There is a direct correlation between the depths of the gloom in
Pakistan and the high expectations of salvation from Imran Khan. It is
clear that the greater the despair in the country, the more fervent the
hopes in one man as saviour.
If - and that is still a big if - Imran does get to lead Pakistan, he
will face his greatest challenge ever. It is a challenge worthy of
Hercules preparing to clean out the Augean stables. Pakistan is on the
verge of imploding.
Its biggest province Baluchistan, which comprises almost half its
territory, is in a state of open revolt. Baluchis complain about
government's policy of "kill and dump". An entire generation of
journalists and professors is being systematically killed. The Tribal
Areas of the former Frontier Province is a theatre of war, involving
thousands of Pakistani troops. Suicide bombers terrorise Pakistan with
impunity. There is no end in sight to the violence.
The unstable situation in these two provinces of Pakistan has a
direct bearing on the law and order situation in the rest of the
country. No one is safe. Kidnapping and killings are commonly reported.
The tensions between the military and civilian authorities are barely
kept under the surface and the two are often pulling in different
directions. Add to this, the woes of the ordinary Pakistani facing
unemployment, high prices, shortage of electricity, gas and water who
sees his rulers plundering the country and sending their ill-gotten loot
abroad and you have Pakistan today.
With all its problems, the importance of Pakistan cannot be denied.
It is a nation of about 180-5 million people. It has an impressive
nuclear arsenal and its geo-political situation makes it a key country
in the region. Most important of all, its founding father MA Jinnah
created Pakistan with the idea of a genuine modern democracy in mind. He
championed women's rights, minority rights, human rights and respect
for the constitution.
To many commentators waking up to Imran Khan's massive turnout in
Lahore in October 2011 and then in December in Karachi, Imran appears to
have suddenly arrived from nowhere. It is easy to forget that he is now
almost 60 years old and has been working in the complex political arena
for almost two decades. Imran's party, Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for
Justice), launched in 1996, has been a spectacular failure until now. So
far, it has captured only one seat in Parliament - his own.
Imran's years in the wilderness may be ending. He will not be alone
in history if he now succeeds in turning Pakistan round. Jinnah himself,
and other world leaders like De Gaulle and Churchill, went through
their "wilderness years" wondering if the public had forsaken them.
Imran's critics threw everything at him. The affluent chattering
classes in the living rooms of Karachi and Lahore resented his celebrity
and dismissed him as "Moron Khan" and "Im the Dim". They felt betrayed
as Imran criticised the ruling elite because he himself had been
educated at the elite Aitchison College and Oxford University. His
critics accused him of hypocrisy, a lecherous playboy in London and a
pious Muslim in Lahore. After his marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, the
press called him a Zionist agent and drew pictures of him with the Star
of David on his forehead and sitting on a donkey. His marriage foundered
and his party showed little promise of making a dent on Pakistan's
But just as we must not underestimate the problems facing Pakistan,
we must not underestimate Imran's capacity to meet a challenge. He took
all this with stoic dignity.
Imran's fans were usually too dazzled to appreciate how he acquired
his extraordinary cricketing talents. They assumed it was a God-given
gift. After all, which Pakistani can forget Imran Khan holding aloft the
World Cup in 1992 in Australia when Pakistan became world champion. It
was an image that made every Pakistani proud to be a Pakistani.
But read his autobiographical notes to understand his mind. He put
himself through a gruelling regimen to become one of the finest fast
bowlers in the world. When he won the World Cup it is easy to forget
that he was already 39 years old - an old age for the demanding
pressures of World Cup cricket - and suffering from a ruptured shoulder
cartilage. When he decided to create Pakistan's first cancer hospital,
he once again exhibited sustained commitment and discipline to
fundraising and completing his project.
Listen to his speeches. Compare them to his earlier ones only a few
years ago. He has more focus and his punchlines make an impact. He has
judged exactly what the public mood is. His own natural patriotism and
passion for Pakistan have combined with his sense of disgust and outrage
at Pakistan's corrupt and incompetent ruling elite and, as he sees it,
their Western masters. He has courageously condemned the deaths of
innocent Pakistanis resulting from the US' drone strikes. He has clearly
been doing his homework.
