Cover Story: Battle for Pakistan 2018

Imran Khan and the Struggle for a New Pakistan

Mehr Tarar is a well-known Pakistani columnist
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Imran Khan is hopeful of winning the Pakistani General Election on July 25th. Despite his legendary U-turns and his never-changing mantra of ‘me-myself-I’, there is one thing that remains unquestioned in an environment where corruption is a way of life: his financial integrity. He is many things but he is not corrupt. And Pakistan is everything for Imran Khan

“Winning this World Cup, I am sure will go a long way in helping complete one of my obsessions, which is to build a cancer hospital. I am proud that in the twilight of my career, I finally managed to win a World Cup.”

On March 25, 1992, as millions of Pakistanis watched, transfixed, the live transmission, in an unbridled joyous celebration of the unexpected victory of their cricket team at the World Cup final played at Melbourne, Australia, the words of the team captain Imran Khan holding the champion’s trophy received a tremendous response. It would later garner tremendous criticism for its narcissistic tone.

Pakistan was ecstatic. And that brief speech that focused on ‘Khan’s achievement’ and ‘Khan’s mission’ to build a hospital in his late mother’s memory, set the tone for what would in later years be the narrative of the next journey of Khan’s very eventful and not- dull-for-a-moment life: his political career. He was born to win, he believed. His singular focus on his political goals and the ultimate prize—of Pakistan’s prime ministership—has been motivated by his supreme confidence in a singular force: Imran Khan.

Pakistan remembers the year 1996 for myriad reasons.

On September 20th, 1996, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, the charismatic and dynamic son of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and brother of then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was killed in Karachi by the police in what was reported as an encounter between the force and Mir with his supporters and guards. His sister, the country’s prime minister, was deeply grieved, and despite her power and influence, there wasn’t—and isn’t—any reasonable explanation of what happened that day and who was behind the order to kill the scion of the most important and most well-known political family of Pakistan.

On November 5th, 1996, President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari—ironically, one of the Bhuttos’ most trusted political lieutenants—dissolved the National Assembly and Benazir Bhutto was out of power once again. The accusations against her: ‘Karachi killings, disregard for federal institutions, ridiculing the judiciary, and corruption.’

Earlier that year, on April 25th, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) came into existence, a political party founded by Imran Khan, who after his retirement from cricket had focused on completing the country’s first world-class cancer hospital, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, which would provide free treatment to underprivileged patients. To date, the hospital has remained steadfast in its pledge to treat poor patients free of cost while giving them VIP treatment. The PTI’s basic ideology focuses on the pursuit of justice, a transparent system of accountability, and the formation of a social democratic welfare state founded on the Islamic principles of equality, justice and fairness.

The 1997 general election, once again, brought to power Nawaz Sharif. This game of musical chairs of power with the same players in a loop is an exasperating and a complex yet deceptively simple mechanism of maintaining a certain status quo despite repeated promises of change. While two-party dominance is not an uncommon phenomenon in most countries globally, in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, what is distinctive in its inflexibility is the supremacy of certain political dynasties.

Notwithstanding the result of elections in a particular year, whether it is a win or a rout, the main players remain unchanged. The Sheikh, Zia-Eskander, Chaudhary families of Bangladesh; the Gandhis of India; and the Bhuttos and Sharifs of Pakistan— whenever their party wins a parliamentary majority, the prime minister’s post is invariably theirs, without a question. In spite of intra-party elections being held, the leadership of these parties stays in the hands of the same family.

Khan wished to break the hegemony of Pakistan’s two main political families, and although his steady—albeit painfully slow—ascent in the power paradigm of politics is a manifestation of many things, one thing remained distinctive. While the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) are controlled by and elicit electoral support on the names of Sharif and Bhutto, the PTI is Imran Khan. Despite his efforts to institute intra-party democracy, Khan has remained the sole chairperson of his party in its 22 years of existence. Divesting the party of Khan’s name is akin to imagining New York without the Statue of Liberty. The symbolism of what it stands for, the iconic value of its placement, the hope it represents.

What happened to Khan—accustomed to a life of determination in sport, achievement and excellence, unsolicited admiration and adulation, everything offered on a shiny platter—in the first- ever election of his life was a rude awakening for him, a sobering moment for reality to sink in: your status of being the biggest celebrity in the turbulent history of Pakistan, your captaincy of a World Cup-winning cricket team, your idolisation by countless females because of your movie-star looks, your hero-worship by millions for your sporting brilliance, and your newfound fame as a philanthropist do not simply translate into electoral success. Khan’s one-year-old PTI didn’t win a single seat in 1997. Khan didn’t even win the seat he himself contested.

Imran Khan the superstar was a political nonentity, and that was a lesson he wouldn’t forget in a hurry. Not that anything would change for him soon.

General Pervez Musharraf, ‘the unlikely coup-maker’, ousted Sharif from power on October 12th, 1998. His accusation was that ‘Sharif tried to create dissension within the army for political reasons’. Musharraf said: “Despite all my advice, they tried to interfere with the armed forces, the last remaining viable institution in which all of you take so much pride and look up to at all times for stability, unity and integrity of our beloved country.”

Pakistan in its tumultuous and very complex 70-year history, despite being a democracy, has had almost 30 years of military rule. Musharraf’s words, televised to the nation after the coup, are a stark and realistic picture of the complicated dynamics of the chessboard of power in Pakistan.

Will the next person to arrive on an Emirates flight to face trial be Pervez Musharraf?

In 2002, Khan won one seat in the general election that took place under the unopposed leadership of Chief of Army Staff- turned-President Musharraf. The Sharifs were exiled from Pakistan for 10 years, having signed a deal with the new president for a pardon. Benazir Bhutto went into a self-imposed exile in order to escape political persecution camouflaged as a legal process.

