-Khan demonstration in Lahore with placards reading “Imran Khan is the last hope”, during a recent trip to Pakistan.

The tax-plundering military and corrupt civilian governments have long since encouraged crony capitalism, harming prospects for development in Pakistan. The country’s paranoid antagonism towards India and regional instability has led to the ballooning of military expenditures over the past decades. The United States, fearful that Pakistan may escape its orbit, has not hesitated to provide the Pakistani military with billions of dollars in aid. This, amongst other elements, has allowed the military to consolidate its grip onto power. The country is governed at the expense of the population, which is coerced to survive in a shattered economy amid skyrocketing inflation and high unemployment rates.

Imran Khan at a rally in Lahore on 30 October 2011

Khan’s promises reflect the predicament Pakistani citizens find themselves in. During a Karachi rally in December 2011, he promised to turn Pakistan into an Islamic welfare state and, rather optimistically, to eliminate all corruption within 90 days through an e-government system. He also offered to apologize to Baluchistan, a province rife with insurgency. The aim of the move was to redress the fictional Pakistani ‘nation-state’, which was only casually ‘unified’ based on the Islamic religion. The fractious state of the country can be traced back to the independence of Bangladesh, former East Pakistan, in 1971, ending decades of marginalization under a social structure dominated by the Punjabis.

These ideas reflect Khan’s belief, spelled out in his book “Pakistan: A Personal History, that Pakistan’s fundamental spirit, as envisaged by the country’s founding fathers Muhammad Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal, desperately needs revival. Khan’s intentions and proposals to move away from the recent past are, without doubt, somewhat utopian, they nevertheless attempt to offer a different direction for the country long mired in turmoil. Though he is not new to politics, the deep crisis in Pakistani politics, which reached a new low in the contempt of court-case this year that resulted in Prime Minister Yousef Reza Gilani’s ouster, is one of the main reasons for Khan’s immense popularity. His biggest strength is never having held political office, setting him apart from the political elite stained by endemic corruption and mismanagement.

Khan is a vocal critic of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a position that, along with others that seemingly favour radical Islamists, has earned him the ire of those who have taken to portraying him as a radical Islamist sympathizer. The drone attacks, though successful in killing key Al Qaeda leaders, often claim innocent lives and are a source of great resentment for the Pakistani people. The mutual distrust between Washington and Islamabad is rooted in the U.S.’s focus on Afghanistan that conflicts with Pakistan’s own interests, which considers Afghanistan its strategic backyard. This has led a faction in the Pakistani military to support the insurgency in order to prevent the installment of a pro-India government in Kabul. In turn, pundits in the U.S. frequently call for a cut in military aid to Pakistan. Khan’s opposition to the U.S. presence in the region, therefore, not only echoes the claims of radical Islamists but also the wishes of ordinary Pakistanis.

Khan’s dream to transform Pakistan into an independent and developed country could be ironically compatible with U.S. interests. Over the years, U.S. aid to Pakistan has led to the bolstering of the Pakistani military’s power, which in turn exacerbated the problem of radical Islamism, while making Pakistan ever more dependent on its Western ally.

The rise of the PTI, especially if its gains a majority in the next election, planned for 2013, is surely an unsettling development for the U.S., as it could seek to alter Pakistan’s alliances. A strategically important country for China, Pakistan has been looking east for help, especially since the American fiasco in Afghanistan. The PTI’s manifesto, in fact, proposes to strengthen ties with China and join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was set up as a challenge to U.S. influence in Central Asia. The Beijing-leaning foreign policy of the PTI, despite stressing the importance of good relations with the United States and India, appears to conflict with the interests of Washington.

However, in order for the U.S. to free itself from the quagmire that is South Asian politics, an independent Pakistan that no longer depends on the U.S. could be a preferable solution, if an Indo-Pakistani rapprochement is encouraged. This fundamental obstacle must be overcome if the volatile region is to be stabilized. Despite the overly optimistic claims Khan makes regarding domestic politics, the U.S. should not fear his potential rise to power, but rather see it as an opportunity to rethink its ties with Pakistan. This would sublimate the complex relationship by converging U.S. short-term strategic interests and Pakistani domestic politics, allowing the U.S. to regain the credibility it lost after years of foreign policy blunders in the region.

As a political one-man show, Khan’s rise is fraught with risks. A populist, his challenge is to keep the momentum going, a difficult task in the treacherous waters of Pakistani politics. If he wants to gain power and govern effectively, he may have to reach out for allies outside his party, involving himself with a political class he has riled against for years.

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