Imran Khan’s successful public rally in Lahore has made many tongues to wag. Political analysts are now forced to revise their earlier estimates about Imran Khan’s potential to create a niche for himself in the existing political set up in Pakistan. The most notable impact of Imran Khan’s jalsa has been on the politics of Punjab, especially in its urban centres, considered till recently Nawaz Sharif’s stronghold. In this article an attempt has been made to bring into focus the possible changes which might take place in the electoral politics of the central Punjab during the coming elections. Therefore, I will first trace the trajectory of electoral politics in Punjab since 1946 to demonstrate the transformations that have taken place in the society and polity of Punjab and how have these changes been reflected in the electoral fortunes of various leaders and political parties over a period of time. It will help us establish a framework whereby the dynamics of changing patterns in the electoral history of the Punjab could be delineated so as to make an informed study about the possible changes in the political landscape of the central Punjab with the advent of Imran Khan as a key player.
Till 1940, the Unionist Party was the single most influential party in Punjab. It comprised of land-holding elites drawn from all religious communities of the Punjab. Their loyalty towards the British rulers was unflinching and they extended all possible cooperation to them in the war efforts on the occasions of two world wars. The British reciprocated by decorating them with medals and honours, and granting them lucrative tracts of land in canal colony districts which helped them to not only sustain rather enhance their power and prestige over the local populace. It was, hence, a mutually symbiotic relationship.
Political situation changed after the commencement of the Second World War. As Congress did not cooperate with war efforts, the British government turned to its traditional allies among the aristocracy. Muslim League sided with the British government on the plea that Nazi Germany and its allies were common enemies of the whole of civilized world. While prominent leaders of the Congress were incarcerated, Muslim League was given a relatively free hand. It was done so as to dilute the significance of Congress in the Indian politics or at least among the Muslim majority areas from where bulk of military recruitment and resources were being drawn. Muhammad Ali Jinnah used the political vacuum to his advantage and re-organized his party and successfully mustered support for its agenda at the grass root level. His popularity reached its zenith at the time of the historic event in 1940 when Muslim League held its annual meeting in Minto Park Lahore. Such a powerful show of strength was followed by intense membership drives throughout Punjab and North India in which students of Aligarh Muslim University and other colleges played an active role. As Tahir Kamran has noted in his well-researched article on the elections of 1946 that such slogans as Muslim hai tu Muslim League mai aa were raised to gain sympathy for Muslim League and the cause espoused by it. Thus, Muslim League, under the charismatic leadership of Jinnah, emerged as a party which outsmarted all its rivals. It had the vibrant support of youth and, most importantly, an agenda for the rights of Muslims which touched a chord among overwhelming majority of Muslims in India. Because of these factors, the Unionist Party felt threatened. They could see the winds of change blowing in the direction of Muslim League. Therefore, many among them shifted their loyalties from Unionist Party to Muslim League. Despite all his charisma and popular support, Jinnah could not have won elections in Punjab without the support of Daultanas and Mamdots. This was also because of the fact that the urban base in Punjab was narrow and the franchise was limited.
Muslim League grabbed 73 out of 86 Muslim seats in Punjab and only a few of Muslim Unionists were able to retain their seats. These
results were in stark contrast with the elections held in 1937 when Muslim League had managed to win just two seats of which at least one was from an urban area (Malik Barkat Ali from Lahore and Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan from Rawalpindi who later crossed floor to Unionist party to earn the stigma of lota for the first time in Punjab’s electoral history). This was indeed a radical reversal in electoral fortune for Muslim League at the expense of Unionist Party. But even after the elections of 1946, Muslim League was unable to form a ministry in Punjab as Khizr Hayat Tiwana mustered support from Akali and Congress party to keep himself afloat as the premier of Punjab. It should be noted here that while all the Unionists shifted loyalties before the elections of 1946 (such as Mumtaz Daultana) or after the creation of Pakistan (such as Muzaffar Ali Khan Qizilbash) and became prominent leaders of Muslim League, Tiwana remained committed to his stance which opposed the creation of a separate state in the name of religion at the expense of centuries old pluralist traditions which had kept Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs together. After 1947, Khizr Hayat Tiwana became a non-entity in the politics of Punjab and spent the rest of his life in political wilderness.
