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Monday, January 2, 2012

Imran Khan faces his greatest test

[QODLink]There is a direct correlation between the depths of the gloom in Pakistan and the high expectations of salvation from Imran Khan. It is clear that the greater the despair in the country, the more fervent the hopes in one man as saviour. If - and that is still a big if - Imran does get to lead Pakistan, he will face his greatest challenge ever. It is a challenge worthy of Hercules preparing to clean out the Augean stables. Pakistan is on the verge of imploding.
Its biggest province Baluchistan, which comprises almost half its territory, is in a state of open revolt. Baluchis complain about government's policy of "kill and dump". An entire generation of journalists and professors is being systematically killed. The Tribal Areas of the former Frontier Province is a theatre of war, involving thousands of Pakistani troops. Suicide bombers terrorise Pakistan with impunity. There is no end in sight to the violence.

The unstable situation in these two provinces of Pakistan has a direct bearing on the law and order situation in the rest of the country. No one is safe. Kidnapping and killings are commonly reported. The tensions between the military and civilian authorities are barely kept under the surface and the two are often pulling in different directions. Add to this, the woes of the ordinary Pakistani facing unemployment, high prices, shortage of electricity, gas and water who sees his rulers plundering the country and sending their ill-gotten loot abroad and you have Pakistan today.

With all its problems, the importance of Pakistan cannot be denied. It is a nation of about 180-5 million people. It has an impressive nuclear arsenal and its geo-political situation makes it a key country in the region. Most important of all, its founding father MA Jinnah created Pakistan with the idea of a genuine modern democracy in mind. He championed women's rights, minority rights, human rights and respect for the constitution.

'Wilderness years'

To many commentators waking up to Imran Khan's massive turnout in Lahore in October 2011 and then in December in Karachi, Imran appears to have suddenly arrived from nowhere. It is easy to forget that he is now almost 60 years old and has been working in the complex political arena for almost two decades. Imran's party, Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice), launched in 1996, has been a spectacular failure until now. So far, it has captured only one seat in Parliament - his own.

Imran's years in the wilderness may be ending. He will not be alone in history if he now succeeds in turning Pakistan round. Jinnah himself, and other world leaders like De Gaulle and Churchill, went through their "wilderness years" wondering if the public had forsaken them.

 Thousands rally for Pakistan's Imran Khan
Imran's critics threw everything at him. The affluent chattering classes in the living rooms of Karachi and Lahore resented his celebrity and dismissed him as "Moron Khan" and "Im the Dim". They felt betrayed as Imran criticised the ruling elite because he himself had been educated at the elite Aitchison College and Oxford University. His critics accused him of hypocrisy, a lecherous playboy in London and a pious Muslim in Lahore. After his marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, the press called him a Zionist agent and drew pictures of him with the Star of David on his forehead and sitting on a donkey. His marriage foundered and his party showed little promise of making a dent on Pakistan's political structure.

But just as we must not underestimate the problems facing Pakistan, we must not underestimate Imran's capacity to meet a challenge. He took all this with stoic dignity.

Imran's fans were usually too dazzled to appreciate how he acquired his extraordinary cricketing talents. They assumed it was a God-given gift. After all, which Pakistani can forget Imran Khan holding aloft the World Cup in 1992 in Australia when Pakistan became world champion. It was an image that made every Pakistani proud to be a Pakistani.

Sustained commitment

But read his autobiographical notes to understand his mind. He put himself through a gruelling regimen to become one of the finest fast bowlers in the world. When he won the World Cup it is easy to forget that he was already 39 years old - an old age for the demanding pressures of World Cup cricket - and suffering from a ruptured shoulder cartilage. When he decided to create Pakistan's first cancer hospital, he once again exhibited sustained commitment and discipline to fundraising and completing his project.

Listen to his speeches. Compare them to his earlier ones only a few years ago. He has more focus and his punchlines make an impact. He has judged exactly what the public mood is. His own natural patriotism and passion for Pakistan have combined with his sense of disgust and outrage at Pakistan's corrupt and incompetent ruling elite and, as he sees it, their Western masters. He has courageously condemned the deaths of innocent Pakistanis resulting from the US' drone strikes. He has clearly been doing his homework.

Imran is also helped by several factors. There has been an explosion of media outlets in Pakistan. Every foible and scandal of its political leaders is now freely discussed. This freedom which borders on anarchy has shaken the confidence of the public in their leaders.

A new section of vocal urbanised middle-class Pakistanis demands to be heard. So do the young. They are looking for alternative voices to those of their present leaders. In Imran, they see a viable alternative.

