Opinion
Tuesday Apr 26 2022
By

Imran Khan’s core support base: Who will speak to them?

Former prime minister Imran Khans supporters. — Reuters/File
Former prime minister Imran Khan's supporters. — Reuters/File

Many have been taken by surprise by the resonance of former prime minister Imran Khan’s blistering political attacks ever since he realised that he was toast. Though he lost the vote of no-confidence on April 9, the writing had been on the wall for some time.

The counter-offensive that Khan has honed over the last couple of months is one of the most impressive political stands we have witnessed in recent Pakistani history. Those likening it to the dharna of 2014 or the jalsa of 2011 are forgetting the substantial support of the invisible hand that helped generate those moments. This moment, right here, right now? This is as organic as the PTI has ever been. No matter the origins of it, the resonance of the Imran Khan call to arms is real.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, the military leadership and the diverse group of parties that make up the current coalition government cannot be blamed for being unprepared for this moment. It was hard to predict and is even harder to manage. But those that are advising an aggressive counter-attack either don’t understand what this moment is, or have stakes in the conversation that do not extend to the wider, greater Pakistani good. Pakistan can ill afford a blow for blow toxic discourse. What Imran Khan has tapped into is a perfect storm of political, economic, technological, and social unrest. But the recipe for this storm includes ingredients far outside the capacity of the PTI and Mr Khan. Pakistan got here over a long period of time. It will not come out of this easily.

The question of why Imran Khan’s supporters have bought into the hell-hath-no-fury-like-an-Imran-scorned, scorched-earth approach of their leader needs to be dealt with seriously and soberly. There may be elements of cult-like devotion within the PTI, and Mr Khan — without question — has serious populist credentials that are reminiscent of dangerous historical parallels. But the entirety of Khan’s appeal cannot be dismissed with one fell swoop of contempt. It has to be dealt with respectfully and without contempt. 

This isn’t as much fun, and doesn’t feel as good — but the effort to invest in serious analysis without the succumbing to the appeal of vengeance and the feel-good factor that comes with it distinguishes those of us that are going to be helpless victims of the age of the algorithm versus those that will resist the easy path such temptation offers.

First, the stakes. Pakistan was permanently scarred by the partition of 1971, but has never held itself or other actors to account for the injustices and excesses that produced that tragic and defining beginning to the country we know as Pakistan today. This absence of accountability is central to the current political crisis. The 2018 election was the least credible, least free and least fair election held in Pakistan since 2002. It produced a government that enjoyed the ability to make political decisions without the fear of a viable political opposition. The entire opposition was hounded, victimised and persecuted through media, courts and accountability mechanisms. This enabled Imran Khan and the PTI to develop an unnatural governance posture in which engagement with the political opposition was an unnecessary concession.

Pakistan’s natural tendency towards a federal, democratic structure — one that has survived three explicit dictatorships — cannot be altered through force. When attempts are made to force Pakistani federalism and democracy to behave in a manner aligned with the will of an individual or a small group of individuals, we get Bangladesh (1971), the era of religious extremist violence (1979-1996), the era of terrorist insurgency (2004-2015), and Notification Gate (2021). We don’t quite know what era Notification Gate is going to unleash upon Pakistan yet, but the early warning signals from the Imran Khan Show since April 8, 2022 are not encouraging.

In addition to the institutionalisation of an absence of big picture accountability, there is the ease of micro-oppression. Individual missing persons can be disappeared without anyone losing their jobs. This is a defacement of Pakistani freedom so fundamental and so foundational — and yet it has become so normalised that there are thousands of such individual cases. Because the social, political and economic standing of those whose fundamental rights are being violated are not as Main Street as they should be, Pakistani elites can look away — spare the occasional human rights friendly hashtag — and allow for the continuance of these micro-oppressions. When a system lacks big picture accountability, it nurtures and cultivates micro-oppressions.

The law-enforcement and justice dispensation system in the country — a relic of an extractive imperial power that departed the region geographically in 1947 — has never been repurposed to protect and serve. So the courts work for the judges, the more powerful lawyers, the occasional celebrity case, and the elite. But they do not work for anyone else. This ugly and malodorous truth is a more powerful stimulant of the Imran Khan supporter than the fragrance of constitutionalism that the Supreme Court forces the system to abide by through its legally unassailable dictat on the vote of no confidence. We need not adopt the anger of that Imran Khan supporter to at least be able to understand her fury and rage at the disequilibrium between the rare macro-justice done on that day, and the unending micro-injustices experienced by lower, lower-middle, middle, upper middle and even upper class Pakistanis, every day.

Imran Khan’s corruption narrative — the oldest trick in his array of rhetorical devices is perfectly aligned with all this. That narrative is sustained by two things. One is the the assiduous efforts of unaccountable individuals and organisations over three decades to tar and feather all politicians that are not Imran Khan with the accusation of corruption. The second is actual corruption — and the casual contempt that mainstream parties, especially the PPP, treat questions about this key public policy challenge with.

To top it all off, we often forget that Pakistan is not a post conflict society. It is a society in active conflict. Brilliant reporter Zahid Gishkori reported in December 2021 that from September 2021 to December 2021 alone, the TTP claimed 78 attacks, Baloch terrorists claimed 57 attacks and another 37 terrorist attacks were claimed by other banned outfits. Just last week another great journalist, Riffat Orakzai, reported a total of 43 attacks by the TTP in April 2022 alone, and an overall total of 256 attacks from September 2021.

This wave of terrorist attacks is what I have repeatedly referred to as Pakistan’s second war on terror. There is a two-front humiliation that this war produces for the ordinary Pakistani. The first is the ceaseless tut-tutting of foreign governments, in particular Western governments who themselves have not a clue as to how to fight violent extremism, but have never shied from contemptuous references to Pakistan’s complex fight against terror for over two decades. The second is the humiliation of having co-religionists weaponise their own faith against them. This is such a profound and deep scar that it adorns the discourse front and center, yet is rarely confronted or treated by Pakistani leaders.

The net result of these gaps: the macro-accountability, the micro-oppressions, the vacuum of justice, the myth and reality of corruption, and the humiliation of being in a conflict zone, is what activates and engages the imagination of the archetypal Imran Khan supporter.

There may not be enough of them to ever win Mr Khan a free and fair election, but there are enough of them to shape and sustain the Pakistani public square. They are therefore, very much, a permanent problem (and opportunity) for the enterprising and intrepid public servant — be he or she a politician, a civil servant, a military or intelligence official or another that is seized with public service.

Who among them will rise to address not just their niche audience but all Pakistanis, including their critics and tormentors?

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

Originally published in The News