First general elections in Pakistan at the national level with universal franchise took place in 1970. In these elections, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto emerged victorious in West Pakistan by winning 82 out of 138 seats whereas Sheikh Mujibur Rehman grabbed 158 out of 160 seats in East Pakistan. While reasons for Mujeeb’s absolute victory are understandable, the Bhutto phenomenon has intrigued historians and political scientists.
In the late 1960s, after resigning from the cabinet in anticipation of public outcry against the provisions of a peace agreement with India at Tashkent, Bhutto led a political campaign against Ayub Khan’s martial law regime. The so-called era of reforms and progress under Ayub Khan had led to industrialization and mechanization of farming practices in Pakistan. But the dividends of this economic development were unevenly distributed. A select elite comprising of 22 families – a figure popularized by economist Mehbub-ul-Haq – was widely believed to be holding 80% of country’s wealth and resources. In addition, the burgeoning urban based middle classes were now yearning for a fair share in the political decision-making. It was also the high point of leftist movements in Pakistan. At no other point in Pakistan’s history were the leftists more active and politically relevant. The leftist intellectuals were instrumental in the political successes achieved by Bhutto. The likes of J. Rahim, Mubashir Hassan and Sheikh Rashid were among the founding members of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) who drafted its manifesto and painted it reddish with the slogan “Democracy is our politics, Socialism is our economy and Islam is our religion.” What benefited Bhutto the most was his ability – and that of his key advisers like Rahim and Mubashir Hassan – to transform Peoples Party as an umbrella organization in which various splinter groups with leftist leanings were incorporated.
Peoples Party emerged, to the surprise of everyone else, as the most popular political party in the central Punjab. In the elections of 1970, out of the total tally of 82 seats, 62 were won in the Punjab, 18 in Sindh and 1 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Thus, Punjab was the epicentre of Peoples Party electoral sweep in West Pakistan. Within Punjab, it was the central region of the province with its urban base which went Bhutto’s way. As reported by Andrew Wilder, Bhutto won 50.8% of popular vote in central Punjab and 43 out of 44 seats – more than double the seats that he won nationwide.
Just like Muslim League in the 1940s, Bhutto’s electoral strategy had the right ingredients. He was a charismatic leader and brilliant speechmaker. He realized that there was a political vacuum in West Punjab which he was able to fill with an ideology which struck a chord with the poor and the emerging middle classes who had been denied a fair share in the benefits accruing from economic progress in Pakistan during the 1960s. Most importantly, he had a dedicated cadre of young but experienced leftist workers who carried out his campaign in an efficient manner. Unlike Muslim League, however, Bhutto did not have the support of influential feudal figures in rural Punjab. It was more because such traditional power holders could not foresee the prospects of Bhutto’s electoral sweep. Hence they demurred to side with him in the elections of 1970. Needless to say, those who won on Peoples Party ticket, were, thus far, political non-entities though they were well qualified and had years of experience working at grass root level. But they succeeded simply
because they were ticket holders of PPP and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It was no small achievement that a Sindhi feudal Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was able to defeat farzand-i-Iqbal Dr Javed Iqbal from his home constituency in Lahore! This phenomenal success popularised the adage that even if Bhutto had awarded a ticket to a khamba (electric pole), people would have voted for it. Ironically however, by the time elections of 1977 took place, Bhutto, swayed by political exigencies, relied heavily on traditional feudal families of Punjab. Instead of committed party workers and leftist cadres, Bhutto accommodated traditional elites. This was one key factor in disenchantment of the various leftist groups and individuals within PPP.
