How Imran Khan Fooled His Voter Base

How Imran Khan Fooled His Voter Base
Hailing from a privileged, urban educated middle class or well off background in the 2010s meant a lot of things in Pakistan. One of those things was being surrounded by peers, family members, friends and colleagues who had developed unquestionable love for Imran Khan. The cricketer turned politician had grown to command respect and undiluted affection amongst the self proclaimed ‘enlightened’ segments in Pakistan’s urban landscape. 

After all, Imran was somebody the educated middle class and elite could relate to. His rhetoric of building institutions from bottom up and a noteworthy track record in cricket and Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital inspired a certain kind of confidence that the traditional political class couldn’t. 

In a way, Imran had captured the imagination of this strata. He spent years cultivating a brand of honesty and hardwork. He painted himself as diametrically opposite to the established political class. Through years of speeches and TV interviews, he carved an enemy image out of Sharifs and Bhuttos, which was appealing for a significant chunk of his urban voters. They were attracted to the idea because it offered immediate relief and gratification. It offered an easy explanation for Pakistan’s woes: that Nawaz and co were responsible for Pakistan’s troubles, which was clearly false. In Umair Javed’s words, Imran’s success lay in his ability to ‘mobilise segments of the population through anti corruption signifiers and over simplistic appeals’. And rightly so, as this segment has become his vociferous and charged base of support for over a decade now.

For his base, the traditional political class simply didn’t qualify on merit to rule Pakistan and Imran vowed to take them out. This made Imran relatable and likeable for the majority of urban educated and cultural elite, who dominate big cities and public discourse in more ways than they realise. His Oxford background, handsome looks and acceptance in the west meant that he was not just ‘one of us’, as the PTI slogan would have you believe.  Instead, a section of society thought he was the best of us. 

While Imran was doing his thing publicly, little did his passionate supporters know that Imran had turned puppet for the most powerful and unaccountable powerbroker in Pakistan, one that Najam Sethi likes to call the ‘miltablishment’.  


This had ultimately fooled Imran voters into thinking that he could replicate successes of cricket and elsewhere in the realm of government. While Imran was doing his thing publicly, little did his passionate supporters know that Imran had turned puppet for the most powerful and unaccountable powerbroker in Pakistan, one that Najam Sethi likes to call the ‘miltablishment’.  

Three and a half years into the government, Imran has turned out to be no more than a garden variety of politicians, on the cusp of losing power. 

Far from securing 10 million jobs and building 1 million homes, PTI hasn’t even delivered on its primary objective of reducing fiscal deficit. The fiscal deficit recovery, which Imran deemed quintessential for Pakistan’s economic revival, is now hitting a $3 billion deficit per month. After lacklustre export led reforms, Imran has ditched fiscal austerity to generate economic activity. The result has been a rising fiscal deficit which Imran vowed to eradicate. Unfortunately, exports have risen at a paltry 3% on average per annum since 2018 despite significant rupee devaluation. 

Far from his grandstanding claims of getting rid of IMF shackles, the Imran-led economy has regressed into IMF’s control. For e.g. under a new money bill passed at the behest of the IMF, there is a ban on government borrowing from the State Bank of Pakistan leaving the government at the mercy of commercial banks. Imran’s populist rhetoric had his voters convinced that corrupt leaders end up borrowing money to service themselves. Instead, his government has broken all previous records on borrowing (adding 35.1 billion US dollars to take the total figure to an astonishing 85.6 billion US dollars). The economy has bled to the point that Pakistan now seeks a $3 Billion in loan from China, on top of the recently secured IMF injection. Renowned economist Dr Kaiser Bengali has termed this drastic increase in debt in the last three years as a direct threat to our Nuclear Assets.

The economy scorecard worsens with a glance at inflation. Imran and co continue to claim Pakistan is a ‘cheap country to live in’. The ridiculous explanations to have come forth claim petrol is cheaper in Pakistan than in California and that SMS discount offers are evidence of lowering inflation. Official figures however show that the consumer price index soared up to 12.3% by December, 2021. Pakistan’s average inflation in the last year was 9% compared to 5% in the bordering countries and has crippled the middle class. In simpler terms, the average Pakistani is worse off than they were three years ago.

The most comical aspect of Khan’s miserable performance is corruption. Imran desperately tried to hold his rival leaders and opposition politicians ‘accountable’, yet somehow Pakistan has dropped to 140th in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. The country dropped a whopping 17 places in a year which is further testament to the fact that Imran didn’t undertake structural reforms to root out corruption. His agenda on corruption was driven by the singular need to wipe out political opposition. Add to that the sugar, wheat, overseas funds scandal and you have a very grim outcome.  On the contrary, this index shows Pakistan was faring better under the previous government. 

In the midst of abject outcomes in all areas (not to mention Foreign Policy), Imran Khan continues to do what he did for decades: strike a populist posture. With every scandal and miserable result, Imran’s relationship with his voter forces him to make outlandish claims like ‘eradicating corruption in 90 days’ or that ‘Pakistan is cheap to live in’. He has now announced bonuses for ministries that do well, clearly knowing that the majority of their tenure is up. He continues blaming past governments while being unable to account for a circular debt that has more than doubled under his government. 

For what it’s worth, the deluded narcissist’s failure has laid bare the vengeance and short sightedness of our miltablishment elites. Their quest for absolute control led to the project Naya Pakistan, which removed an adverse Nawaz in favour of a subservient Imran. It just so happens to turn out that they were wrong again.

The writer is the co-founder of the Future of Pakistan Conference and a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science.