If one goes by the media coverage of Imran Khan’s Azadi March from Lahore to Islamabad last Saturday — strident, anecdotal and picturesque as it has to be on TV — one may conclude that Imran has become the leader of the opposition, even if this title is officially held by Syed Khurshid Ahmed Shah of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). But after a week in Islamabad, including one day and half a night watching the cavalcade and listening to the speeches of Imran Khan and his lieutenants, I could not help but wonder if he can conceal the obvious weaknesses of his strategy.
Khan founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 1996, four years after winning the cricket World Cup. But the party bagged only one seat in 2002, Imran’s own, and boycotted the 2008 elections. The PTI began to gain momentum in 2011 by capitalising on two themes: the defence of national sovereignty vis-à-vis the US (especially the drone strikes in the Pashtun belt) and the fight against corruption, the scourge of Pakistan that had reached new highs under Asif Ali Zardari. In 2011, Khan held a meeting in Lahore attracting about 100,000 people, a turning point.
Imran Khan’s popularity owed largely to the fact that he was in tune with the expectations of many Pakistanis, including the urban middle class and the youth. The formula “Naya Pakistan”, which was extensively used by the Pakistani media to describe the atmosphere of the 2013 elections — that registered a record turnout — was originally the PTI’s campaign slogan. The party, which made inroads in the big cities, came second in Faisalabad and Karachi. It also came second at the national level with 16.7 per cent of valid votes against the 15.1 per cent of the PPP, which was relegated to third position for the first time, but won more seats than the PTI.
The PTI believed that it had been deprived of some seats it had actually won because of rigging and presented its case before the election commission. More than a year after, a very small number of the petitions had been dealt with — and not always in favour of the PTI either. The rigging of the elections was the initial motivation behind the PTI’s mobilization last week, but the Azadi March also targeted the Nawaz Sharif government. Certainly, in one year, Nawaz Sharif has not achieved much. In contrast to his previous government, he has been relatively inactive and even absent. More importantly, he has continued with the patrimonial and even predatory modus operandi of the PPP. In a way, one family has been replaced by another at the helm of Pakistan, since Sharif’s brother is the chief Minister of Punjab. Hence Imran Khan’s formula: the “Sharif monarchy”.
The fact continued…