1990 and 1993
Bhutto’s performance in central Punjab during the election of 1970 was repeated by Islami Jamhuri Ittihad (IJI) – a conglomeration of rightwing political parties formed at the behest of establishment – led by Nawaz Sharif in 1990. It was a radical reversal in fortune. While in 1970 a conglomerate of various leftist groups had swept the polls, the same feat was repeated by IJI in 1990 when it also grabbed 50.8% of the total vote and 51 out of 60 seats in central Punjab. What can explain this extraordinary change in the electoral fortunes of the central Punjab? The foremost explanation is the role played by Pakistan’s Establishment which provided unlimited funds to coalesce an alliance of anti-PPP political parties. Through the rightwing Urdu press, a smear campaign was launched against Benazir Bhutto and her spouse Asif Zardari. The same press built Nawaz Sharif’s stature as an alternative national leader.
But more than anything else it was the policy of nationalization followed by Bhutto and Islamization by Zia-ul-Haq which had definite impact in bringing about a decisive transformation in the society and polity of urban Punjab. In the initial phase of nationalization policy, Bhutto targeted the filthy rich – the proverbial 22 families against whom he had led a charged rhetoric in his election campaign. Nationalizing banking sector and large industrial estates was, hence, a populist move which greatly added to Bhutto’s political power. But his later round of nationalization which targeted small and medium enterprises had disastrous fallout. While Bhutto became a messiah for the poor through these reforms, he lost – it seems forever – the support of newly urbanized industrial middle classes. Those who were hit by these reforms comprised mainly of migrant families who had, after decades of struggle, established their businesses as they were forced to forsake their homes and hearths as well as source of livelihood in India at the time of partition. The best example of such a migrant family was that of Nawaz Sharif. When an anti-Bhutto alliance was formed in the elections of 1977, it drew support – both political and financial – from those financially hurt by Bhutto’s policies. When Zia-ul-Haq came to power, these traders and businessmen threw in their lot with him as he gradually pursued a policy of de-nationalization whereby industrial units were given back to their original owners. Furthermore, Zia used the slogan of Islam to legitimize his rule. As positivist tradition in sociology suggests, newly urbanized classes – uprooted from their rural background and traditional clan ties – seek comfort and new associational patterns in religious observances and gatherings. Zia’s Islamization, therefore, received wide support from newly urbanized Punjabis.
Zia’s legacy of an Islamized society and support for trading classes was inherited by Nawaz Sharif who was ideally suited to such a designation. He was a scion of a migrant, business family steeped in traditional and religiously conservative ethos. He cashed on anti-PPP and pro-Islam vote bank to the maximum. As prime minister between 1990-92, Nawaz Sharif initiated a whole new era of liberal economic reforms which eased restrictions of capital transfer, facilitated industrial credit and loans and focused on building communication infrastructure. A policy of privitization was also quite vigorously pursued. These policies brought about a period of short-lived economic boom which greatly benefited the industrial base in the central Punjab and helped transform many medium sized industrial units into huge commercial enterprises. The benefits of this economic boom also trickled down to the trading classes in general. This established Nawaz Sharif as the single most popular figure in urban Punjab, especially among the trader community. In the elections of 1993 in which he had briefly fallen out of favour with the Establishment, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N percentage of vote was greater than its rivals in the central Punjab. PML-N won 46.6% of vote in comparison to 46.1% won by PPP and its allies. Still, PML-N managed to get only 28 seats while 31 seats went to PPP and its allies. But PML-N’s sweep of the urban constituencies in places like Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Sialkot and Sheikhurpura was almost complete. This was despite the fact that an influential portion of PML-N’s rightwing vote was sliced off by Jamat-i-Islami which, instead of keeping an electoral alliance in the form of IJI, fought the election on its own under the banner of Islamic Front.
