How Imran Khan Leads a Cult Modeled In The State’s Own Image

How Imran Khan Leads a Cult Modeled In The State’s Own Image
Pakistan grapples with yet another leader who refuses to settle for anything but power. The ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan is pulling massive crowds to protest against the dismissal of his premiership through a no-confidence vote, which he asserts was a result of a United States-backed foreign conspiracy, and equate every competing argument against his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) with disloyalty to the country. While demanding early elections before a public rally, Khan recently proclaimed that voting for his rivals would also be an act of treason. In the same procession, PTI’s Vice Chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi pronounced an ongoing case against the party a foreign conspiracy too - The Election Commission of Pakistan is hearing a case of prohibited foreign funding against PTI which is pending since 2014, way before PTI had even tasted power. The non-negotiable vitriol of PTI’s leadership is only amplified when replicated among the hundreds of thousands of Khan’s followers.

About half a century apart, in his prophetic 1974 essay, “Pakistan - Signposts to a Police State,” Eqbal Amad identified emerging trends of fascism in Pakistani politics. He noted that then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s socialist autocracy along with growing fundamentalism and disregard of politics among the military cadre, spurred separatism in the country, which in turn created greater justifications for an unchecked state power. His prescience fell no short of predicting a coup d'état, which would result in a religiously oriented, proto-facsist military dictatorship. Three years later, Pakistan met its longest, and to many, the cruelest martial rule in the form of General Zia-ul-Haq’s 11 years-long reactionary presidency.

Ever since, the neo-totalitarian state that Ahmad foresaw has only strengthened, hindering political and constitutional processes, amidst an ever-growing state presence in public life. Following a series of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary coups, and governments installed at the whims of what Paksitanis call the ‘establishment’ – an influential military-bureaucratic pressure group – Khan happens to be the latest great idea that ascended the ladder of validation in Pakistan’s power structure.

Imran Khan, a glamorous cricket champion, a philanthropist, and an international celebrity, who rose to power through the military’s support, wields extreme popularity among the country’s middle classes: families engaged with urban livelihoods and upward-looking careers. They see in Khan, an embodiment of their ultimate fancies, a man having the best of the two worlds: simultaneously a liberal in manners, heartthrob of London, and a fundamentalist Pashtun in Lahore. To them, he is that ridiculously improbable thread of fortune between culture and globalisation, a justification of the contrast between their Islamic ethos and not-very-Islamic credit-based economies, a first-world outcome on a third-world terrain. In the country’s otherwise centrist environment, rife with dynastic political parties of industrialists and feudals, Khan gave them the feeling of being represented, and being in control. His words are their ultimate truths.

The same classes have also been custodians of state moralities. Their worldviews are rooted in the consumption of the public curriculum. Their patriotic aspirations come from their stake as the petty bourgeoisie backcloth of the officer cadre in Pakistan Army, and the prospects of social mobility in a religiously charged militarised polity. They defend the unabated state authority in Pakistan against every questioning voice. The affinity between Khan and the generals seemed to them their best shot at power.

In a twist, when the military supposedly refused to play a role in saving Khan from the no-confidence vote, a large portion of his fanbase turned against the generals, chanting slogans they previously used to snub as anti-state. A former federal minister of Khan’s cabinet was seen caroling ‘Azadi’ (Freedom) slogans, which is a popular series of protest chants in South Asia and are often considered treasonous. Shunning their beloved military for ending its love affair with their idol, Khan’s followers revved up the anti-military rhetoric in Pakistani social media space, calling on the generals for a course correction by extending their support to PTI again.

Showing signs of a cult, whereby Khan practices a manipulative power over the brains of his followers, they detest every journalist, activist, political worker and whosoever under the sun, contests the populist realities that their leader paints. They are convinced that no one but Khan can deliver their country from bondage, and the ones opposing him want to annihilate the political and ideological cohesion of Pakistan. They are thrilled by the religiously provocative venom that Khan feeds them against his enemies. They churn out certificates of treason and heresy on Khan’s behalf. This cult has gone as far as manifesting its liking for mass detentions of whomever they just think has done wrong to the country.

Although PTI would be hardly anything identical to the Nazis, its authoritarian cult tendencies are flourishing in a Pakistan with an already coercive state apparatus and the emergence of another, more organized far right faction, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) - a hardliner group that was initially backed by PTI and the state authorities. It secured a horrifyingly high number of votes, and has the capacity of menacing the society. TLP’s political poster caused the lynching of a Sri-Lankan factory manager by a religiously charged mob in the industrial city of Sialkot. Besides, the resurrection of the Pakistani Taliban has hit the horizon, while terrorist activities are resuming along the Pak-Afghan border. Are these trends Pakistan’s present-day signposts to a further advanced authoritarian regime?

These trends provide fuel to the already unhindered drive of political and religious chauvinism, projecting a future that Pakistan fought to avoid while sacrificing 80,000 lives in its war against terrorism.

With PTI’s careless use of religion card against its opponents, labeling them the enemies of Pakistan and Islam, Khan’s politics is likely to leave lasting negative impacts on the country’s tolerance problem. Should the project Imran Khan, God forbid, spell out a cataclysmic future for Pakistan, who are we to blame: the military that helped Khan, or his protégés?

Serendipity seldom strikes down the road that Pakistan has taken.

The writer is an independent analyst and teaches Government and Politics at Bahria University, Islamabad. He has a postgraduate degree in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan. He tweets @HamrazSarwani