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The mirage of a messiah

Imran Khan entered the political arena with his squeaky-clean image with the stated goal of making Pakistan a squeaky-clean country. But this was an image built on social media with a carefully constructed narrative.

Imran Khan, good looking, with the World Cup trophy in his hands, with glamorous images of having fun in the West, rubbing shoulders with British high society billionaires and people in high positions, speaking their language – he was made to look like a knight in shining armour. He presented himself as someone with undisputed financial integrity and ethical standards. He seemed to be worried about Pakistan, felt the pain of the poor in his heart and made people believe that he was the only one who could fix all of Pakistan’s problems, single-handedly.

People were so mesmerized that they did not see the discrepancies in this narrative and the contradictions in his words and actions that they never felt the need to look deeper into the man’s psyche who proved later to be a habitual liar and a smooth talker. He talked about corruption by targeting a few individuals but never the system. In fact, he used the same system when it suited him, whether it was choosing the same corrupt people for his team or cleaning up the Toshakhana.

He claimed to establish Riasat-e-Madina while living in a 300 kanal mansion, flying on chartered planes, and using state machinery and resources. He flaunted religiosity, every speech a sermon on morality. He made statement after statement full of U-turns, contradicting himself over and over. With the help of a state-of-the-art social media machinery, he built himself up as someone with impeccable honesty, unquestionable incorruptibility, and a man with a vision of modern Pakistan. Then zig-zagging between Scandinavian countries, the West, China, Turkey etc, he settled for the Riasat-e-Madina narrative as it resonated with his followers.

The unsuspecting public, especially Pakistanis living abroad, fed up with the tales of corruption over so many years, bought this narrative and supported the man whole-heartedly. Money poured in from abroad. Khan, high on popularity, ignored the rules of fundraising. Believing in the ends justifying the means, he indulged in every tactic and trick to come into power, at last making a Faustian bargain – selling his soul to be in the seat of power.

Those opposed to him tried to compete, but his social media team is relentless. He even hired sophisticated lobbying firms in the US for an exorbitant sum of money to promote him among the international stakeholders. Through all this he portrayed himself as a man brave and upright who doesn’t give up. He even mentioned revolution in his speeches. The Pakistani audience, ever a sucker for strongmen, fell for it over and over again. Nations bound to their colonial past have a hard time standing on their own two feet.

But that is not all. One main reason for his success is that his opponents have a fundamentally flawed record. Between military and civilian rulers, the majority of Pakistanis are deprived of life’s basic necessities like clean water, wholesome nutritious food, education, health care, jobs, housing, transport, and opportunities for a better future for their children. With our ranking on the Human Development Index among the lowest in the world, 30 million children out of school and joblessness at a record high, young people see no light at the end of the tunnel.

Oppression and suppression of people is a norm, never mind that the constitution makes it the state’s responsibility to prevent it. The concentration of wealth has reached epic proportions. Practically all institutions and all human services are captured by mafias – be it land, water, food, security or justice. The average person on the street is just a bystander in the affairs of the state, having no seat at the decision-making table, s/he has to live with whatever is handed out to her/him. So, there was not much choice left for Khan’s followers, who kept their hopes pinned on him. And this is a tragedy. When Khan’s statue falls from a height, many may sink into hopelessness and disengage from politics. And that will be the saddest aspect of this whole affair.

Imran Khan, perhaps the most popular leader in decades, after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was the hope of a better future for many. But populism never bears fruit. There are many popular leaders in the world who led their nations astray. Unfortunately, Imran Khan is headed in that direction. But nothing can be said for sure. Khan is a master of reinventing himself and coming up with slogans and narratives which touch the unsuspecting hearts of his followers whose numbers are decreasing. It takes a while for people to admit that they made a mistake by trusting someone. We create idols in our imagination which are hard to break – but break they will, with time.

His worst disservice was to divert the public’s focus from the real issues of their lives. In the end, people will have to rise for themselves, carve a way out of this mess, and learn to be self-confident. But that is hard work. Seventy-five years in the life of a country and nation is not much. We can do it but only if we have a guiding star.

In a country held hostage to the moneyed powerful class, that guiding star has to be the politics of the Left which focuses on the working and middle classes. Khan’s towering image has been blocking that star. With his religious imagery, slogans and narratives about ‘Haqiqi azadi’, American conspiracies and many U-turns, he has obscured the real problems of this country – poverty, inequality, joblessness, illiteracy, homelessness etc. But it must be remembered that castles made of sand don’t last and a mirage, no matter how beautiful, is not real.

Email: shahnazK@gmail.com

Dr Shahnaz Khan, "The mirage of a messiah," The News. 2022-10-24.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political arena , Riasat-e-Madina , Corruption , Education , Poverty , Ali Bhutto , Imran Khan , China , Pakistan