Imran Khan is a product of the very system he rails against

Imran Khan, former leader of Pakistan
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Pakistan’s urban areas have been swept by protests following the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan on 9 May. Khan has since been released on bail. However, the violent protests against the military establishment revealed not only Khan’s moral grip on the nation, but also the mass dissatisfaction with the country’s economic outlook.

While many protesters support Khan’s anti-elite stance, on-the-ground policy experts are skeptical of his potential to bring about meaningful change. This is because Khan himself is a product of the very system he rails against, and his policies and rhetoric often ignore marginalised identities.

Anti-military sentiment and the Imran Khan effect

The mass outrage following Khan’s arrest has led to extraordinary displays of protest. Masses have stormed military compounds and set ablaze residences belonging to army members. These actions show that people are confronting an ordinarily untouchable entity at the highest echelons of authority in Pakistan.

Rioters supporting Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), launched several attacks on the day, with a focus on military installations. Chief minister Mohsin Naqvi told national news outlet Dawn that among the targets of the arson attacks were the Corps Commander’s House, Askari Bank, and Askari Tower. Rioters also targeted ambulances, fire brigades, and police vehicles.

Khan’s populist values and anti-elite stance have struck a chord with Pakistan’s increasingly disillusioned middle class.  This should come as no surprise given the country’s inflation rate at a staggering 36.4%, high unemployment, soaring cost of living — pricing out even skilled and white collar workers — along with a history of military interference in politics and governance.

Protest, anti-military sentiment, and political discontent are indeed cornerstones of revolution and resistance movements. But in this specific case, it’s important that we don’t conflate real systemic change and progress with the treatment of one singular individual.

It’s not the people’s struggles and the people’s marginalisation that emerge at the centre of this narrative. It’s the mass obsession with Imran Khan’s never-ending grievances that mobilises these crowds. These grievances include claims that anyone who opposes Khan is a liar, a foreign agent, or guilty of corruption and stealing from the country.

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Which begs the question: why? He’s just a retired cricket star, right?

The army’s golden goose, the people’s messiah

According to Ali Usman Qasmi, assistant professor of history at the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences, Khan’s supporters fall under the professional and middle classes that value merit and a strong work ethic. So it made sense that Khan’s talking points railing against Pakistan’s long-entrenched political dynasties resonated with them.

But it’s also disappointing that Khan himself is a product of the very system he rails against.

As a cricket star, philanthropist, and devout Muslim, Khan was the army’s golden goose. Particularly as he came into power after two failed election cycles, on the heels of a nine-year military dictatorship.

To once again echo Qasmi’s thinking, Khan emulated the ideal trifecta of popularity, hope, and religiosity. This allowed him to become the face of the army’s desired brand of Pakistani nationalism. As Khan ascended to power, this symbiotic dynamic meant that if the people love Imran Khan, and he loves the army, then by extension the army maintains their elusive foothold amid Khan’s constituency.

But the past year has been a whirlwind drama that’s included a no-confidence vote, alleged assassination attempt, sedition charges, and more. Now, Qasmi says the army “risks losing legitimacy if it attempts to crack down on him, but also risks losing control if they allow him to continue.”

Although the masses are still protesting against the military, and rallying to reinstate Imran Khan or bring justice to his vision of a “new” Pakistan, critics suggest it’s unlikely that Khan will be the saviour they seek.

Using populist discourse

Zarnaab Adil Janjua, a policy analyst and consultant, is cynical of Khan’s supposed disruption of the status quo. He told the Canary:

[Imran Khan] is far from someone who brings class realities to the surface. His policies favouring real estate magnates and granting amnesty schemes to tax evaders is evidence of this oversight.

In a similar vein, Alia Amirali, a left political worker for the Awami Workers’ Party, explained to the Canary that:

Imran Khan doesn’t use working class rhetoric or language. He uses populist discourse. His main narrative has been around corruption and in recent years around Islam and the need to enforce ‘truly’ Islamic principles.

Amirali says that his narrative has consistently been about weeding out bad apples in government, as opposed to critically evaluating the system as a whole. She elaborates:

He positions himself as the only person supposedly capable of enacting reform —because he is ‘good’ and anyone in opposition to him is ‘bad’.

