Imran Khan will not be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan (there, I’ve said it)

November 15, 2011 § 6 Comments



Imran Khan
Politics 101: NEVER DO THAT WITH YOUR ARM. Pakistani Politics 101: try to avoid making the Quaid-e-Azam look like the Psammead

It’s very easy to have a soft spot for Imran Khan; particularly if you’re British and know nothing about the subject. He invented reverse swing. He batted so stoically. He looked good in whites. He saved us the embarrassment of winning a world cup with Derek Pringle in the squad (and didn’t even gloat about it afterwards). He married the daughter of Britain’s favourite fascist*. He looks good in a suit. And apparently he’s some sort of liberal or something? Probably.

In many ways Khan is indicative of the overly simplistic attitude the west has to the politics of places they don’t like to visit. Find a solution (and only one) to all the nation’s problems in the form of a man who looks good in a suit, speaks good English, was educated in the west (the more Oxbridge, and therefore the posher and more out of touch, the better) and uses some correct buzzwords; then invest all your hope and energy in them. History is littered with vile little tin pot dictators who seemed very personable at mixers in Claridges. History has an even greater supply of complete non entities the public of country x didn’t even look at twice but who the west championed for years as the next big thing. Mustafa Barghouti’s 156,227 votes in the 2005 Palestinian Presidential election came at a price of something like $20 per vote of western wishful thinking.

Khan may be symptomatic of a general trend but there is not yet any evidence that he has any dictatorial tendencies. However, in the form of 15 years of electoral humiliation, there is every evidence that he was – until recently – an irrelevance and a joke. Yet as of last Wednesday (ish) suddenly the whole world is ringing with the news of the “incredible surge in PTI popularity“. But is it based upon anything other than western liberal wishful thinking and the self-affirming, self-fulfilling positive feedback cycle of all journalistic hype, “speculation mounts that” style stories?

To answer that I’d suggest we look at the opinion polls – except that there haven’t been any since July. Failing that I suggest that we look at recent election results – except that there haven’t been any for ages. Failing that I suggest that we look for any empirical evidence whatsoever to substantiate the claim – there was a rally in Lahore to which 70,000 attended which is quite impressive. Except that at a push I think I could get 70,000 to a rally in Lahore – Lahore has a population of nine million and there isn’t much to do in the evenings.

Ok, it’s not entirely media speculation. The substantive points are that there have been a number of high profile defections to the PTI within a couple of days of each other. There are a number of different types of defections going on here:

Firstly some impressive technocrats have joined; important but without political significance, albeit their defections were timed to perfection.

Secondly a lot of the PML-Q, PML-F etc… are lining up to join the PTI; this is more important in that it could give the PTI something it sorely lacks: numbers in Parliament. However it’s also not that surprising, the PML-Q are a disparate collection of vested interest groups – a King’s party whose King has died, they were always going to fragment and wash up on the shores of the party in whose direction the wind was blowing.

Thirdly, some genuinely heavy hitters from the PPP have joined the PTI. I’m not going to sniff at that, except to say that perhaps embittered former heavy hitters would be a better term. Even so it is impressive except in that in Pakistan this kind of thing happens all the time. A long long time ago Aftab Ahmad Sherpao wasn’t a joke.

Finally, and in conjunction presumably with the wooing of the PML-Q, we hear that several prominent landlords – including the Legharies of DG Khan – are thinking of joining. Given the political power of the Legharies that really isn’t to be sniffed at.

So what we actually have is a number of vested interest groups, feudal landlords and usual suspects flocking to a banner: partly – I imagine – because their rivals support Khan’s rivals and partly because they’ve made a self-fulfilling judgement that Khan and the PTI are going somewhere. What has actually changed is that Khan is willing to accept these people. Khan was once Mr Clean and Mr Pure, not to be sullied by the feudalism and patronage game the others all play. The real story of the last few days is that Khan has shown himself to be just another Pakistani politician.

I think that’s a mistake – he could bite hard into the main parties but he’s surrendered the one thing that made him unique to enter a game he cannot possibly win. He might get a few PML-Q dropouts and the odd landlord whose burnt so many bridges with both the PPP and the PML that they have nowhere else to go, but there is no way he can win a patronage game against the big two – they just have access to far more graft. I’m not alone.

