A tsunami in a Punjabi teapot

After Sunday’s successful rally,Imran Khan has arrived. But can he be more than the Pakistan army’s chosen one?

As the former cricket captain Imran Khan stood before the cheering crowd in Lahore at his rally on Sunday,October 30,he promised that support for him would prove to be a tsunami,sweeping away all that he considers as political deadwood and garbage. In what appeared a carefully choreographed show,Imran Khan challenged his main political rivals: Pakistan’s president and the co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party,Asif Ali Zardari,and the two Sharif brothers in Punjab. He threatened them with a mass movement unless they declared their assets. Corruption is indeed one of the major issues that seems to have badly hurt Pakistan,especially in the past couple of decades,making it difficult for ordinary people to access facilities like electricity. Some of the major public-sector corporations are also sinking under the burden of corruption and nepotism.

But,more important,Pakistan is a country visibly burdened by ten years of the war on terror. To the ordinary Pakistani,the war has brought violence and disrepute,a situation that Imran Khan believes has not been improved by Pakistan’s partnership with the US in the war on terror. Khan promised the crowd he would never use the country’s army against its own people,as he said has happened at the behest of the Americans. He even taunted Zardari and Pakistan’s ambassador in the US,Hussain Haqqani,for seeking personal protection from the US government against the Pakistan army.

The Imran Khan apparent at the Sunday rally is certainly a more confident leader; but his confidence also emanates from the realisation that there may be few gaps between him and the country’s all-powerful security establishment — which he was careful to not criticise during the political show. Many believe that his success on Sunday was partly a result of some silent support provided by the security apparatus. This is nothing peculiar in a country where a nod and a wink from the establishment has created leaders from Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif,and now,Imran Khan.

In fact,what seems likely is that the “Khan tsunami” may be localised for the time being and remain limited to parts of urban Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK),where it is intended to have the greatest impact. One wonders if it is sheer coincidence that the coming of age of the cricketer-turned-politician has coincided with the growing unhappiness of the country’s politicised army with Nawaz Sharif,a leader General Zia-ul-Haq picked up from the business community and turned into the “Lion of Punjab.” It’s vital for the establishment to keep control of,and watch over,Punjab,which many consider Pakistan’s heart.

Contrary to his claims of possibly sweeping the next general elections to be held in 2013,Khan is predicted to gain some ground in Punjab and KPK,and have only a relatively small impact on Sindh and Balochistan. Given his affinity with the Punjab-centric establishment,there is little likelihood of the PTI chief persuading the Baloch to renounce their resistance,or the army to change its policy of coercion in the province. Sindh,on the other hand,will remain dominated by the politics of the PPP and the MQM.

Although there are many issues on which Khan needs to show clarity and a visible plan that would add to his rhetoric,the fact remains that he represents a new promise for young and increasingly urbanising Pakistan. More than his party,Imran himself represents a mellow brand of political Islam,one that is not influenced by the rabid Deobandism-Wahhabism,but has a more inclusive character. In many ways,the coming of Imran Khan harks back to the political theory of Mohammad Iqbal and the struggle for Pakistan. Imran Khan’s formula does not disown religion,or talk of liberalism-secularism,which many find alien in today’s Pakistan.

However,the real test for the cricketer-politician is to make sure that his socio-political agenda remains inclusive rather than exclusive. The shade of Sufi-Islamic philosophy as a source of his political Islam may give rise to some hope. It’s also worth mentioning that his sympathy for the Taliban is not driven by pure radicalism but his peculiar understanding of the WoT and American politics in the region. There are numerous issues that need greater clarity — including what his regional policy would be. Will he be inspired to build regional ties,or will he take directions from his technicolour-haired,hawkish foreign policy advisor,the journalist Shireen Mazari?

A popular conclusion drawn by many in the media is that Imran Khan has arrived. Despite no one being sure how many seats he will manage in the next general elections,his success on Sunday should make the older parties and political players more thoughtful about the future.

Note: This article originally published here.