She further believes that the mobilising PTI phenomenon is not as universal as people tend to assume. Moreover, it primarily caters to young urban people who don’t see a future for themselves in the country. Meanwhile it excludes populations in the rural, ethnic, and religious peripheries.

Ignoring marginalised identities

While these protests are certainly indicative of emerging social changes in Pakistani urban areas and the class dynamics at play, the undercurrent of anger at the country’s systemic issues is nothing new.

Janjua echoes these beliefs:

Baloch and Pashtun leaders have paid far higher prices for espousing [anti-military] sentiment. It is tragic and perhaps emblematic of Pakistan’s woes that it took an elite Punjabi politician who has been insulated from the military’s missteps for most of his life to get this out in the open.

Moreover, Amirali is uncertain that the women protesting in support of Khan would be celebrated if they were protesting for gender-based equality or other malaises within the patriarchal system. In fact, she notes that it has primarily been Baloch women who have been leading the recovery of Baloch Missing Persons. They have walked all the way from Balochistan to Islamabad in protest– much like Imran Khan’s Long Marches. Yet their causes and struggles have been invisible.

If anything, the current political upheaval reveals contradictions in the corridors of power. This is because Khan’s policies and rhetoric seem to cater to a specific demographic, while ignoring marginalised identities. Meanwhile, the emerging social changes in Pakistani urban areas reveal complex class dynamics that Khan’s populist discourse does not fully address.

Imran Khan and the army: familiar bedfellows

The ongoing political protests are certainly indicative of emerging social changes in Pakistani urban areas. For one, Khan has successfully mainstreamed the people’s frustration with consistent military interference in governance. Moreover, frustration with dynastic political power concentrated in elite families like the Bhuttos and Sharifs has never been more rife. 

However, it’s unlikely that Imran Khan is the best candidate to address the undercurrent of anger at the country’s systemic issues.

As a product of the same system he criticises, as well as his history with appealing to the army to accelerate his political career, there’s nothing to suggest he wouldn’t cozy up with the military and the elite class again. Especially if it meant charting a path back into office. 

Featured image by Chatham House/Wikimedia Commons via CC 2.0, resized to 1910×1000

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  • Show Comments
    1. The working class should never trust a religious zealot or a faith-based political party. Their interests are always in opposition. We can see this in the USA, in theocracies such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, in apartheid Israel, in the Hamas-dominated Occupied Territories and anywhere else that faith is allowed access to power. Only socialism is the friend of the working class.

    2. It sees odd not mentioning the claimed role of the Americans in this.

      America hands over $Bns to Pakistan’s military hierarchy, which buys a lot of ‘loyalty’. China is offering CIVILIAN investment, that will enrich the country long term, ost desperately needed, especially after the floods – which may even happen again.

      Pakistan, like a lot of countries, is being caught up in this idiocy of “World Empire”.

      That much sees clear.

      Quite what the roles the various actors have is still murky, and the author’s insistence upon critical awareness of Khan’s Class position and any actual policies is probably well-placed.

      At the same time, Pakistan like all States, comes with pre-existing power structures no matter the best intentions of the new govt, and while younger firebrands often like to sweep such away in fantasy, in IRL politics everything comes with a cost. Ref: Brexshit.

      I doubt Khan was ‘Pakistan’s Corbyn’ sadly, although even making speeches about “Helping the Poor” are not considered proper within America’s Empire, and he took it seems SOME pro-welfare moves?

      No, it is unlikely he will end up a penniless Ghandiji, walking from Pak city to Pak city to create social change, the Buddha impulse is not so strong within him, I don’t think. Still, it is one thing to critique from a middle-class/wealthy POV that matters are not ideologically perfect, but the Pakistani people seemingly saw enough of an improvement in their SOL to care to risk the Army and ISI directly?

      Pakistan was another major victim in America’s Global Wars of Terror, THOUSANDS of assassinations by US forces on Pakistan’s territory and people since 2002.

      With the Americans traditional terrorising 90% civilian”accident” rate.

      The country is on the edge.

      They deserve a better deal from China, than just being a base for the US to threaten the region from, while having their peoples mass assassinated with impunity by US MIC using Pakistani populations as live drone target practice.

      Khan at least made NOISES about that.

      He annoyed the American Overlords.

      That’s worth something, even if he was born to platinum spoons.

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