Tuesday Jan 25, 2022
What will he say next? This is the question that may shape the politics of this country for the next couple of years. Buckle up and drink lots of fluid. It is going to be a fascinating and exhausting ride. No matter which direction one leans, we can all agree that Prime Minister Imran Khan has more stamina than you do.
The weekend brought with it the triple-threat Imran Khan special: a ridiculous mistake, a doubling down on the mistake, and a truck bomb of a public appearance that completely takes over the entire news cycle. With merely two tweets and one two-hour television Q&A session, Imran Khan made sure that there was no news but Khan News.
The build up to the weekend was another pair of Imran Khan set piece plays: the PTI troll army unleashed on Asma Shirazi and later Mohammad Malick. When the conversation is about the conversation, or when Khan News is on, everything else? It doesn’t matter. Inflation? Doesn’t matter. Governance? Doesn’t matter. A lost local government election in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa? Doesn’t matter. Incompetent messaging? Doesn’t matter. A security situation that is worsening by the day as terrorists drag Pakistan deeper and deeper into Pakistan’s second war on terror? Gah. Doesn’t matter.
Khan News is the greatest show on earth, and it is what the political families see out there and wish they had their own of Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s ascension to primacy in the Noonie world is really everything one needs to know, to know that Khan News is the number one entertainment vehicle for those that matter in Pakistan. The closest thing the House of Sharif has to spectacle and charisma is not the carpeted roads that Shahbaz Sharif has laid for 110 million in Punjab. Nor is it the smooth-as-silk Orange Train. Nor the PKLI. Nor the excess power generation capacity in the country. It is Maryam Nawaz Sharif. Just like Imran Khan, she seemingly fears nothing. Just like Imran Khan, she looks like a gazillion dollars. Just like Imran Khan, she can break whatever rules some nerds think are important — because they don’t apply to her.
The PPP’s wider set of liabilities often clouds our understanding of what is truly shaping its slow death. It isn’t corruption, it isn’t misgovernance in Sindh, it isn’t demographic change in Karachi and Hyderabad. It is that when Khan News is on, and the House of Sharif is jumping, the best thing that Nawabshah can bring to the table is a combination of President Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and whatever fiery speech or statement Abdul Qadir Patel, or Shehla Raza, or the like can make.
In the pre-Khan News, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump era that began in Pakistan at ‘Azadi Chowk’ on August 14, 2014, these kinds of tools were more than adequate. But the dharna has changed Pakistan in some very deep and foundational ways. It won’t stay like this forever, but it will never revert to the shape, form or type it held before. History is history — one of the mistakes that Imran Khan’s opponents, old and new both, are making and will keep making, is that they cling to facts and assumptions from a pre-Khan News world.
Khan News is not a one-man show, and is a lot bigger than Imran Khan, much the way this oped you are reading is not merely a product of your humble columnist’s efforts. An editor had to read it before it was approved. If it has certain themes the article gets escalated and other senior news women and men read the piece. Someone signs off on its publication. A web desk uploads it onto the site and many different parts move together sympatico to get the ink on the paper with just the right combination of words.
In short, just like a newspaper column, there is an ecosystem that sustains Khan News. The one big difference is that this column is in English, and moves relatively glacially, and even in very good light, isn’t too exciting. Khan News? Ooh baby. You can’t take your eyes off it. It is moving at the speed of a video game that you got to keep crushing. It has zest and spice and sweetness. It has a kick. And you just HAVE to know: what will he say next?
The Khan News ecosystem’s protagonist, a handsome hero if there ever was one, is a dominant force – like Michael Jordan in his prime, (which for my money, was upon returning from his temporary retirement to play baseball). But to be in prime form, Imran Khan needs to be on a container, fighting against seemingly great odds. In his Q&A he said it best: ever since he became prime minister, he feels subdued, he said, “I sit with my mouth shut, watching various spectacles”. Such a lucid assessment of his performance as prime minister could only come from him.
It is unfair, of course. PM Khan has hardly been quiet as PM, nor has he not done anything notable. He has expanded the BISP’s coverage through his Ehsaas brand; he has captained Pakistan’s exceptional Covid-19 response. He has introduced fantastic new talent like Moeed Yusuf, Faisal Sultan, Maleeka Bokhari and Reza Baqir to the governing system. I think even his handling of the economy isn’t as bad as his circus show spokespersons make it out to be. But he himself FEELS like he hasn’t done much. And a lot of this sense of having been on the sidelines is because of how infrequently, as the prime minister he is able to don the cape of an underdog, out there talking about taking down all the mafias (whilst consuming the free air miles and luxury pajamas that come complimentary when you work closely with and sometimes for some of those same “mafias”).
With the shrapnel of Notification Gate still in the air, and the blast site still fresh with the smell of something burning, he had two main choices, and he was always going to choose the red pill. The blue pill, one he wants us to believe he has eschewed as a rule, is to seek accommodation and work as part of a wider ecosystem of politics and governance. The red pill, the one he wants us to believe, he always takes, is to reform Pakistan from the inside out.
This is Khan News 101 — but it isn’t new or novel or unique. It is the same as Nigel Farage’s jihad against Europe, the same as Trump’s mission to make America Grate Again and Again and Again, and the same as the playbook of a dozen other populist leaders whose principal skill in politics is to use their ability to play with the emotions of vulnerable people, to accumulate singular and unchallenged individual power. Farage retired in his prime, like pre-baseball Michael Jordan. Trump thinks his second wind is coming, either in the next election, or sooner. And Imran Khan is convinced that the time for a fight is upon him again.
The next transfer of power, no matter how it is enacted and who is the recipient of the crown, will take place within the confines of the Khan News ecosystem. The PML-N, more than any other actor in the country, is prepared to fight that fight, and believes that it can win it handily. Given the state of Punjab, they may be onto something. But the real question, for the PTI, for the PPP, and even for the seemingly anti-establishment PML-N is whether the invisible hand in Pakistan politics is prepared to deny Khan News the lights and heating that make Imran Khan’s performances as comfortable as they tend to have been since August 14, 2014.
The trouble is that the power switch in Rawalpindi may not work. It was built in a world that predates Khan News. In the Khan News studio, you can be the channel owner, the producers, the editor and even the scriptwriter writing the bulletin. But you aren’t the on-air talent. And Imran Khan is where power lies in a Khan News world.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.
Originally published in The News