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Imran Khan: A pragmatist par excellence

Before psycho-analyzing Imran Khan’s colorful personality and defining that where does PTI stands in the Pakistani political spectrum: whether it’s a center-left (liberal) or center-right (conservative) party, let us first draw a distinction between politics and culture: a democratic system of governance falls in the category of politics while liberalism as a value-system falls in the category of culture.

When we say that Islam and democracy are incompatible, we make a category mistake as big as the Islamists’ misperception that democracy is un-Islamic. They too mix up democracy with liberalism. Here let me concede that there is some friction between liberalism as a culture and Islam as a religion. But democracy isn’t about religion or culture. It is simply a multi-party representative political system that confers legitimacy upon a government which comes to power through an election process which is a contest between more than one political parties, to ensure that it is voluntary. Thus, democracy and politics is about matters of governance and economics while culture is about the socio-moral values and the kind of social matrix that we, as individuals and families, want around us. There is some overlapping between politics and culture but as an heuristic principle this distinction holds true.

When I discuss the political pragmatism of PTI, the reader will further appreciate the fact that realpolitik is mostly about power and rarely about cultural matters. Let us admit at the outset that Imran Khan is an educated, well-informed, articulate and charismatic leader. Being an Oxford graduate he is better informed than our local politicians. And he is a liberal at heart. Most readers won’t agree due to his strong anti-imperialism and the West-bashing demagoguery but I’ll try to explain. Like I said earlier that there is a difference between politics and culture; anti-imperialism is a political stance and liberalism is a cultural temperament. There is a theory called Reflective equilibrium. It states that our minds try to create a harmony between our different sets of beliefs and actions. If there is a divergence between our beliefs and actions, it leads to cognitive dissonance. To avoid this dissonance we try to attune our beliefs and ideology to bring them in conformity with our actions and vice versa.

Now if Imran Khan is a conservative-Islamist, his mind must be a psychological singularity. A playboy-cricketer turned politician who spent most of his youth in the West chasing famous celebrities all over the world, how could he be an Islamist or a conservative? How would his mind create a reflective equilibrium between his beliefs and his adulterous actions? It is just not possible for him to be an Islamist or a conservative. The only ideology that suits his temperament and past actions is the freewheeling liberalism. A clarification here is needed. When I say that he is not an Islamist, I mean that he is not a political Islamist and I am not questioning his personal faith as a Muslim. He seems like a secular Muslim.

The artificial-but-necessary distinctions, like the one between politics and culture, are important is social sciences for the sake of parsimony and clarity. For instance: we make a distinction between nationalism and racism. It is acceptable for an American to protect America’s national interests all over the world and the same goes with the French, the Germans, the Britons and all the nationals of all the nation-states. Thus, it is acceptable to be a nationalist when it comes to the conflict of interests between the nation-states. But it is unacceptable to act like a racist within the boundaries of a nation-state and discriminate against the ethnic or religious minorities. In the nutshell, a discriminatory racism between the nation-states is nationalism; and a discriminatory nationalism inside a nation-state is racism.

In the light of these remarks about nationalism; why do I still choose to be a nationalist? Because I have a weird consequentialist theory on this issue. In my opinion, the citizens of the third world ought to be nationalists while the citizens of the first world need not be. The total GDP of Pakistan is $230 billion (PPP $570 billion) and it has a population of 180 million (total GDP of a nation-state which is less than the net assets of a single Western multinational corporation of the size of Exxon, Chevron, BP, Total, RDS, HSBC, Barclays, BNP Paribas, Deutsche bank, BOA, Wells Fargo, Citigroup or JP Morgan.) And the total GDP of USA is $15 trillion (15,000 billion) and it has a population of 300 million; while the total federal budget of Pakistan is only $35 billion (2013/14) a very small amount in which it must cater to the needs of 180 million Pakistanis. Now if you ask me to forgo nationalism and opt for internationalism, to join the rich against the poor, I will humbly decline on consequentialist and moral grounds.

Getting back to the topic, it’s not just Imran Khan’s playboy nature that makes him a liberal. He also derives his intellectual inspiration from the Western tradition. The ideal role-model in his mind is the Scandinavian social democratic model which he mentioned in his Karachi speech in December 2012. His strong anti-imperialism as a political stance may have partly to do with his personal experience of encountering racism in the West and partly because it is based on facts. What neocolonialists did and are doing in Afghanistan and the Middle East does makes one feel sick to his stomach.

