Imran Khan and the genius of the people

Published in the Express Tribune

A lifetime ago, a gentleman called Iskander Mirza threw democracy out of Pakistan. Speaking in 1958, Mirza felt free choice unfit for a nation ‘only 15% literate’, and vowed to draw up a new constitution ‘more suited to the genius’ of the Pakistani people.

It’s an argument shared by today’s elite: we’re a jaahil people, too petty to know how to run our lives, and certainly too backward to choose the right candidate. But President Mirza, the first in a line of executive tragedies, had it wrong. Democracy is exactly suited to the genius of the people of Pakistan.

There’s reason this idea took hold as late as it did. For much of our history, the state tried everything to prove the late major general right. It heaved and heaved against a torrent headed in the opposite direction. It denied Sheikh Mujib in 1970, with heartbreaking results.

It reduced the polls to a joke in 1977, and watched people die. It held party-less elections in 1985, ensuring our lawmakers would talk less of world prestige and more about the Jat baradri. It rigged the elections for the same waistcoat-wearing uncles in 2002 that it bribed in 1990.

But nothing unnatural can last forever. After upending 50 years of due process, all it took really, was five years. Five years without smoke and mirrors. This was a stint of genuine civilian rule the 1990s never was – with its Kargils and IJIs and repulsive Aslam Begs. In just five years, less than that even, the traditional parties were considered untenable, and a third option was born. Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf rose to the occasion, bringing an entire generation out of apathy.

Whatever the elite says, signs of a thinking electorate have been staring everyone in the face. The urban middle-class is mocked as either cute or clichéd – the conceit felt toward our poor runs even deeper. Rural electorates, it’s always presumed, don’t want big ideas. They want basic facilities, or protection from local thugs, or a job for a nephew. Essentially, patronage.

But that had never been the extent of people’s aspirations. Since nothing else was offered, the discourse was never allowed to improve. It’s been evident, even before PTI begun promising a Naya Pakistan, that people aspired to greater things. If the average voter sought only the politics of patronage, of thana-katcheri, of better roads and cleaner pipes, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat would still be in Islamabad. The Chaudhrys had a knack for deep-fried constituency politics. On a federal level, they were close to the establishment and adored by the bureaucrats, the opposition was reeling, and they led a legion of heavies in Punjab. But in 2008, against all odds, popular opinion didn’t take personalities into account. It voted against party platform, and blew the Q-League away.

Not that the relevant quarters noticed. As the only blocs that mattered, the PPP and PML-N were able to define what governance was meant to achieve between themselves, and restrict its length and breadth accordingly. Ideology died. The PPP did what it had done twice before: watch Asif Zardari drop the country through the floor.

By contrast, the Sharifs were kinder, following a model of Lahori largesse the Mughals would be proud of: a free laptop here, a Daanish school there, and paved roads between them. Shehbaz sahib combated dengue, Nawaz sahib remained beloved of the people, and peacocks strutted across Raiwind. And that was the sum total of what democracy was likened to be.

Yet as the generals found out thrice over, unnatural systems do not last. 180 million people aren’t meant to be dumbed down. Governance isn’t limited to Bhuttos or buses. It’s dreaming about a better life. And it’s about ideas and manifestoes, about economics and justice and civil freedoms.

But neither party campaigned much by way of transformational change, or institution-building, or structural reform. It spoke little of the country their children would inherit. Nawaz League pledged a bullet train instead, the Class of ’85 right to the end. The People’s Party didn’t even do that much.

Which is why we see the enthusiasm for Mr. Khan today. A man who waded into the muck of our political arena and spoke of reforming the economy, education, and industry; a newcomer that promoted what veterans had yet to touch: women’s participation, the environment, rights for the disabled. His Pakistan is friendly with India, Saudi Arabia and Iran in simultaneity, but shoots down every last child-murdering drone. It is an idealism Pakistan is starved for.

Most hopefully, his party is devoid of the ethnic mess that plagues the republic. It is PTI that steams into Quetta and raises the Pakistani flag, rather than Akhtar Mengal flying in from Dubai to be crowned the latest saint of Baloch nationalism. Unlike Asif Zardari, it plays no Sindh card. And its leader doesn’t upset Muslim League ministers when he says, ‘I take your name, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi…and there is no worse enemy of Islam than you.’

Yet not all is red-and-green glory. Mr. Khan’s visible reluctance to oppose the Taliban – the ferocious Pakistani variant – is self-defeating. He blurs together the Afghan Taliban taking on NATO across the border, and the Pakistani Taliban massacring civilians at home.  No doubt, America’s eleven-year-long Great Game is ‘not our war,’ but the insurgency it has given rise to in Pakistan’s tribal areas – which has since spread to the plains – very much is, and may well be the fight for our lives. Mr. Khan’s conflation is sadly deliberate: it is far easier to tiptoe around a shapeless monolith that also happens to be fighting an occupation next door, than to come to grips with the fact that a distinct offshoot is butchering one’s own countrymen. This was most apparent during the shameful Swat deal in 2009, when the valley’s oppressors thought Imran was just the man they could negotiate with. It is high time Mr. Khan recognises the TTP for what it is – a beast in beast’s clothing. He can either change course while he’s still ahead, or the TTP will do it for him.

To turn to the party as well, Mr. Khan is becoming increasingly vulnerable to gents from the old guard that see a movement on the rise. They too will doom the PTI if allowed to entrench themselves further:  a mix of Q-League’s career defectors, and the shadowy forces that prop them up from behind the curtains every time.  To quote another party chairman (who also gave in to the old guard), not one of them has made a second’s contribution to history. Worse, they will extinguish the party’s reform ethos right out of the gate. The idea that these lotas bring electoral utility with them is dross: these gents need the PTI far more than the PTI needs them. But that realisation may come too late.

In any event, Mr. Khan’s past record has kept him in the nation’s consciousness, even as his party’s numbers dwindled to six or seven during the wilderness years. Though the press can’t keep itself from hyphenating ‘cricketer-turned-politician’, his most indelible mark, even as he lies hurt, is on the part of Pakistan he restored to health. Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital captures the spirit of all that Pakistan can be.

To be sure, building hospitals has little bearing on running government; his party will probably not win come 11 May, and may not deliver even if it does. But he is owed for advancing the national conversation, and, with his party becoming a vibrant third force on our political landscape, truly vindicating the genius of the Pakistani people.

That it took this long for us to believe it is also a commentary on the awfulness of the political class, and how accustomed we are to revelling in that awfulness. It took a while for us to realize, hearts hardened with each disappointment, that it may yet be possible our heroes and elected representatives be one and the same.