The reverence, adulation and devotion shown to Imran Khan by a large section of the society, even when his chips are down and his performance during nearly 4 years of rule abysmal, has forced many commentators to term this as ‘the cult of Imran.’ The emotional, social and economic underpinnings of the rise of the cult of Imran Khan needs to be looked at in conjunction with the challenge it poses to the historical configuration of the state-society relationship in Pakistan.
Emotional Journey of an Emergent Middle Class
The scenes being observed in Pakistan turn the traditional logic of Pakistani politics on its head and cannot be fully explained on rational grounds. After all, taking on the collective might of current military leadership and grand alliance of ruling parties with control over administration at federal as well as provincial levels, in the presence of a divided Supreme Court means that going by the famed theory of ‘Punjabi pragmatism,' PTI does not stand a chance. Only, that the theory does not apply anymore. Enters Imran Khan’s emotional appeal, but what underlies it?
Political behavior is not all rational. Especially, when it comes to populist, charismatic leaders, it is the emotional connection with the segments of electorate that, under circumstances, plays the decisive role. The feelings of hurt, anger, anxiety, admiration, love and the deeply embedded insecurities, aspirations and desires play as much a role as the rational calculations to pursue one’s interests.
Pakistani society, particularly in Punjab, areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the diaspora community, has gone through a considerable transition in its class structure during the last two decades. A sizable middle class has emerged on the back of migration to urban centers and expansion in services industry, particularly real estate, telecommunications, banking and finance, non-profit sector and private health and education sectors. This white collar professional class is distinct from the earlier wave of the expansion in the urban mercantile class during 1980s and 1990s, and has significantly penetrated the country's unelected state institutions, such as the military, bureaucracy, judiciary and media. Greater access to electronic and social media has provided this segment of population much greater cohesion, a shared worldview, significant policy influence and the ability to organize and be counted.
In Imran Khan, they see an underdog just like them who demonstrated sheer will, skill and determination to win the cricket world cup in 1992 from an impossible position, who established a world class cancer hospital against massive odds and who has spent over 25 years struggling against the feudal and industrial elites that lord over a rotten system.
This emergent middle class however exhibits complex emotional state of mind. On the one hand, it has a visceral hatred towards the aristocratic and industrial elites that still dominate the parliament, as well as the ‘illiterate’ working classes that vote for them even over a plate of ‘biryani’, and on the other hand it has a sense of entitlement for solely being skilled or ‘educated’ enough to run the affairs of the state. The hatred stems from the fact that they have largely hailed from the subordinate classes that have been long subjugated by the country’s elites. They believe that they rose ‘despite the system’, not because of it, that the achieved social mobility has solely been on the basis of their hard work, determination and sacrifices rendered in the process. That not only do they not owe it to the elites, but have had to struggle against the elite led system to achieve it. They therefore see a rotten system hedged against them, epitomized by the widespread corruption, nepotism and dynastic politics that has no space for their meritocratic, honest and hardworking ethic.
The collective trauma of being subjected to a perceived apathetic, cruel, exploitative and repressive system that disparaged and mutilated their self respect has given rise to a state of ‘collective narcissism’ - that exudes confidence and a sense of entitlement and superiority on the face of it, but underlies hurt and resentment accumulated during decades spent being lorded over by those who, in their view, plundered the wealth of the nation with both hands.
In Imran Khan, they see an underdog just like them who demonstrated sheer will, skill and determination to win the cricket world cup in 1992 from an impossible position, who established a world class cancer hospital against massive odds and who has spent over 25 years struggling against the feudal and industrial elites that lord over a rotten system. A stunning victory of such an underdog against all odds therefore, gives them goosebumps. It puts a smirk on their face and fills their heart with happiness. A feeling of vengeance, a feeling of finally being equal.
This feeling is valuable in its own right, never mind whatever a rational evaluation of the comparative economic performance of the ultimate underdog reveals. Power, a sense of empowerment, [haqiqi] freedom, emancipation, even at the cost of economic turmoil, is worth it.
In April last year, as the vote of no confidence was tabled, many among this constituency were disillusioned. Emotional preference aside, the downward economic slide since 2018 had created doubts among many of the efficacy of simplistic solutions offered by PM Khan to root out corruption, restore national pride, ensure economic revival, provide justice and establish a ‘naya’ Pakistan. This forced some of them to look again towards the established political parties, that set themselves up as ‘old shepherds’ who can protect the flock better than the ‘young underdog’. This caused a rupture, a divide among the populace that transcends state and social institutions and has resulted in the worst ever political polarization experienced in the country.