"Imran's bold critique of the West appeals to Pakistanis, who are fed-up of being humiliated in public."

Imran's bold critique of the West appeals to Pakistanis, who are fed-up of being humiliated in public. Army and civilian officers, students and ordinary labourers acknowledge Imran's patriotism and courage. They compare it to their leaders like President Pervez Musharraf and President Asif Ali Zardari. Musharraf jumped one foot off the ground every time someone from Washington rang to say "boo". Zardari simply takes off from Pakistan whenever he faces a problem - he was sightseeing in Europe when the floods devastated Pakistan and disappeared to the UAE during the Memogate crisis.

Challenges for Imran

If Imran is given power, he needs to immediately tackle the question of law and order in Pakistan. He must order the cessation of the torture and killings in Baluchistan. He must fly to the Province to apologise for what Pakistan has done to its people. He must do everything possible to reinforce the idea that Baluchistan - like the Tribal Areas - is a respected part of the federation of Pakistan. Imran's Pushtun background will help in these provinces where people constantly and openly complain about excessive Punjabi domination.

Imran needs to begin working even before he takes over on strengthening the judicial and civil administrative structures. These have been destroyed over the last few years. Without them ordinary Pakistanis will not be able to obtain proper justice.

Pakistanis must see the benefits of Imran's administration if they are to believe in him. This means jobs, bringing down of the prices of everyday requirements like wheat and cooking oil, availability of electricity and gas.

Apart from internal problems, Pakistan faces challenges in its foreign policy. Its relations with its neighbours, Afghanistan and India, need to be improved. The recent spiralling downward of the relationship between the US and Pakistan should be a cause of worry to both. It is in the interest of both countries to have a stable and long-term relationship based in mutual understanding.

The last may prove a particular challenge for Imran. There are high levels of almost irrational anti-American feelings in Pakistan today. Pakistanis blame the deadly actions of the suicide bombers and the drone strikes for the 40-50,000 Pakistanis that have lost their lives in a war that is not of their making.  Imran's own rhetoric will easily be mistranslated and misunderstood in Washington to mean that he supports the Taliban and therefore "Islamic terrorism". Imran cannot afford to ignore this area of vital interest for Pakistan's foreign relations.

After a decade as ally in the US' "War on Terror" and the devastating social, political and economic impact which direction will Imran take Pakistan?

The hopes of a nation now rest on one man. Pakistan history is replete with examples of Pakistanis depending entirely on the saviour figure only to be disappointed afterwards. Even Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who remains so revered in Pakistan, died one year after creating the country. Imran must emphasise the creation - in some case the re-creation of structures and systems.

There are already danger-signs as some old faces who have done the rounds with different parties have now jumped onto Imran's bandwagon. The balance between making deals in order to chip away at the power base of the ruling Zardari-Bhutto dynasty and the Sharif one, and maintaining his integrity will be crucial.

He will not have much time in office. The clock will be ticking. Another Oxford graduate like him, freshly out of university, will emerge to challenge him. Bilawal Bhutto may be completely untutored at the moment, but as the head of the PPP and the son and grand-son of two former popular prime ministers of Pakistan, he will soon have legitimacy to begin his attacks. Imran needs to be ready for his finest innings.

Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic studies, American University, Washington DC and author of Journey into America (Brookings Press 2010). He was Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Imran the game-changer
Rahimullah Yusufzai

Seldom has a politician caught the nation’s imagination the way Imran Khan has done. And seldom has a political party grown in strength in a matter of weeks the way the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is doing.

Already there is talk of Imran as the next prime minister. For the first time during his 15-year long political career, he and his party are being taken seriously as there is now a chance of the PTI coming into power, at least in a coalition or in a province or two if not in the centre.

The strange aspect of this amazing transformation is that Imran isn’t someone new. His personality and views were well-known. He had the reputation of a go-getter due to his achievements in the world of sports, health and education. His uprightness and fearlessness had endeared him to many Pakistanis, who were ready to trust him with their money to do charity work for the flood affectees or build a hospital and a college.

That they didn’t trust him with the vote was due to their concern that it would be wasted as his party had no chance of victory in the elections. That perception changed after his impressive show of strength in Lahore and it is now obvious that voters are ready to trust him with their votes. It is inspiring how one event could bring about such a major change in the thinking of so many people.

