Monday Jan 10 2022

In 2023, what will be Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ‘brand’?

Prime Minister Imran Khan. — Geo.tv/file
Prime Minister Imran Khan. — Geo.tv/file

By and large, Pakistani politics revolves around the concept of a “brand”. Therefore, what is the identification of a political party? What sets it apart from others in the field?

Before we come to what is the “brand” of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), it is important to point out that Imran Khan, even before he became the prime minister, or even before he joined politics, had his own identity and “brand”.

He was known in the sports world for his cricket skills and had also carved out a name for himself in the world of glamor. This is primarily why the media loved Khan.

But when he entered the political arena, his brand changed. He promised his audience of social reforms and a much-needed change from the status quo.

In 2018, his party rose to power, making him the prime minister after a struggle of 22 years.

But then, after three years in power, the market value of his “brand” started to diminish. For some, it has been his own failure as the head of the government. They argue that leading a team of 11 sportsmen is easier than leading a nation of over 200 million. While for the PTI and its supporters, the ruling party’s governance issues are due to the “corruption” and mistakes of the past.

Regardless of who you believe, the question to now ask is: would Imran Khan be able to carry his “brand” to the next polls?

There is a general perception these days that PTI no longer enjoys the popularity it did in the lead up to the 2018 polls. This can be judged from the results of the by-elections held from 2018 to date, the cantonment boards polls and the first phase of the recently held local bodies’ election in PTI’s own home ground, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

After the latter, there was also a realization within the party that some were wrong. That is why it decided to overhaul its organizational structure.

But many experts believe that such drastic changes will do little to help the brand that is already damaged. One reason for this is the team Khan chose initially to represent his brand, Chief Minister Punjab Usman Buzdar and Chief Minister Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Mahmood Khan, have flopped.

Add to this the team’s failure to bring major reforms and an unprecedented price hike. Moreover, there has been one scandal after another for the PTI, the latest being the foreign funding case. All have contributed to hurting the “brand”.

In Pakistani politics, the most populist brand by far, after the death of the founder of Pakistan Quaid-e-Azam, has been none other than that of the Pakistan Peoples Party’s Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It is quite amazing that Bhutto dominated the political scene for almost 40 years, even after his execution in 1979.

Later, his daughter Benazir Bhutto carried the brand and established herself when she became the first woman Prime Minister of the Islamic world.

In order to dilute Bhutto’s brand, the “hidden hands” introduced their own brand called the “Sharifs.

Even Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician, was initially approached by General Zia ul Haq when he was at the peak of his cricketing career.

In the early 1980s, Haq’s son phoned Khan, while he was in Australia with the Pakistan cricket team, and conveyed Haq’s message to Khan that he too should join the parliament. But Khan declined as he was not interested in politics then.

Later, Khan changed his mind and entered politics, at a time when both Bhutto’s and Sharif’s governments had been dismissed on the alleged charges of corruption and failure to maintain law and order.

Thus, Imran Khan marketed himself as the “Mr. Clean”, in sharp contrast to the reputation of Bhutto’s spouse, Asif Ali Zardari, who was branded in the media as “Mr. Ten Percent”.

But in 1999, Khan made a mistake that dented his brand. He decided to support the military takeover and he sided with General Pervez Musharraf during his referendum.

However, in 2002, Khan got himself elected from his home constituency Mianwali for the first time. He then quickly distanced himself from Musharraf after 2002.

Imran Khan’s brand really began to shine in 2011, when he was able to hold a large public rally in Lahore. After that, his party tasted its first success in the 2013 election, when the PTI was able to form a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

In 2018, Khan’s PTI not only retained KP, but it also managed to take control in the Center too. But the power came at a cost for the PTI. To form a government, it had to merge its brand with coalition partners like the PML-Q and MQM-P, amongst others.

Now, Khan has only over a year left to market his brand in such a way that he is able to win again in 2023.

Like during selection for the cricket team, a player's performance is important, unless you become a darling of the selectors. Here too, the question to be asked is will the “selectors” want to retain the same brand or are they already on the lookout for a new or old brand?

For the people of Pakistan, there are only three tested brands in the market: the PTI, PML-N and the PPP. There is no fourth option as yet.

The writer is a columnist and analyst with GEO, The News and Jang. He tweets @MazharAbbasGEO