But lets suppose he does win. When I was younger and more pretentious I used to tell people my favourite film was Novecento when it was actually Con Air. Novecento is however still a cracking film. Because I am still quite pretentious I’m now going to reinterpret it as a biopic of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad. Bear with me, I realise I’m pitching to a very narrow venn here.

Robert de Niro is Imran Khan: rich, handsome, he is given the world on a plate but he is determined to do good. Gérard Depardieu is Javed Miandad: poor and spectacularly grumpy but very talented he just wants to get his job done. They grow up together, sometimes they are best friends, sometimes they are worst enemies, always there is tension. Both are swept up in the arc of history,  it is Italy in the 1930s, one cannot get anything done without joining the fascists. A nutter tries to draw attention to the injustice of society by chopping off his own ear (that would be Afridi).

We are now just at the beginning of act 2. The evil Donald Sutherland (Mazhar Majeed?) and his grotesque lover (i’m going to say Ijaz Butt) have just raped and murdered a poor innocent child (Mohammed Amir) and headbutted a cat to death (err… Mohammed Asif?). Now Khan/de Niro must make a choice – become just another feudal landlord, join in with the prevailing mood of the time, join the fascists and hope in so doing to be able to protect the people living on his land, or take to the hills with Depardieu in the knowledge that he will not see power for many a year.

de Niro does what Khan seems about to do and becomes just another feudal landlord. But inevitably rather than changing the system, the system changes him and he becomes just another fascist. When the war ends Depardieu/Miandad puts him on trial; he insists he has done nothing wrong; on one level this is not disputed, but the villagers point out to him that if you know that the system is going to change you, if you know the system is going to make you one of them, then you shouldn’t participate in the system. The film ends with Depardieu and de Niro doing what Khan and Miandad will inevitably do: living out their dotage arguing and tussling and insisting they were right about things they fought about 60 years ago, loving every minute of being angry with each other.

I appreciate those last few paragraphs were like jazz – I enjoyed them more than you did. – but the main point is valid. Even if Khan wins by becoming just another Pakistani politician he won’t change anything. He can’t if that is how he wins.  Pakistan’s fundamental problems: patronage, graft, feudalism, the stratification of society, bonded labour, the total lack of social mobility, the deliberate failure to educate the poor, and the medieval attitudes to women that come from medieval feudal overlords, cannot be solved by co-opting and buying up those same overlords, those same feudals, and creating more of those same patronage networks.

Disclaimer: my Pakistani politics may be a bit rusty – I am just easing back into it. If I’ve got anything wrong I would really genuinely like to hear about it.

*James Goldsmith: yes he humiliated David Mellor, the world’s greasiest lemon, but he was a fascist and he created this prick.



§ 6 Responses to Imran Khan will not be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan (there, I’ve said it)

  • hahahaha – that was a super read. you’re a very talented writer – who else could shoehorn Miandad into Depardieu and call it jazz?

    I wasn’t expecting it to be so good since I saw your header, which says Imran can’t be ‘President’. I think the post he’s gunning for is Prime Minister. So you might wanna change that sharpish. But great read.

  • I really appreciate that. Also I am an idiot, cannot believe the PM/President slip up.

  • singalongg says:

    should not we be a little pragmatic? You have got to have people in your team who know ‘rules’ of rural politics.

    • I think that is more generally one of the biggest and most important questions in the politics of any nation. The trade off between idealism and pragmatics. My feeling is that in Pakistan being pragmatic is not effective (and so it’s not really pragmatic) – so far no politician has changed Pakistan by being pragmatic – and knowing the rules of rural politics has only entrenched those rules.

  • […] I’ve written about the PTIsunami before but I was probably a bit too dismissive.  Nothing I wrote there was really wrong but I missed two fairly important factors. One was that once the bandwagon started to roll it attracted media coverage and Khan does really well in the media. What then became apparent is that there’s a new constituency in Pakistan, of mostly young (Pakistan has a very young population over 30% of voters in this election are under 30) mostly urban, but in any instance uprooted and unaffiliated voters who are willing and able to vote for whomsoever they please – as opposed to feeling obliged by patronage, village, or family to support a certain candidate. They started to flock to Khan in droves. […]

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