Hating on Imran Khan - Mosharraf Zaidi - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Imran Khan is not a great politician. Since April 1996, when he launched the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), he has consistently proven his political incompetence with the legendary perseverance that makes the Great Khan who he is. Luckily, Imran Khan is pretty good at many other things. Even before winning the 1992 World Cup, he tickled the decidedly vain streak in all Pakistanis, with his voracious social appetite in the 1970s, 1980s and early part of the 1990s. He founded Pakistan’s first cancer hospital, the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust Hospital – as good an example of sustainable, rooted and inclusive philanthropy as you’ll ever learn about. He has laid the groundwork for Namal College, in Mianwali, which is already rumoured to be on the fast track to being a nationally competitive centre for higher education.

Manifest in both his greatest triumphs and his most obvious failures is Imran Khan’s greatest quality. Imran Khan is a born leader, and believes that the steely determination of a leader can single-handedly lead to victory. It is why his World Cup winning speech sounded like that of a singles’ tennis players. At the twilight of “my” career? Imran Khan wasn’t being stubborn or ungraceful. He was just being “me.”

Of course, without divine inspiration, the kind that both rained out crucial matches and put South Africa in the ridiculous position of needing 22 off one ball, the World Cup team would never have made it to the elimination round. And, of course, without Rameez, Akram, Miandad, Inzimam, Aaqib, Moin and Mushtaq, that World Cup team would most definitely not have won the semi-final or final. Imran Khan, the awesome leader, needed both the batting and bowling genius that the team possessed in ample measure, as well as the good fortune of weather and other teams’ performances, to go his way.

Cricket history is deeply contested, but there’s hardly any contesting the reality of how the cancer hospital got built. Little kids, teenagers and even young adults around the country went door-to-door. Housewives, and stay-at-home dads, responded to the campaign, once, twice, and probably dozens of times. People opened up their doors and their wallets. They turned off their cynicism. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Mustansar Hussain Tarar (to mention but two) sang, danced and emceed their hearts out. And then people gave more. And that’s how Imran Khan’s cancer hospital got built.

There are two lessons that Imran Khan could have learnt from his cricketing and philanthropic adventures. The first is that people matter, and therefore, change can only come about when the people stand up and make it happen. The second is that no matter how good a leader, a winning team is made up of multiple points of talent and skill. Only teams can win team sports.

On most days, it is obvious that Imran Khan learnt the first lesson well, but did not learn the second, at all. The PTI is a collection of nice young people, from mostly good families, who are almost exclusively from the cities. That is a demographic that has had almost zero electoral success. The reason is quite simple. They don’t vote. But even if they were to start voting, what are the chances that Imran Khan’s peripheral populism would catch fire and become a national juggernaut? Pretty low.

Without first- and second-tier political talent that serves as a moderator and regulator of Imran Khan’s negative energy on the one hand, and an amplifier and projector of his positive energy on the other hand, the PTI has no hope of being a legitimate and meaningful political force. In short, the short-term prospects of the PTI challenging the established political order should be about slim to zero.

This is why it is stupefying to watch Pakistanis who call themselves “liberal” (using a generously flexible definition of the term) to absolutely go potty over any mention of Imran Khan. As he has taken a stranglehold in the public space over the issue of drones, “liberals” have been falling over themselves trying to do one of two things. Either they seek to rationalise drone strikes, as necessary to fight terror, or they seek to delegitimise any agency that Imran Khan might have as a politician. On both counts, PPP supporters, including the interior minister, seemed to be the most distressed about Imran Khan leading a five-thousand-strong anti-drone rally in Peshawar.

The gamesmanship and politics would be understandable if it was directed towards a formidable political foe, but Imran Khan represents, by the calculations of “liberal” voices themselves, nothing more than an irritant in the public discourse. The most serious charge against Imran Khan, that he is a Taliban apologist, deserves scrutiny, because if there is one thing Pakistan cannot afford, it is equivocal stances on terrorism that claims innocent lives in Pakistan, or anywhere else.

The misgivings that exist about Imran Khan’s position on extremism, terrorism and how to fight these menaces are his own fault. Though I’ve not spoken to him at length one-on-one, I’ve heard him speak multiple times on the issue. He denies the charges vehemently, while seeking a dialogue out of the conflict in Fata and KP. His emphatic denials of being a Taliban apologist however ring hollow and empty if they continue to fall on deaf ears. If a message never gets delivered, doesn’t the message deliverer bear at least some responsibility?

Some, for sure. But not all. Imran Khan’s political failures are the topic of many a cocktail party in Defence, F-6 and over drinks during hunting trips in the deep south of Punjab, and the deeper rural neverland of Sindh. But such criticism, while often on-the-mark, does stretch the imagination. Imran Khan, after all, poses no threat whatsoever to the established political order. Or does he?

One of Imran Khan’s consistent areas of success, and a topic of bitter disappointment for both the rural-focused PPP and the so-called urban Punjab PML-N juggernaut, is urban youth. The PPP is so desperate for charisma that it is reopening the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto case – a case that his own daughter miraculously never touched in two turns as prime minister. The PML-N has been deluded into a complacent stupor by the armies of DMG officers, serving and retired, who do nothing but nod their heads in pathetic deference to the Sharif brothers. Neither party has any confidence that it can excite young people in the cities – the very young that electrified Z A Bhutto’s political career two generations ago, and the ones that briefly took the Sharifs onto their shoulders on a fateful March night in 2009.

Imran Khan, on the other hand, does excite young people in Pakistan’s cities. Part of this narrative is necessarily naive. It is based on a starry-eyed hope that slogans, national pride and good vibrations can get the job of saving Pakistan from itself, done. They cannot. But young people don’t really care for reasoned cynicism. They want something to believe in. In a country that is urbanising faster than you can say thaana-kutchehri, and getting younger by the day, we can dismiss Imran Khan. But we can’t dismiss the energy he is tapping into. It doesn’t matter today. But it could. Sooner than we think.

The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy. www.mosharrafzaidi.com

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=43681&Cat=9

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