Finally Khan was in parliament, though his fledgling party was still recognisable only because of his name.

Musharraf reigned over—pun intended—Pakistan as president from 2000 to 2008, making rules, subverting the constitution, using civilian institutions as per his whims, and was forced to renounce power only after one of the most horrific incidents in the bloodied history of Pakistan: the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27th, 2007, in a terrorist attack. The PPP, under the stewardship of Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Bhutto and allegedly one of the most corrupt men to have ever been in power, formed the government in Islamabad in 2008.

The Khan-led PTI boycotted the elections citing ‘lack of an independent judiciary’ as its principal reason.

On October 30th, 2011, after a historic rally in Lahore, PTI made a resounding impact, having flailed in political wilderness for almost 15 years. Khan’s message was hailed as a message of change, of a Naya (new) Pakistan that would rid the country of the ill practices of its old rulers, and make it a glorious entity with honesty, sincerity and transparency. He emerged as a leader Pakistanis trusted, but there was one thing missing: electable candidates— those lucky few who win elections.

The 2013 general election brought into power the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif became Pakistan’s prime minister for the third time. Khan, for all the hype and expectations, bagged only 34 seats and his hopes of a new Pakistan under his premiership were dashed. For the time being. His party did form a regional government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Amidst chants demanding a recount in four constituencies, protests, a months-long dharna in Islamabad in 2014, non-stop rallies and TV interviews, Khan and his PTI refused to stop pressuring the ‘corrupt’ Sharif to resign. Not much happened until news broke of the ‘Panama Papers’. The global scandal assumed the shape of a tsunami, the tag-word for Khan’s political promise, and ended in the court disqualification of Sharif on July 28th, 2017, from contesting this year’s polls.

On July 6th, 2018, Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz, and his son-in-law, Captain (Retd) Mohammad Safdar were convicted by an accountability court and sentenced for 10 years, eight years and one year, respectively. The accusation: failure to provide proof of their source of wealth for the purchase of flats owned by them in Avenfield House, London.

While the PTI has done some remarkable work in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa—on police, health and education reforms, improvement in law-and-order, the party’s billion-tree tsunami project, strengthening of local government, and emphasis on social welfare and women’s empowerment—Khan’s detractors draw attention to his non-fulfilment of three electoral promises: accountability, elimination of corruption and the building of small dams.

Now Khan is hopeful of winning the upcoming general election and forming the government in Islamabad. To be prime minister or not, the race is on. Despite being accused of frequent political errors and misjudgements, the induction of unsavoury candidates from other parties (‘dry cleaned’ of their misdeeds), his legendary U-turns on some major issues, and his never-changing mantra of ‘me-myself-I’, there is one thing that remains unquestioned in an environment where corruption is a way of life and self-serving agendas trump the welfare of people: Imran Khan’s financial integrity. Khan is many things, but Khan is not corrupt. And Pakistan is everything for Khan.

A few days to the elections on July 25th, and many questions abound: the authenticity of a legal system that works on a flawed premise of the impeachable character of human beings; a foggy process of selective accountability; the methodical vitiation of civilian institutions; a ‘soft coup’ being enacted in the guise of judicial supremacy; alleged intervention of the establishment in everything that happens, from border control, foreign policy, picking of friends and foes, to what the media reports, what the country’s official narrative is, which channel is to be watched, which tweets are ‘anti-national’ and how elections will be conducted.

Across-the-board accountability is no more than a hashtag until everyone who has harmed Pakistan in any way is brought to trial: the higher judiciary, generals, tycoons, everyone. Corruption is not merely material. Civilian leaders fail to gain much sympathy when facing a trial because of their record of ineptitude, misgovernance and corruption, and their dismissals and disqualifications are hailed as triumphs of justice and accountability. But until selectivity is there, until due process is followed, until at least one prime minister is allowed to finish his or her full term, and until a military dictator is punished in the same manner as an elected prime minister, there will be many a dark question mark on the entire system of accountability in Pakistan.

Political victimhood becomes a catchphrase when the system is questionable. Fix the system. Don’t let the corrupt become political martyrs.

Imran Khan, 65, at what could be the twilight of his political career, is being mocked as the establishment’s ‘laadla’ (pampered child) today—a repudiation of his popularity throughout Pakistan. But even as prime minister, his position would not be fully strengthened until ‘civilian supremacy’ is not just the call of an editorial, but the system on which Pakistan is run. The real change will be a realignment of power, back to the basics. Civilians are the ruling authority, and all other institutions must work to strengthen the government, and thus the country. There is much to learn from the organisational methodology of the armed forces, their impeccable work ethic, their intra-institutional system of checks and balances, and Pakistan is proud of them. However, the civilian-military tug-of-war will end once the latter recognises and respects the former’s power as mandated by the constitution. Let elected leaders do the governing.

What elected leaders need for the validation of their position and the power vested in them by the people: serve with honesty with the singular agenda of making Pakistan a vibrant, dynamic and prosperous country, where the life of the common man is as valuable as that of the man in a mansion. Serve to make a difference, not to accumulate wealth by illegal means. Serve to respect the vote that placed you in power, not use it as a tool of exploitation and unfairness.

On July 13th, 2018, on an Emirates flight, Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam returned from London to Pakistan to appear before a court and face imprisonment. There were protests held by their party workers and leaders, and cheers from PTI supporters and millions of other Pakistanis.

Will the next person to arrive on an Emirates flight to face trial be Pervez Musharraf?

That will be the Naya Pakistan.

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