Imran Khan's Political Innings
08 December, 2011
By Atif Salahuddin
Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have spent many years in Pakistan's political wilderness. Despite his platform for change and condemnation of the incessantly corrupt Pakistani political culture, PTI has had very little to show for itself in Pakistan's political system since it was founded in 1996. So it came as a total surprise to many to observe Imran Khan reverse his political fortunes by leading a massive rally in Lahore recently. Estimates vary from 70,000 to over 200,000 people at the rally, depending upon who you talk to. Whatever the number it is poignant to note that Khan's rally build up was given generous televised support in advance by parts of the media which without objection from Pakistan's ever powerful establishment seems inconceivable. This has been followed by Khan's Ghotki rally with more scheduled in the coming weeks. It would seem that Khan's PTI has suddenly acquired a new political trajectory.
PTI itself though has not suddenly conjured up a new variety of politics; failure by the ruling federal coalition government led by the PPP and supported by PML-N to deliver good governance and continued co-operation with the US in its 'War on Terror' have built up a groundswell of resentment. The recent NATO airstrike in which at least 28 Pakistani troops died is a perfect example of the current pathetic Pakistani leadership. Leaving aside the friendly opposition of Nawaz Sharif, Khan like any true opposition leader has capitalised on this and built his political support in recent months by campaigning on key public issues that matter. The continued US drone strikes and ground raids, the Raymond Davis scandal, domestic terror attacks attributed to covert US agencies such as Blackwater and verbal attacks by US politicians against the Pakistan military have all been instrumental. Other issues such as electricity and gas loadshedding, unrest and political killings in Karachi, soaring inflation, unemployment and general failure to meet the demands of more than 180 million people have also played their part. Together with the usual endemic corruption by Pakistan's incumbent politicians and lack of transparency in running their own political parties they have helped foment an unprecedented sense of a national crisis in Pakistan. This is an open goal for any politician to lay claim to if he wants to.
Khan's PTI is the only party in the Pakistani political system which has taken a high profile public stance on these issues alongside Hizb ut Tahrir; but Hizb ut Tahrir's methodology depends upon removing the incumbent political system entirely by establishing the Khilafat and implementing the Shariah. Thus this leaves PTI uniquely placed to try to challenge the political status quo in the upcoming elections scheduled for 2013. But herein also lies the challenge for Imran Khan and his PTI. Gaining support by appealing to populist politics is the easy part and has served Khan well. The serious business of actually governing will not be an easy and requires some serious thought into the proposed policies Khan and his PTI would pursue. Pakistan's problems are chronic, severe and every administration, whether democratic or military, has failed to address them in Pakistan's 64 year history. Are Khan's solutions viable and will he actually deliver upon his promises? How Khan seeks to set himself apart on this is now a very legitimate question.
To his credit, Khan's PTI has published a manifesto. However his ideological leanings seem unclear or remain muddled with a mixture of socialist and free market themes coupled with an Islamic backdrop. Moreover his economic agenda seems a continuation of the Capitalist policies already being applied in Pakistan. One such example is that the PTI manifesto states that privatisation of state assets will continue in a transparent process. Even if done above the board, it does not change the fact that the new owners will operate the newly acquired businesses for profit. Hence prices for key products and services previously provided by government such as electricity, gas and telecommunications will continue to rise and in a country with runaway inflation it is difficult to see how this would also square with Khan's ambition to turn Pakistan into an 'Islamic welfare state', whatever that may mean. Moreover PTI wants to use private investment to fund new power plants but again at what cost to the consumer?
Another policy statement on housing states that the 'leasing and mortgaging' of property will be developed. This is in other words is the introduction of long term interest based loans, the use of debt to finance property purchase. Are PTI oblivious to what is taking place in the Western world where they are facing an economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression because of debt fuelled growth? Moreover, to those whom it matters, how is this consistent with Islam, the introduction of usury in PTI's 'Islamic Welfare State'?
PTI's main rallying call has been of redefining relations with America; Khan wants to end US attacks inside Pakistan. However Khan also says he wants to 'help the US exit from Afghanistan in an orderly manner' and does not rule out the use of force to deal with what PTI calls militancy inside Pakistan according to its manifesto. It is a matter of fact that the US is already beginning to draw down its combat troops in Afghanistan and is in fact conducting negotiations with the Taliban in earnest as it desperately seeks to come to some sort of political settlement. By the time the Pakistani elections come round in 2013 this process will have reached an advanced stage as the US tries to hit its 2014 withdrawal deadline.
Thus Khan's idea offers nothing new that is not already on the table. In fact it actually reveals continuity on PTI's part with existing US and Pakistani efforts by helping to negotiate with the Taliban while leaving the door open for military action in the tribal areas if needed. The US needs to draw down its force level, reduce its casualties and immense financial burden but still maintain a strong influence as seen with Iraq. The only outcome acceptable when measured against these US goals is a reduced physical footprint supplemented with military bases throughout Afghanistan which still perpetuate its geopolitical plan and political influence in Central Asia. Invariably Khan's promised cooperation with the US, whether wittingly or unwittingly, will help deliver just that.
Khan's position on Kashmir is also a serious cause for concern. In a very recent interview with an Indian television channel Khan declared that he believes the issue of Kashmir should be put on the 'backburner' while both Pakistan and India concentrate on building and developing their relationship, particularly their trade ties. This will be music to the ears of Indian policymakers as no one would expect them to negotiate seriously over Kashmir if they are given other big concessions beforehand. Moreover Khan's position on Kashmir simply ignores the immense suffering the Kashmiri people are bearing and relegates the systematic abuse being carried out by Indian forces in Kashmir to a non-issue. Khan's position in truth would be no different from the current policy being pursued by the PPP government under pressure from the US which amounts to doing nothing for Kashmir.