The urban centres of the Punjab remained supportive of rightwing and pro-Establishment PML-N between 1990 and 1997. Since 1999, PML-N – especially Nawaz Sharif – turned anti-Establishment after his own government was toppled in a military coup and he was imprisoned and later exiled to Saudi Arabia. For the first time, it became possible for a popular leader of the Punjab to raise tirade against the military. While other provinces had all suffered because of military’s role – whether in politics or because of its operations in the name of suppressing nationalists – Punjab had remained pro-military throughout the history of Pakistan. Till now Nawaz Sharif is holding on to his anti-Establishment rhetoric. His statements provide ample testimony to his anti-establishment stance in which he has asked for a commission to be constituted for the probe into Kargil fiasco and lashed out at the military leadership for its failure on Osama Bin Laden. Will he be able to continue with such an anti-Establishment rhetoric after a radical change seems imminent in the politics of urban Punjab by Imran Khan?
2012 or 2013
Till the beginning of 2011, Nawaz Sharif was still the most popular leader in Punjab. But now change in the Punjab politics seems in the offing. After his successful public rally in Lahore, Imran Khan has suddenly been catapulted to the national scene as an alternative leader. His coming out of the political wilderness and assuming the centre stage was on the cards for quite some time. His rise to this level of popularity has reminded many of the successful electoral campaigns of Jinnah and Bhutto. There are some reasons for such a sudden change. First, there is a political vacuum of sorts. Nawaz Sharif has had flak for being too friendly an opposition. His party despite controlling 60% of Pakistan is putting all the onus of the current mess squarely on the shoulders of PPP alone. Secondly, there has been widespread resentment against the Zardari government yet Nawaz Sharif has not capitalized on it. He probably is shying away to launch a movement against PPP, saying that he will not revert to the politics of confrontation reminiscent of the 90s. Thirdly, and most importantly, anti-American sentiments have soared to an unprecedented level. PML-N, as the main opposition party, could not come up with a clear stance on the war against terror. In this situation, Imran Khan is the only political figure who has a clear agenda no matter how much one dislikes or disagrees with that agenda. He is saying things which touch a chord among vast majority of Pakistanis. His anti-American rhetoric is high-pitched and he is using such innovative methods of public spectacles as overnight dharnas to convey these feelings. Like Jinnah’s idea of a separate state for Muslims and Bhutto’s slogan of roti kapra makan, Imran Khan too has conjured up political slogans which might be vague and (unlike Bhutto) extremely rightwing, but they have mass appeal. As far as masses in general are concerned, the ability to transform political slogans into effective policy measure is relevant only once the protagonist is elected into power.
Like Jinnah and Bhutto, Khan too has a dedicated set of followers. While Bhutto politicized the masses, Imran Khan has become the only person in Pakistan’s history who has successfully drawn the upper middle and elite interested into politics – at least temporarily. There are other differences between Bhutto and Imran Khan as well. Bhutto was left leaning while Imran Khan has gravitated to the rightwing. Most importantly, Bhutto rose to political power by championing an anti-Establishment cause. Khan, on the other hand, is advancing a cause which corresponds quite explicitly with the strategic purposes of the Establishment.
Imran Khan is fully cognizant of the importance of social media for propagating his political ideology. In this regard, the overwhelming majority of the “clicking youth” is supporting him. They can be found all over the web and they religiously project Imran Khan as a beacon of hope and change in Pakistan. What is disturbing, however, is that they resort to almost fascist tactics in silencing their critics through abuse and threat (Imran Khan is personally responsible for such behaviour because in his public speeches and interviews, he uses a similar language of ridicule and abuse). This is because large majority of these dedicated cadres of Imran Khan do not have any genuine training in politics nor do they have much of an idea about the history of Pakistani politics. It is because of their ignorance about politics that they are unable to see that Imran Khan’s agenda is vague, problematic or potentially disastrous for Pakistan. For them he is simply an iconic figure who is untainted from allegations of corruption and will bring about much needed radical change. Due to this lack of firm grounding in politics, many commentators are dismissive of the efficacy of this cadre in the electoral politics of Pakistan. Contrary to what many observers believe, I think these clicking youth may be politically naive and hail from a “burger” background, but they will definitely vote for Imran Khan in the coming elections. Previously this class of voters had predominantly been apolitical but this time they will turn up to vote for Imran Khan and will use social media effectively to make sure that each one of them exercise his/her right to vote.
