Many questions come to mind concerning the rise of Imran Khan.
Is he an angel? Is he a leader of the stature of a Jinnah or a Mandela? Has he not committed any political mistakes? Has his party’s government in Khyber-Pakhtukhwa (K-P) delivered on its election promises? Does he have upright, honest and anti-status quo politicians around him? Is he a brilliant orator? Has he been consistent in what he says on issues like drones and terrorism? Is he an ideal example of simplicity as a leader? Has he furnished any proof of the allegations of election rigging with the involvement of some big names? Does he make any sense when he calls national and provincial elections that he lost ‘rigged’ and elections he won ‘fair’? Does he sound reasonable when he asks others to resign but wants to keep his government in K-P intact? Does he appear to have any logic when he boycotts by-elections, claiming he doesn’t want to be part of a rigged parliament, but goes on to support an independent candidate (in the NA 149 by-poll) against Makhdum Javed Hashmi?
Moreover, members of the National Assembly from the PTI and elected from K-P were asked to resign like all other MNAs, as well as MPAs from Punjab and Sindh, but MPAs from K-P were not; is there any logic in this? Furthermore, could any other leader take positions as absurd as his call for civil disobedience, taking deposits out of government banks, not sending remittances through official channels or not paying taxes, but yet see a rise in popularity?
I think the answer to all these questions is a resounding ’no’.
On the flip side, has Imran Khan become a symbol against the politics of status quo? Has he established himself as the only popular leader who is raising a voice against corruption and nepotism? Has he become the only hope of the most literate class and the youth of this country? Isn’t he the most popular leader among expatriate Pakistanis? Despite being so repetitive in his speeches, is he so popular that the media is compelled to show his speeches on a daily basis? Is he seen by his supporters as the only leader who can rid Pakistan of external influences? Has he become a leader who can arrange massive public gatherings on three days’ notice, something that would take others months or weeks to organise? Does he appear to be the only real opposition in this country? Despite poor performance in K-P, is his party still the most popular in that province? If a leader of the stature of Makhdum Javed Hashmi had levelled allegations against any other leader or party, wouldn’t it have destroyed the career of that leader or party?
I think the answer to these questions is a resounding ‘yes’.
That is where the problem lies: in the gulf between the answers to both questions. It is also precisely why Mian Nawaz Sharif should be most concerned about these record public gatherings in terms of numbers, record sit-in in terms of days and the spread of anti-government slogans.
If the answer to the first set of questions was in the affirmative — that is, if Imran Khan possessed exceptional leadership skills and if his party had delivered on the party’s promises in K-P — then one could justify Imran Khan’s growing popularity without blaming Nawaz Sharif. But that is not the case because Nawaz Sharif’s inability to counter Imran Khan has perhaps, been a major factor in the latter’s growing popularity. And this begs the question that why hasn’t the latter been able to respond to politics with his own politics. Why can’t he give a befitting response to his opponents and counter Imran Khan by holding public gatherings, showing his own strength in Peshawar or Lahore?
Why has Nawaz Sharif’s political response been limited to small rallies in Lahore and Faisalabad? Why doesn’t he silence Imran Khan by declaring his and his family’s actual assets? Why doesn’t he come out with all the documentary evidence to assert that he was not involved in any money laundering and also make clear that money transferred to the UK or any other country was done through official banking channels? Why doesn’t his son appear on television and deny Imran Khan’s claim that he lives in a London flat worth Rs800 crores (Rs8 billion)? Why can’t he categorically challenge Imran Khan that he is against nepotism and hereditary politics, or that he has never rewarded people with ministries or official posts due to their family connections? Why can’t he say on the floor of parliament that he is against the use of police or any administrative machinery for political purposes and is a strong believer in merit? Why can’t he respond with evidence that his foreign tours as prime minister have nothing to do with his or his son’s business interests and that they are taken only keeping Pakistan and the welfare of its people in mind? Why can’t he present a ‘performance card’ of his government and tell the nation what achievements have been accomplished with him at the helm for the past 17 months?
When a leader, who has secured 15 million votes just last year, cannot answer his opponents and instead lets them build a narrative through two months of sit-ins and public gatherings, a narrative that sells to the general public and which is gaining popularity with every passing day, can he really blame anyone else for the mess of the last two months?
Sit-ins and public gatherings will not vanish on their own and anti-government slogans will not stop spreading unless a response is given by the government. Mian Sahib will have to sit and resolve the problem amicably, but first, he will have to correctly identify it. If Mian Sahib doesn’t consider it important to develop and present a counter-narrative to the masses, by answering with facts and evidence the questions and allegations raised by his opponents, then he has not identified the problem. And the problem is not Imran Khan and his sit-ins or public gatherings; the problem is perhaps, Mian Sahib himself.