Imran Khan Does hold out Hope

Written by Zafar Hilali
Mere appearances are not necessarily a clue to the truth. But sometimes we have no other choice but to make do with what we have. So one might as well go with the flow and agree with the casual political observer and pundit alike that while Imran Khan may not be a shoo-in as the next prime minister, he is certainly a front-rank candidate for the job. Even this might seem a hasty conclusion. After all, as the saying goes “one swallow does not make a summer,” but for many the turnout of the Lahore rally was proof enough.
The problem is our sense of desperation, which has dropped to such depths that it can blur the difference between belief and wishful thinking. And, frankly, why not, when the prospect of the pain and misery of another five years of Zardari and/or Nawaz Sherif is simply unbearable. And now, because of the hope Imran Khan provides, this nightmare may not become a reality and it will not go unchallenged. Hence, for this alone, he has given us some cheer in circumstances we know to be desperate, and for that Imran Khan is our hero.
Although Imran’s message is directed mostly to the common man, many who flocked to the Minar-e-Pakistan were the rich in their Prados, Land Cruisers and assorted SUVs. Others, including entire families, walked to the venue in their expensive joggers. Rarely do the rich in Pakistan like to rub shoulders with their poorer brethren, but on this occasion they seemed happy at being jostled about for hours by the hoi polloi.
The last time I saw a similar “unfunded” (not trucked) mammoth gathering was in 1971, as Z A Bhutto was getting ready to address a public meeting in Karachi. The incongruity of his Henry Poole-tailored suit, Turnbull and Asser shirt, Lanvin tie (discarded for the occasion) and Bally shoes, while his audience were clothed in rags, curiously never struck him or his audience. On this occasion, too, the parked Prados seemed irrelevant. Like Bhutto’s audience, that of Imran was also riveted on the promise of a new dawn that it held out.
Many wondered whether those present in the crowd, especially the young, would bother to register and vote. But, as one PTI functionary pointed out, the younger lot is even keener than their parents to register. And when someone asked whether they would bother to stand in line and vote on election day, the retort of another was, “Well, if they can stand here for six hours waiting for the proceedings to begin, they can wait the half-an-hour or so that it may take to vote.”
Imran’s diehard supporters, however, are less certain of his performance in the other provinces, especially Sindh, because if he fails to do as well their party may not be able to form the next government, having to decide then whether to settle for a participatory role in a coalition contraption. At this point someone sensibly pointed out how increasingly Walter Mittyish the conversation was becoming. “All that we can say conclusively,” this sage concluded, “is that the people are desperate for a change and no one else is more trusted to bring this about than Imran Khan. Whether this will happen is as yet anyone’s guess.’
Much of what Imran Khan promised from the stage has to be fleshed out, lest they appear pie in the sky ideas. Laws, for example, must be drafted and a whole new system of local bodies set out and procedures explained before the centuries-old “patwari system” can be finally abandoned or an “elected sheriff” can replace the thanedar. Even the begging bowl can’t really be broken unless true accountability is made the norm, and the entire culture, to say nothing of the machinery for levying and collecting taxes, is scrapped or reformed beyond recognition. And, before taking on the Americans, it would be prudent for us to know if we can withstand what is likely to be a strong blowback or a long siege.
Nevertheless, these matters will only become relevant after Imran Khan is elected. The real question is, can Imran win? And the answer after Lahore is most assuredly, yes.
That Imran Khan provides a way out from the clutches of the current lot of self- seeking politicians is not the only belief gaining wide acceptance. The prospect of a systematic change and hence a new beginning under his leadership is another. But perhaps his most important achievement is the timely contribution he has made to restoring public faith in the democratic process that was fast waning.
Increasingly, people had started to question the value of democracy because their plight has been worsening and they are being denied a fair shot at making a living or seeing a modicum of social justice and the security they crave to eke out their existence. They allude to the man who died waiting two days outside a bank to collect his pension; and the starving mother who threw her infant child into a passing car in the hope that they would feed it, and the scores of suicides taking place on a daily basis. How can any system permit matters to reach such a pass, they ask. In their view, such incidents mean that democracy in Pakistan is failing the acid test. In fact, they were beginning to see it as a trap to destroy core values like “rights” and “justice” that make life worthwhile, and which we say we want to uphold.
As it happens, that is a grossly unfair view of democracy. Ask the Arabs who are still battling the curse/culture of despotism. Indeed, look no further than our own experience.
It is not democracy but those in power who have lacked commitment. Elections alone don’t mean democracy. A lot of essential things have to be painstakingly put in place for it to work on a sustainable basis, including leaders who believe in it, not the self-serving rascals we have had so far whose primary concern has been election as an alternative to subservience under military rule, and whose impulses and urges are so untempered. They have not matured beyond the kindergarten stage in their political evolution; they are still influenced by tribal and feudal cultures which are to varying degrees embodied in all of them.
Imran should try to elevate his stature above the petty fray. Time will be on his side if he does it, but not if he gets carried away by the heat of the moment, in the style of some who want to see the barricades go up. The country is too brittle and fractious for that.
For a start, he has to build a party with potentially sound and well-meaning people. He has to make a transition from populism to a statesmanlike demeanour which is sorely lacking in our low-calibre political elite. We saw Shahbaz Sharif in Bhatti Chowk the other day in his true colours. Not that Zardari is any better when he gets going.
This country has many problems: rampant corruption, pervasive insecurity, deep economic distress, a democracy without the essential paraphernalia (accountability, for instance), and a complex geopolitical situation which can either undo the country or give it new prospects. A challenging task lies ahead for Imran.
People get fed up quickly with anything that fails to deliver almost instantly. And that’s understandable to some extent. But in Pakistan’s case, because of its complex nexus of issues, it is light at the end of the tunnel that is still possible – not instant gratification. We have to get out of the tunnel first. The Lahore rally was in that sense the first, albeit crucial, success for Imran’s efforts to move us in that direction.


Civil Engineer, Blogger, Entrapreneur

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