There are two major sources of electoral power which Imran Khan has been able to tap successfully. First are the Pakistani middle class professionals (lawyers, doctors, MBAs, IT experts) and upper middle class or elites. Ever since Bhutto transformed Pakistani politics by empowering the masses, these elites and professional classes have been at a loss. They do not find popular politics amenable to their tastes. It is because this mode of politics limits the chances of these elites to play an effective role in politics. They usually look down upon the ability of the masses to exercise their right to vote in a rational manner. These elites had always prospered during autocratic regimes such as those of Ayyub Khan and Parvez Musharraf which accommodated ‘technocrats’ in various ministries and government organizations. Hence, there is no coincidence that these elites (along with upper middle classes and professionals) – before joining the bandwagon of Imran Khan – were enthusiastic supporters of Parvez Musharraf. For these elites and professional classes, Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari were too corrupt and Nawaz Sharif too boorish for their tastes. Imran Khan is equipped with not only charisma but also has a clean financial past, rightwing anti-American rhetoric and a degree from Oxford – all the traits admired by Pakistan’s middle or upper middle class. Most importantly, unlike Ayyub and Parvez, Imran Khan has the chance to bring about a bourgeoisie revolution in Pakistan through electoral means. In other words, as my colleague Umber Ibad puts it, “the question of the possibility of revolutionary change by Elites is successfully making resistance against elitism redundant.” Perhaps for the first time in many decades, the elites, professional and middle classes will determine the outcome of the elections through their votes. The spectacle created at the PTI jalsa was the highest point ever for elitist politics in Pakistan. It might set in motion a domino effect possibly affecting the lower middle classes (if not the poorest) into believing that since the elites and privileged sections (i.e. most educated) are supporting Imran Khan, he is inevitably the right choice. But at least for now, in the words of Imtiaz Alam, Imran Khan does not have the support of bazar and the poor. The bazar (small and medium traders) side with Nawaz Sharif in central Punjab and the poor are divided in their loyalty towards PPP and PML-N.
The second major source of popular vote for Imran are young voters in Pakistan. It is this newly created vote bank on the basis of which Imran Khan claims to have brought about a ‘tsunami of change’ in Pakistan. Of all the political parties and its leadership, he saw the potential of tapping this huge reservoir of political support. Just a few months back, videos and photos glorifying Imran Khan for such feats as winning the world cup, building a cancer hospital and sleeping on the floor along with other participants of a dharna against US drone attacks started getting viral on social networking sites. Impressed with what he was doing, the clicking youth picked up Imran Khan as a “cause” in the same way they had taken up the cause of, lets say, “Justice for Aiman Malik” and “Justice for Mughees and Muneeb”. It was a classical rendition of “Rang de Basanti” kind of youth activism. The young ones felt important by acting as a krantikari for Imran Khan’s cause and hence contributing something positive to Pakistan as patriotic citizens.
Other than his “own” vote bank, there is also a question whether Imran Khan will be able to take a big chunk of rightwing vote bank belonging to PML-N in central Punjab (lower middle class, traders etc mentioned above) – at least in main urban centres especially Lahore. Since this article is limited to a study of urban Punjab alone, I would not discuss in detail the electoral prospects of PTI in other parts of Punjab and Pakistan. At the most, about rural Punjab, I would simply repeat that even Jinnah was not able to win the elections in rural Punjab without the support of Daultanas and Mamdots. A gathering in Minto Park Lahore was not enough. Imran Khan is cognizant of this fact. Already leading families from South Punjab like Khakwani, Leghari, Qureshi and Tareen are lining up to forge an alliance with PTI. Since 1970, such influential families with a “guaranteed vote bank” have learnt a valuable lesson. They are careful to feel the public pulse before time. Mostly, however, they join a political force whose fortune is favoured by the Establishment. If this trend continues then Imran Khan will have little to worry about the prospects of his electoral success in South Punjab even though it would mean accommodating tried and tested politicians.