Imran is also helped by several factors. There has been an explosion
of media outlets in Pakistan. Every foible and scandal of its political
leaders is now freely discussed. This freedom which borders on anarchy
has shaken the confidence of the public in their leaders.
A new section of vocal urbanised middle-class Pakistanis demands to
be heard. So do the young. They are looking for alternative voices to
those of their present leaders. In Imran, they see a viable alternative.
Imran's bold critique of the West appeals to Pakistanis, who are
fed-up of being humiliated in public. Army and civilian officers,
students and ordinary labourers acknowledge Imran's patriotism and
courage. They compare it to their leaders like President Pervez
Musharraf and President Asif Ali Zardari. Musharraf jumped one foot off
the ground every time someone from Washington rang to say "boo". Zardari
simply takes off from Pakistan whenever he faces a problem - he was
sightseeing in Europe when the floods devastated Pakistan and
disappeared to the UAE during the Memogate crisis.
Challenges for Imran
If Imran is given power, he needs to immediately tackle the question
of law and order in Pakistan. He must order the cessation of the torture
and killings in Baluchistan. He must fly to the Province to apologise
for what Pakistan has done to its people. He must do everything possible
to reinforce the idea that Baluchistan - like the Tribal Areas - is a
respected part of the federation of Pakistan. Imran's Pushtun background
will help in these provinces where people constantly and openly
complain about excessive Punjabi domination.
Imran needs to begin working even before he takes over on
strengthening the judicial and civil administrative structures. These
have been destroyed over the last few years. Without them ordinary
Pakistanis will not be able to obtain proper justice.
Pakistanis must see the benefits of Imran's administration if they
are to believe in him. This means jobs, bringing down of the prices of
everyday requirements like wheat and cooking oil, availability of
electricity and gas.
Apart from internal problems, Pakistan faces challenges in its
foreign policy. Its relations with its neighbours, Afghanistan and
India, need to be improved. The recent spiralling downward of the
relationship between the US and Pakistan should be a cause of worry to
both. It is in the interest of both countries to have a stable and
long-term relationship based in mutual understanding.
The last may prove a particular challenge for Imran. There are high
levels of almost irrational anti-American feelings in Pakistan today.
Pakistanis blame the deadly actions of the suicide bombers and the drone
strikes for the 40-50,000 Pakistanis that have lost their lives in a
war that is not of their making. Imran's own rhetoric will easily be
mistranslated and misunderstood in Washington to mean that he supports
the Taliban and therefore "Islamic terrorism". Imran cannot afford to
ignore this area of vital interest for Pakistan's foreign relations.
After a decade as ally in the US' "War on Terror" and the devastating
social, political and economic impact which direction will Imran take
The hopes of a nation now rest on one man. Pakistan history is
replete with examples of Pakistanis depending entirely on the saviour
figure only to be disappointed afterwards. Even Jinnah, the founder of
Pakistan, who remains so revered in Pakistan, died one year after
creating the country. Imran must emphasise the creation - in some case
the re-creation of structures and systems.
There are already danger-signs as some old faces who have done the
rounds with different parties have now jumped onto Imran's bandwagon.
The balance between making deals in order to chip away at the power base
of the ruling Zardari-Bhutto dynasty and the Sharif one, and
maintaining his integrity will be crucial.
He will not have much time in office. The clock will be ticking.
Another Oxford graduate like him, freshly out of university, will emerge
to challenge him. Bilawal Bhutto may be completely untutored at the
moment, but as the head of the PPP and the son and grand-son of two
former popular prime ministers of Pakistan, he will soon have legitimacy
to begin his attacks. Imran needs to be ready for his finest innings.
Professor Akbar Ahmed is member of the ISPU Board of Advisors and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic studies, American University, Washington DC and author of Journey into America (Brookings Press 2010). He was Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland.
This article was published by Al Jazeera English on January 2, 2012. Read it here.