The military has maintained its position as the de-facto leader and arbiter of the ruling block by pitching one civilian faction against the other, but seems to have gone too far nurturing the anti-elite middle-class sentiment, potentially to its own detriment.
These new contenders for power pose a serious challenge for the elites that include the civ-mil bureaucrats, judges, politicians from industrialist and large landholding backgrounds and increasingly, property tycoons. The military has maintained its position as the de-facto leader and arbiter of the ruling block by pitching one civilian faction against the other, but seems to have gone too far nurturing the anti-elite middle-class sentiment, potentially to its own detriment. This has eroded the fragile elite cohesion and is increasingly resulting in a fragmented hegemony where no elite faction holds the ultimate power.
This has not transpired solely on the basis of political miscalculation. Underlying this, essentially, is the lack of a viable economic project that could provide resources and incentives for a military led elite coalition to maintain a long-term positive outlook, expand alliances by co-opting new aspirants and keep opposition at bay. Instead, a shrinking pie, particularly since the dwindling U.S. interest in the region and the effects of a number of global and local crises such as COVID, Ukraine war and the floods, have incentivized short term gains, increased stakes of holding power, and intensified elite in-fighting resulting in the withering of state authority.
Growing mass discontent
Off the cameras and ignored by the social media, the discontent among working classes is growing. The highest levels of inflation ever seen in the country has resulted in large number of people falling below the poverty line. The tough bargaining with the IMF, the inability of successive governments to incentivize productive economy activity or to ensure more equitable distribution from the generation of wealth, the resurgence of terrorism, political instability and rising unemployment is resulting in mass disillusionment. This manifests itself in rising violence, anti-social behavior, crime and coupled with the diffusion of various populist ideologies, create new social movements.
More importantly, the confluence of agitated middle and lower classes can plunge the country into anarchy. Protests can swell and intensify and the violence spread much further. The country is fast approaching a juncture, where a seemingly insignificant event could trigger widespread rioting, lootings and the breakdown of law and order.
What to do?
All factions of the ruling elite, irrespective of who is in power seem to have little idea or capacity to turn the current state of affairs around. As the leader of the lot, the military has the most to lose out if things get out of hand, and has no easy choices. If things go further south, there may be temptation to increase coercion in the form of an emergency or an outright takeover to maintain order with an iron fist. Such temptations should be curtailed for the obvious reason that they will not provide a sustainable solution, will make things worse and may backfire spectacularly. It is better to find creative solutions.
Only substantial political and economic concessions to the middle and working classes in return for consent to rule can provide a semblance of stability.
First, overzealous interventions in political arena must be rolled back. While there is no easy way to undo the political engineering that has now taken a life of its own, a starting point is to ensure political leadership from all strata have a safe, open and level playing field to operate and that the truth about unconstitutional electioneering in the past is shared with the public and responsibility fixed.
Insisting on selectively enforcing the Constitution, for example on the issue of elections, without even acknowledging the unconstitutional actions in the last decade that privileged some political actors over others will be a mockery of justice.
Second, the military must revert back to a minimalist set of core interests that it ought to relatively more legitimately protect. Third, the stakes of holding power must be lowered. The temptation to hold on to the most powerful position in the country beyond prescribed tenure must be resisted. The extensions skew the power dynamics and will increasingly test the discipline of our most organized institution on the question of succession.
Fourth, the ruling elites must offer meaningful concessions and space to the segments of population that are under represented in the power structure. Youth, women, ethnic and religious minorities must be integrated in the power structure through affirmative action on a war footing to ensure greater ownership of the system.
Fifth, until the country gets back on track for economic revival, the pain of the downturn must proportionately be distributed among various segments of the society on the basis of their ability to withstand it. This means that rich bear the greater brunt of rising costs while poor are provided targeted subsidies, along with expanded social protection.
Lastly, drastic policy measures must be taken to divert investment from the non-productive sectors such as real estate to boost small and medium enterprises as the engine of economic growth.
Given the resentment and rising political temperature, the elite preference to somehow muddle through the crisis may prove ineffective this time. Only substantial political and economic concessions to the middle and working classes in return for consent to rule can provide a semblance of stability.