Celebrity and Desperation: Khan's Inner Demons

When held accountable for his party's performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Imran Khan had little to tell the world, writes Aneeq Ejaz

Celebrity and Desperation: Khan's Inner Demons
In a BBC interview broadcast on June 4, an unhinged and incoherent Imran Khan embarrassed himself, and many of his supporters, as he attempted to dodge some simple and straight questions by the presenter about his party’s performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). For far too long, Khan has played the sanctimonious underdog in Pakistani politics, deploying an in-your-face attitude towards his opponents and projecting a carefully crafted nothing-to-loose persona to his supporters. But in this interview, the usual arsenal of tropes, clichés and verbal anguish failed Khan as reality struck in the face to remind him that he is now on the other side of the fence and to be held accountable for five years of devolved, uninterrupted power in KP. When the presenter asked what he plans to do about the obscene levels of wealth inequality in the country, Khan went into a mode of fumbling inarticulateness that ended by pitching police reforms as a solution. When pressed about naming a hospital or a university that his party might have built in KP, Khan awkwardly deflected to opinion polls showing Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) ahead of other parties in the province in the run up to July 2018 elections. Even beyond this meme-worthy moment in the interview, Khan came off as tired, weary and grumpy, brandishing a giant gemstone ring on his pinky finger that symbolised a next level of his drift into superstition.

While ambitious from the start and eyeing the post of prime minister from Day 1 in politics, Khan’s manoeuvres of late have become increasingly desperate, dirty and dangerous, handing out clues to the kind of leader he will be if he ever makes it to the PM House with reasonable authority. One of the most insistent urges of Khan has been to see his opponents eliminated, not in the political field, but by means unconstitutional and nefarious.
Blinded by his burning desire and tenacious will to reach the PM House at any cost, Khan has blamed a political leader for her own assassination, repeatedly invited interventions by the army, celebrated and defended the political role of the judiciary, and sought to make his political rivals targets of religious fanatics

When analysts study the rise of PTI, they point to social processes like the emergence of a new middle class, liberalisation of the economy and proliferation of private media organisations under Pervez Musharraf’s decade in power. While this may explain the sudden foregrounding of a new style and idiom of politics towards the end of Musharraf era, and a new political organisation according representation to urban professionals and white-collar workers, it is insufficient to explain the rise of an inexperienced celebrity figure like Khan at the helm of this wave. One inadequacy of this sort of analysis stems from its inability to take into account the wildcard variable that is death. In the hindsight, the most relevant counter-factual question we can ask about the rise of a phenomenon like PTI is this: if Benazir Bhutto were alive today, would Imran Khan still be at this position?

On October 21, 2007, days after Benazir Bhutto survived an assassination attempt in Karachi on her return to Pakistan from self-imposed exile, Khan penned an essay for British newspaper The Telegraph holding Benazir responsible for her own assassination attempt: “She has only herself to blame,” he wrote. Since then, with the huge vacuum created in national politics by Benazir’s assassination, Khan has been the biggest beneficiary of this elimination as his party essentially replaced PPP as the main opposition in Punjab in 2013 elections.

It is only after the 2013 elections, once it became clear that the rhetoric of corruption and wide media support are inadequate to bring down the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) behemoth, that Khan started permitting himself to increasingly sacrifice the ethical in pursuit of the political. Right after the elections, he initiated the chorus of “four constituencies” and, with help from Tahirul Qadri, drummed it up till it reached a crescendo that threatened to undo the fledgling democratic setup by inviting the infamous ‘umpire’ to step in. On August 28, 2014, cameras captured Khan’s guilty grin as he alighted from his container to depart for an undisclosed location in Islamabad where he would meet then chief of army staff General (r) Raheel Sharif. He appeared visibly delighted at the arbitration of the powerful general, and was convinced for a time that Nawaz’s game is over.

When this dream failed to materialise, the Panama Papers scandal became the next frontier of hope for the ageing Chairman. On April 20, 2017, the Supreme Court bench, with a 3-2 majority, ruled that it had encountered no sufficient evidence of financial fraud to disqualify then prime minister Nawaz Sharif. With two dissenting judges calling for Nawaz’s disqualification, the Supreme Court deferred further inquiry to a Joint Investigation Team. But for Khan, this decision carried trappings of an impending ouster, and he could not be more delighted. “Want to congratulate the nation on this SC judgment”, he tweeted, calling on PTI workers to celebrate their success that day. The workers of a supposedly democratic party, already primed in rejecting the outcome of an electoral exercise, received a lesson in defeating political rivals through apolitical means. In a subsequent tweet Khan expressed his confusion, as if he were missing something the others readily got: “I am still puzzling over what PML-N is celebrating? They should be asking [Nawaz Sharif] to resign. But this reflects complete moral collapse of our elite”, he said. The moral collapse was taking place, but perhaps at a different site.

Along the way, Khan ruthlessly exploited Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with Indian industrialist Sajjan Jindal. At one point he even suggested that the alleged private business dealings between the two figures is the reason behind International Court of Justice issuing a stay order against the execution of Kulbhushan Jadhav, the Indian spy captured in Balochistan back in 2016. Not only did this make Nawaz a target of anti-India militants roaming the country, it also went squarely against Khan’s own convictions, expressed in numerous television interviews to Indian journalists, about normalisation and trade with India and disarming of all militant groups engaged in cross-border terror activity. “The time has come now again for Pakistan to completely review the way we have dealt with the militant groups in our country, because it is now having an impact,” he said in one of those appearances. “Pakistan can’t go on as it is,” he added. And yet when Nawaz talked about exactly the same issue, perhaps in a more open and admitting manner, Khan pounced on the opportunity and demanded that Nawaz be “proceeded against for treason.” He even characterised the thrice-elected former prime minister as “modern-day Mir Jafar”, knowing full well the insinuations and repercussions that come attached with such a statement.

But the peak of Khan’s desperation and foul play came after it became clear that, despite being ousted from the office, Nawaz Sharif’s popularity remained steady and the Supreme Court judgments have only energised his party’s base. Three months after the Faizabad sit-in crisis had been averted, Khan attempted to re-incriminate the PML-N in Khatm-e-Nabuwwat controversy: “Why did [the PML-N] decide to change the oath? I’ll tell you why: they wanted to please a big lobby that is sitting abroad,” he said. This statement came at a time when flames of the controversy were still alive and murderous passions raged in dark corners of the country, as they manifested themselves in attempt on the life of then Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal.

Blinded by his burning desire and tenacious will to reach the PM House at any cost, Khan has blamed a political leader for her own assassination, repeatedly invited interventions by the army, celebrated and defended political role of the supreme judiciary, and sought to make his political rivals targets of religious fanatics. What’s ironic is this tendency being exhibited by a former sportsman who once championed the cause of neutral umpiring in cricket. So much for ideals of struggle and sportsmanship.

But as he found out in this BBC interview, the perpetual license of sanctimony is over. When held accountable on his party’s performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he had little to tell the world. Today, as he gears up for another shot at his dream of addressing the nation in a sherwani, the 65-year-old Kaptaan holds zero administrative experience, with not even a mayoral office—let alone a ministerial position—to his credit. So help us God.