This brings me to my main point about electoral prospects for PTI in central Punjab and the portion of rightwing votes sliced off from PML-N. I think Imran Khan is overestimating the importance of Lahore. Lahore is no longer as significant as it used to be in 1970. Back then Lahore gave an intellectual lead because of the predominance of Urdu print media in Lahore. Now the sources of information have become manifold. People are no longer dependent on newspapers and journals to develop an informed political opinion. Even within the politics of Punjab, regional power players do not necessarily take cue from what is happening in Lahore. Therefore, it is naive on part of Imran Khan to think that he will be able to repeat what Bhutto achieved in 1970 simply by establishing Lahore as citadel of its political support. At the same time, however, one cannot underestimate the importance of Lahore either. After all it is the Lahore jalsa which has made people talk about Imran Khan and take him seriously for the first time in 15 years. This is no small an achievement in itself and will go a long way in helping him lay foundations for his political party.
My point is that on the basis of one jalsa alone, it is too early to predict whether Imran Khan will be able to grab a major chunk of PML-N’s rightwing vote bank. It will depend on several factors.
First, Imran Khan is largely seen as yet another venture by Pakistani Establishment to keep itself dominant in the political process of Pakistan. Ever since Nawaz Sharif turned anti-Establishment, there had been a slot open for grab to anyone who could prove his popularity in which Establishment could consider investing its resources. Imran Khan may not be a direct recipient of funds (at least there is no documentary evidence from now; in case of IJI as well such evidence only emerged a decade after its formation) from the Establishment but there are several in his party who are well-known for such activities in the past. This includes, most prominently, General Hamid Gul and Mian Muhammad Azhar. It is possible that Imran Khan has turned a blind eye to such transactions and hoping to severe such links once he achieves desired political acclaim, support and popularity.
Secondly, it is also questionable whether the Establishment would risk building Imran Khan as a highly popular leader at the national level and not just in Punjab. On one hand the Establishment does realize the importance of a national leader for the benefit of the federation but at the same time it would be vary of ‘creating’ a figure who will, most certainly, grow out of its influence once fully established. Till now, most commentators thought of Imran Khan as a ploy by Establishment to achieve a fractured mandate in the coming elections so as to ensure that no single political party or popular leadership emerges to challenge its authority. Whether Imran Khan will be catapulted into a national leader or reduced to a status where he simply divides the electorate, will become evident during the coming months. In case the first strategy is adopted by the Establishment, we might see such developments as droves of ‘electables’ from influential families in Sindh (such as Mehr, Shirazi, Jatoi, Sumroo etc who do not depend on PPP for an electoral victory) join PTI; close to elections, nationalist groups in Baluchistan might boycott the elections allowing the incumbent group of ‘representatives’ win the elections once again; MQM might follow the same pattern for either national or provincial elections; overseas Pakistanis are given a right to vote which would mean another one million voters for Imran Khan; there is an intensification of corruption scandals against Zardari and Sharif brothers; (possibly a disqualification as well); bye-election is held on some urban constituency in Punjab in which PTI candidate sweeps the poll against PML-N and so on. But if the latter course of action is favoured by Establishment then it might become evident through such means as a major financial scandal accusing leading PTI members or even charges of embezzlement in the charity run by Imran Khan. This will cut Imran Khan down to size and provide a levelled playing field for all the political parties in the coming elections so as to achieve a fractured mandate.
Thirdly, there are also reports are in circulation suggesting that Saudi Arabia wants PML-N and PTI to join their forces against PPP and its “Shiite” leader Asif Zardari. If this happens, then it would bring a premature end to Nawaz Sharif’s brief stint as a champion of anti-Establishment politics in Punjab. Even if he does not enter into alliance, it is certain that PTI will prosper with the support of Establishment. In either case, Punjab would be the main loser as it will yet again miss the opportunity to be consistent in its efforts against the Establishment. Needless to say that such an alliance would be disastrous not only for Imran Khan but for the progressive political forces of Pakistan as well.
