Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tehreek-e-Insaaf: Idealism meets Pragmatism?

With the recent release of his autobiography, I feel compelled to write something on Imran Khan's political career. Most pieces concerning Khan's PTI relentlessly target its dismal electoral chances without providing a clear rationale. Amongst these, there are a few well-written exceptions.

To analyze the PTI's chances requires an understanding of the Pakistani political system.

It is a system that operates on the basis of blood/tribal ties. For the most part, this holds true in both rural and urban areas but such ties are more prevalent in rural areas where approximately 60% of the population resides. Leaving aside urban areas, which are competitive enough, has the PTI made inroads into the rural areas where the majority of votes reside? Is the PTI able to appeal to tribal links?


The Pakistani political system is one that requires distribution of favours. This involves courting influential figures in the political and business community before elections for the purposes of gaining support and then repaying such figures with government posts and kickbacks after the elections. Is the PTI willing to play this game?

Again, no.

Presumably, the PTI wants to eradicate these evils. But it needs to come into power to do so. And therein lies the problem. To become electable in the very near-future, the PTI needs to temper its idealism with pragmatism. Any reasonable person would argue that this is a good thing. After all, isn't politics all about being pragmatic?

However, this would be a mistake.

In the past, Khan has stated that there is more to being a party leader than simply running after the prime minister post. He is absolutely right. He has repeatedly stressed the importance of the youth vote, which further highlights the long-term nature of his strategy. In this sense, he has displayed a vision lacking in most politicians.

On the face of it, there isn't much harm in pragmatically working with like-minded members of other parties. But there is grievous harm in giving up your vision.

Khan's challenge is being pragmatic enough to forge alliances with experienced politicians while holding on to his vision; this is easier said than done.

Consider some of the possible new PTI entrants. Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi is the former foreign minister and a senior PPP figure. Bringing him on would secure rural votes; it would also, at some level, perpetuate the dynasticism that PTI claims to be against. The same could be said, in varying degrees, for a number of other possible PTI entrants including Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, as well as Awais and Jamal Leghari of the Leghari clan.

Besides, given the political clout of people like Qureshi and Hashmi, Khan would be better off not loading PTI with such heavyweights as they may very well replace Khan's vision with their own. And without Khan's alternative vision, the PTI would stand for nothing. A more sound strategy would involve recruiting less experienced politicians who have nonetheless been tested at the national level and aren't such an obvious part of the old ruling elite. It would then be left to Khan to use his considerable leadership skills to ensure his vision is successfully implemented by the party members.

That is the only way forward for the PTI if it wants to establish an influential and alternative position on the political landscape.


  1. I am not an authority to comment on Pakistani politics. But what you say makes good sense. IK seems to be walking on a very delicate line, sort of treading through a double-edged knife. The very morals and ideologies he has been supporting stands in the way of his success in near future, yet once those ideologies are gone, he has no chance of making the changes he has been intending to. But how does the army establishment play a role in it? What's his relation with them?

  2. To understand the army's relation with Khan you need to understand the army's relation with the politicians in general.

    The army has always been a soft dictator whenever it has come into power. To boost its legitimacy and public manadate, it has sought the patronage of the parliamentarians and the army head has controlled the PM using the political post of President. As opposed to abolishing the parliament altogether.

    Right now, Khan is famous. But he has no electoral power. When he does, the army will treat him like any other politician and woo him.

    But that is assuming the army wants to come into power again. The present Army Chief doesn't seem to have much political ambition.

  3. "The present Army Chief doesn't seem to have much political ambition." It's great to know that. Bangladesh had pseudo-army rule for two years between 2007 and 2009. But the chief didn't have political ambition mainly due to the fate of previous dictators and the international pressure. So he was sort of the most benign army chief that Bangladesh has ever seen. They ensured transfer of power to the public by a very transparent election.

    So basically army establishment and political bigwigs have a sort of symbiotic relationship under the present system. I sure hop IK somehow, maybe miraculously, gets to power. :p