Khan's economic strategy rests on doing away with IMF/foreign loans by increasing the GDP to tax collection ratio. This of course would mean bringing the feudal and the big industrialists under the tax net for surely he cannot tax the already burdened ordinary public any further. Yet the big agricultural landowners and industrialists remain an immensely powerful force in Pakistani politics, so much so that they remain a dominating force in the federal and provincial assemblies. How then can Khan overturn their influence in a parliamentary system dominated by feudal and industrial MNAs and MPAs on both sides of the aisle?
This is proven and further complicated by the fact that Khan himself is beginning to accept old politicians from the established parties such as Mian Muhammad Azhar, Abdul Aleem Khan, Iftikhar Jhagra, and Shahid Akram Bhinder with many other PML-Q and PPP deserters looking to climb aboard the PTI ship. Zafar Iqbal Warraich who has joined PTI was General Pervez Musharraf's minster for interior affairs and was in charge of Islamabad during the Lal Masjid massacre. The biggest heavyweight arrival so far though with equally proportionate baggage is that of former PPP Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi who has quite spectacularly been installed as PTI's 'Vice Chairman'. Qureshi is the man who oversaw the subservient foreign policy for much of the PPP led government's tenure including the secret pact with the US for the drone strikes which PTI has continuously denounced. The fact that the PTI leadership have allowed Qureshi to join seriously undermines PTI's stance on justice and claim to accountability. How will Khan provide justice to the drone victims' families in FATA when one of the architects of the bloodshed now sits alongside him?
Moreover the choice and addition of the notorious former Intelligence Bureau Chief and PPP legislator Masood Sharif Khattak can only strengthen claims of PTI becoming close to the establishment. Imran Khan himself went on the record the following day after his Lahore rally by declaring that an alliance with the PML-N may be possible providing the N league leadership declared its assets. Such political alliances and acceptance of opportunistic political turncoats or 'lotai' as they are better known may be deeply disturbing and disappointing to those who want Khan to bring clean new fresh faces into politics but it reflects the harsh political reality Khan finds himself immersed in. Many will rightly ask that with many supporting him from all walks of life, can Khan not select one of them instead of known discredited and tainted politicians to deliver his agenda?
The answer to this lies in the fact that despite his well attended rally in Lahore the fact remains that the old parties and their supporters are not going to disappear, particularly in the numerically abundant rural constituencies where voters are tied into backing big established feudal politicians by baradri loyalty and financial patronage. Without the support of big political families such as the one Qureshi represents Khan has very little chance of forming any kind of coalition government let alone gaining a majority of 172 seats in the National Assembly.
The fact is that the kind of revolutionary change Khan wants to deliver will be impossible under the existing political system. Such fundamental against the grain change requires an unbounded ability to implement such bold reforms. Instead the system and its various stakeholders will force Khan to dilute and water down his ambitious agenda and force him into political alliances if he wishes to play any meaningful role. This is the only way key interest groups, particularly the powerful military which has its own vast business interests, will be prepared to work with Khan rather than oppose him. This explains Khan's pragmatism into accepting old faces and touting potential political alliances with established political parties well before the 2013 election.
What is more there is also the serious question of just what exactly PTI is composed of beyond Imran Khan the man himself. The nature of Pakistani politics is such that personal charisma holds sway in the absence of any deeper ideological programme. This is why the incumbent parties have looked more like personality cults rather than meritocratic political parties. In this respect Imran Khan has yet to differentiate PTI from its peers. The question has to be asked if Khan himself was to exit from the political stage for whatever reason, would PTI really continue to exist without him? Great revolutionary leaders bequeath ideological political vision, not just leadership.
Such a genuine ideological agenda would translate into real tangible change in Pakistan's subservient foreign and domestic policies which are held hostage by powerful interest groups. Such change would be recognisable by observing an end to the slavish relationship with belligerent states like America and a permanent end to meddling by colonial tools such as the IMF, World Bank and the UN. It would mean firmly putting Kashmir at the heart of the dispute with India. Domestically it would mean breaking the hold of the Feudals by breaking up their ownership of vast swathes of profitable agricultural land gifted by the British to their forefathers. It would mean a genuine introduction of the Islamic economic system that would forbid the practice of usury and ensure distribution of wealth by ending taxes on income and regressive taxes like the GST but apply the Zakat tax on the wealthy. Such economics would ensure that vital resources stay in state ownership, not end up as the next meal ticket for a few private individuals.
The truth is that Imran Khan and his PTI face immense difficulties in propagating their agenda for change in Pakistan's current political system. One only has to look at the example of the religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami who participate in the democratic system to see what they have achieved. If PTI really wants to bring genuine change then they will have to look for a more radical platform to deliver such comprehensive root and branch change, breaking the old ties of vested interests that have held Pakistan back for so long. Moreover such genuine change has to bring clear ideological thinking that ties in with the Islamic values of the common man. Poll after poll strongly shows that the people of Pakistan want Islam to be implemented, not just selectively piecemeal but comprehensively with the complete implementation of the Shariah. This can only occur through the re-establishment of the Caliphate. It is no coincidence that Imran Khan's political discourse is loaded with Islamic overtones.
Pakistan's people are ready to give the mandate; the question is can Khan and his PTI truly rise to the challenge and call for the removal of Pakistan's corrupt political system? Not too long ago there was another charismatic youthful Pakistani political leader who had hundreds of thousands welcome her after her return from exile after General Zia's death in 1989. Yet despite having such popularity and the chance to rule twice, Benazir Bhutto failed to change the lives of Pakistanis and slowly faded away whilst gaining notoriety for poor governance. Surely in this for the thinking person therein lies a clear lesson and a warning that the line between the politics of pragmatism and failure is a thin one in Pakistan.