“I’ll be more dangerous if ousted from power," warned Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan, months before he was removed from office through a vote of no confidence in April 2022. He became the first prime minister to be removed like this.
A little more than a year later, Khan’s words came true, and he proved how dangerous he was— he had already been giving the Shahbaz government sleepless nights.
Political workers loyal to Khan went on a rampage following his arrest on 9 May 2023, from the premises of the Islamabad High Court on corruption charges in connection with the Al-Qadir Trust scandal. Two days later, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered Khan to be released immediately as the arrest was ‘unlawful’.
During the two days that Khan was in custody, following their leader’s instructions left in a video message he made hours before his arrest, supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) blocked roads in several major cities. They clashed with the police, leaving injured on both sides. They torched government buildings, public property, and vehicles and looted shops. Reportedly, a thousand arrests were made, including top leaders of the party.
The only brother of three sisters, it won’t be wrong to say that Imran Khan has had a charmed life and has always had others to look out for him. He can’t help it if he has been the centre of attention. He was an eligible bachelor when he was young and now he is the most eligible political leader in Pakistan. He holds his followers in a hypnotic trance who lap up every word of their leader without question. There is no doubt that he is one of the most popular leaders in Pakistan currently.
Imran the Behemoth
Few leaders have commanded the kind of loyal following in Pakistan as Khan has. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Altaf Hussain are the only leaders that come to mind. The difference between these two leaders and Khan is that they didn’t have the power of social media but that did not diminish their power to woe people.
The popularity of these two leaders was generated in the old-fashioned way which required effort, sweat, and legwork. They didn’t have social media to share images, videos, and audio, which speaks about their charisma. Like Khan, both were crowd pullers, but unlike Khan, they were both great orators.
Altaf Hussain did use modern technology to connect with his followers when he went into exile, but Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto connected with his followers in the real world, addressing them at public rallies in public places without any protective shields.
Bhutto was a public leader, who knew how to touch their heart. He connected with them by making them feel empowered through his slogan ‘roti, kapra aur makan’ (bread, clothes, and shelter) that the common people related to him. They believed him and loved him for this.
Fast forward, Khan also has a hold over his followers, and like the other two leaders, he has an audience of all ages, mostly the young. Khan may lack some skills to deal with important matters, but he knows how to tap the vote bank. He had the foresight to keep the younger voters engaged, who will be the future of his party.
Imran Khan’s 'Youth' Engagement
Over the years, Khan has communicated with them through social media, where he engaged, motivated, and sometimes provoked them. This early social media engagement helped his party PTI to reach out to more people and push his political narrative before the other political parties were online. The youth base of PTI helped it to manoeuvre and understood how to use social media to its benefit and how to enhance its image.
Apart from PTI’s social media campaigns, Khan knew how to create a narrative using refreshing political slogans of change and liberty for all, peddling dreams of a new and better Pakistan, where there was equal opportunity for all regardless of their social background. This appealed to young minds who are tired of the same old.
He mesmerised the young voters, who saw him as a political messiah who had won them the 1992 World Cup, and was now promising to bring change to the status quo by removing dynastic politics and giving real people power. They believed he would be a great leader who would take the country to new heights. The only caveat was that he had to become the prime minister and he needed them for that. And this became a foundation of his followers’ pledge to him.
To make sure they didn’t forget, Khan announced an Azadi Movement in 2014 which would put pressure on the government. This mega event was held in the middle of Islamabad, complete with a DJ blaring music for hours as people danced and sang along, having a good time. They didn’t mind waiting for hours to hear Imran Khan speak, which was a test of their loyalty.
Hundreds of people attended this mega event lasted for 126 consecutive days. It was indeed fascinating. During this time Imran Khan would provoke followers telling them not to pay their bills; to attack public buildings and more. Unfortunately, followers acted on this and attacked the buildings of the parliament and the state-run channel.
The positives of the 126-day-long musical event insured that Imran Khan grabbed a large chunk of the youth vote who were excited to go to the polls for a leader they really believed would revolutionise the country.
What Pakistan Needs
Unfortunately, this popularity means little if it can’t be translated into a gain for the country. And this was evident during Khan’s time in government, which was a rollercoaster of ups, downs, loops, twirls, and many, many U-turns—as his opponents keep reminding us. These chinks in his armour revealed he needed help, but no one helped him, and he didn’t ask for it.
In his own words, he admitted to mistakes his government made “for which we had to pay a high price”. Was this because he lacked political acumen? The PM’s job is a high-pressured one and mistakes have consequences, not only for the country but also leadership-wise.
Pakistan needs someone who is politically mature and experienced and who can pre-empt a problem and find solutions without committing a political faux pas. Someone who can work with others to find a workable solution that benefits all.
For now, maybe Khan should take a backseat and let the Shahbaz government get the country back on an even keel. He should use this time to seek experts who can guide him and instill the importance of a strong parliament and democracy. He can use this time to observe the situation and learn to take carefully planned decisions that benefit the country and its people.
(Lubna Jerar Naqvi is a senior journalist in Pakistan. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)