The fascination with Imran is largely due to the frustration that most Pakistanis have suffered at the hands of the established political parties, which have taken turns to rule without delivering. Mostly such parties have evolved into dynasties, a trend that is strongly resented by the masses. In fact, it is largely due to default that Imran’s popularity has increased because the people want someone with a clean reputation and at the same time capable of making the corrupt accountable. This is the reason that many of Imran fans don’t approve of his decision to welcome old and tried politicians into the PTI fold. In his defence, Imran has been arguing that he was criticised earlier for not having known and electable politicians in his party and was now being taken to task for trying to achieve exactly the same objective.

It was more than eight weeks ago that the under-rated PTI staged its massive public meeting in the shadows of the Minar-e-Pakistan memorial in Lahore, but its impact is still being felt. Every aspect of the October 30 rally including the overwhelming presence of the youth that evening and the yearning by the enthusiastic yet disciplined crowd for a political change has been discussed. Imran came under renewed focus and his lifestyle, wealth and statements were scrutinized like never before. Along with the adulation came scathing criticism, reminding us of the unforgiving nature of Pakistani politics.

An interesting debate was triggered whether the former star cricketer has really joined the big league of politics on the strength of just one huge public meeting in Pakistan’s second biggest city. He was a marginal political player with no presence in the parliament after boycotting the 2008 polls and lacking significant street power.

The PTI didn’t stand much of a chance even if it had contested the last polls. That view changed as politicians made a beeline to join the PTI following its impressive show of strength at Lahore. Almost on a daily basis known and unknown political activists along with people from other walks of life have been joining the Imran bandwagon. In fact, there have been two waves of people joining the PTI, one after the Lahore public meeting and the next following the Karachi rally in the shadows of the founder of the nation Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum. The choice of venues was clever as the party’s theme was changing and saving Pakistan, the abundance of flags being waved made the occasion lively and speeches interspersed with music and patriotic songs was innovative. Singing the national anthem at the end created the right ambience.

It would certainly be a hard act to follow for other political parties. As Maulana Fazlur Rahman remarked, the JUI-F doesn’t want to compete with the PTI on this score as its rallies start with recitation from the Quran and ‘na’ats’ unlike Imran’s where music in mixed gatherings herald the show.

By holding the PTI’s next public meeting in Karachi on December 25, Imran tried to answer his critics that the Lahore event wasn’t a fluke. It amounted to political gamble as Karachi was the stronghold of Altaf Hussain’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which has been jealously guarding its turf and even using strong-arm tactics to keep challengers at bay. Indeed it was a gamble to hold the October 30 rally in Lahore, the PML-N stronghold for the last many years, and that too at the vast Iqbal Park, which isn’t easy to fill and is dreaded by politicians unsure of their support among the people. One has come to expect Imran to take such bold and risky decisions.

By arguing that the PTI would use its planned Karachi public meeting to reconcile the Pashtun and Urdu-speaking Mohajir communities, Imran was endeavouring to stay clear of controversies and present himself as a rallying figure for members of all ethnic groups. Maturing as a politician, Imran refrained from criticising the MQM despite the fact that his PTI would need to challenge it to gain a foothold in Karachi’s complex electoral politics. It even earned him criticism for making Altaf Hussain happy after having condemned him to no end in the past. Mohajirs too came to his Karachi meeting, though the Pakhtuns seemed to outnumber others and it could be a warning to the ANP, which is about to face a strong challenge from the PTI for the control of its turf in Karachi and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. All other ethnic communities were reportedly present, though not Bengalis as Imran erroneously suggested. By the way he almost forgot the Punjabis, who make up a significant number in the mini-Pakistan that is Karachi, while remembering the smaller communities of Gujratis, Memons, Bohras and even his fellows from his native Mianwali!

Having proved his crowd-pulling ability through big public meetings in the most unlikely places, Imran reached a milestone as the people would now come to his party events wherever he goes. The other challenge was to attract known faces with relatively better reputation into the PTI fold without alienating his loyal comrades who had stood by him. This too has been achieved to an extent though it hasn’t been a smooth affair and discontent in the ranks has on occasions surfaced and caused indiscipline.

Allowing most aspirants to join the PTI without the needed scrutiny, Imran has risked turning the PTI into an unwieldy party of members and lobbies with divergent viewpoints and agendas. Most politicians joining the PTI were once vocal supporters of military dictator General Pervez Musharraf’s pro-US policy in the ‘war on terror’ that Imran detests and wants to bury. Most of those joining the PTI don’t necessarily love Imran or his views because he had the same viewpoint on issues before the Lahore public meeting. Only in the post-October 30 period it dawned on them that Imran is the new saviour of Pakistan. Obviously their aim is to come into power on the strength of Imran’s popularity. Bringing a change at the command of such soldiers of fortune would be an uphill task.

Email: rahimyusufzai@yahoo.com, Courtesy News