Fourthly, the possibility of Imran Khan’s entering into an alliance with Jamat-i-Islami also lurks at the horizon. Both share their thoughts on the issue of the war against terrorism. It may slightly scuttle his popularity among the elite sections but it may be compensated with an added support he might muster from Islamist groups, especially in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Finally, there is another scenario – which seems most likely and feasible for Imran Khan – in which PTI takes a solo flight. Unlike other commentators, I believe if the elections are held now, Imran Khan has a fair chance of establishing his dominance by denting PML-N’s vote bank. Currently the political ambience is favourably poised for him and there is wild optimism in the air. As the time progresses, some of Imran Khan’s supporters might lose faith in him as he starts making political compromises by inducting tried and tested leaders from other parties like Abdul Aleem Khan whose past is tainted with scandals of massive corruption. Obviously it is unrealistic to expect that Imran Khan will be able to scrutinize credentials of all those who wish to become part of PTI. But then it should also be noted that there is no way Imran Khan was completely oblivious of the credentials of some of the prominent politicians who have recently joined his party. If Imran Khan is taking such a high moral ground against corruption in politics, there is no margin for error for him. This is the price that he will have to pay for maintaining his reputation. Even a slight blemish on the financial record of any key leader of PTI will get noticed and highlighted by the opponents of Imran Khan to prove that he or his party are no different from other political parties. Those who hold pointing figures on others with an arrogant sense of moral superiority are reprimanded more severely if caught cheating even on a minor scale.
The kind of rhetoric employed by Khan against his opponents till recently and an irreconcilable and uncompromising attitude he has betrayed over the years will badly hurt his reputation once, under the compulsions of power politics, he starts making political adjustments and compromises (for example dealing with MQM in urban Sindh, especially Karachi). Already Imran Khan has become politically more pragmatic while his supporters are still idealists and relatively naive about real politik. After his successful public gathering in Lahore, a tired Imran Khan was asked by a journalist whether he will consider entering into an alliance with Nawaz Sharif. Even before the reporter had finished his question, Khan’s supporter standing behind him started nodding his head in negative. But Imran Khan, on the other hand, responded that he might consider it provided Nawaz Sharif declares his real assets. This is just an indication that there is already a yawning gap between the political pragmatism of Imran Khan and naive idealism of his followers who worship him as an idol of hope, change and clean politics in Pakistan.
Is Imran Khan right in predicting that he will be able to repeat the performance of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the next coming elections? It would mean that any khamba with a PTI ticket will win elections in the central Punjab. If not 1970, will it then be a performance similar to one achieved by Jinnah in the elections of 1946? It would mean that Imran Khan allows entry of traditional power elites from rural areas which might discredit some of his credibility among the upper middle and elite classes. Or will it be a performance similar to that of Nawaz Sharif in the elections of 1990 whereby he swept the polls thanks to the backing of Establishment? Or is it just sound and fury signifying nothing? The elections of 1946 drove Tiwana to political wilderness and Bhutto’s electoral sweep in 1970 brought an end to Daultana’s relevance in the politics of Punjab. If Imran Khan is able to repeat the performance of Jinnah or Bhutto, a similar fate awaits Nawaz Sharif.
At the moment, however, only one thing is certain: for Imran Khan and PTI it is now or never. As a concluding remark I would simply say that in case of a solo flight from PTI in an election which takes place during the next few months, the results might astonish all political parties and analysts. Another way in which Imran Khan can come to power is possible if no elections take place!
About the author: Ali Usman Qasmi is a PhD in South Asian History from the University of Heidelberg and author of Questioning the Authority of the Past: The Ahl al-Quran Movements in the Punjab (Karachi: Oxford University Press).