But the practicality of the Scandinavian model in the Pakistani setting is highly doubtful: keeping in mind that Sweden has a population of 9 million only while Denmark and Norway each have a population of 5 million only; far less than the population of some of our mega-cities: Karachi 18 million, Lahore 10 million and Rawalpindi-Islamabad 6 million; and the per capita income of Scandinavian countries is $ 40 to 50,000 and in Pakistan it is only $3000 on the purchasing power basis. Imran Khan must have realized the futility of following the Scandinavian dream by now: one year after forming a government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

So if Imran Khan is a liberal, what is PTI then? Some of it’s stalwarts like Asad Umar, Jahangir Tarin, Khursheed Qasuri and Shah Mehmood Qureshi also seem liberal. We also need to keep in mind the fact that PTI derives most of it’s support from women and youth. Both these segments of society especially the women feel more attracted to liberalism than patriarchal conservatism because liberalism protects the women’s rights and its biggest plus point is its emphasis on the equality, emancipation and empowerment of women who constitute more than 50% of the population everywhere.

But I think a better way to determine PTI’s position in the Pakistani political spectrum would be to break it down in various components and then analyze them. The Punjab and Karachi chapters (urban centers) of PTI are quite liberal in their outlook; some Center-right PML-N politicians even accused the PTI rallies in Lahore and Karachi as obscene in a Pakistani setting. Those rallies weren’t obscene in any sense but in a segregated patriarchal culture the mere intermixing of men and women at public places is also frowned upon. But the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) chapter of PTI casts some aspersions over the liberal credentials of PTI where it swept the elections from NA-1 to NA-20 and formed a coalition government with the religious hard-liners. Although elections in KPK were fought on a single issue: war on terror; KPK is the war-on-terror’s worst affected province of Pakistan; in the 2013 elections PTI stood for peace with the militants while Awami National Party (ANP) wanted more military operations in KPK and tribal areas. But since the residents of KPK have seen first-hand the sufferings of internally displaced people of Swat and tribal areas, therefore they chose a pro-peace PTI over a pro-war ANP.

Getting back to the topic, it appears that the PTI supporters in Punjab, Karachi and Pakistan’s urban areas have a liberal outlook while the PTI supporters in KPK are conservative, where it got its biggest chunk of votes. Therefore my conclusion would be that Imran Khan himself is a liberal but PTI is a hodge-podge of electable individual politicians from diverse political backgrounds. It had the potential to emerge as a liberal political party on the Pakistani political scene, which it still is compared to the Center-right PML-N, but it lost that opportunity due to Imran Khan’s unscrupulous pragmatism. Let’s just call a spade a spade: PTI sans the charisma and personality cult of its leader is a heterogeneous group of political turncoats who lack a coherent political vision.

Exploiting this political incoherence of PTI and Imran Khan’s insatiable ambition, it appears that the Pakistani military establishment has ensnared him. His recent move of announcing demonstrations against the Sharif Administration for the alleged rigging in the last year’s elections in cahoots with Tahir-ul-Qadri, who is known to be an Establishment-allied mullah, has all the telltales of a sellout. A few points must be noted here:

One, a military establishment does not have an ideology, it only has interests. The Ayub-led establishment in 60s was a liberal establishment; the Zia-led establishment in 80s was a conservative-Islamist establishment; and the Musharraf-Kayani-led establishment from 1999 to 2013 was once again a liberal establishment. Similarly the Egyptian and Turkish military establishments also have a liberal outlook; but they are equally capable of forming an alliance with the extremists, if and when it suits their institutional interests. The establishment does not judges on the basis of ideology, it only looks for weakness. If a liberal political party is unassailable in a political system it will join the conservatives and if conservatives cannot be beaten in a system, it will form an alliance with the liberals to justify the coup. The biggest threat to the Islamic societies all over the Islamic world is not from an external enemy but from their internal enemies, i.e. their military establishments, because the generals always have an egomaniacal mindset and an undemocratic temperament; the additional aggravating factor which increases the likelihood of coups in the nascent Islamic democracies is that they lack the firm traditions of democracy, rule of law and constitutionalism which act as bars against military coups.

Two, rather than the Turkish establishment where Erdogan has clipped the wings of Kemalist generals, it appears that the Pakistani establishment is taking its cue from the Egyptian establishment. Egyptian army has massacred hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, handed down heavy sentences to hundreds more and imprisoned the entire leadership and thousands of MB supporters, yet the international community did nothing except making some symbolic gestures. This precedent has emboldened the establishment in Pakistan to act with impunity.

Three, the timing of Imran Khan’s announcement of demonstrations is critical: the Afghan end game in 2014. The elections are taking place in Afghanistan; the Karazai administration has already signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement with the US; the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) which stipulates the conditions for the residual NATO force and the lease of eight or nine military bases in Afghanistan till 2024 will be negotiated between the US and the next Afghan administration. The Pakistani military establishment which is known to have vested interest in the momentous unfolding events in Afghanistan cannot sit idly by and let the civilians dictate the defense and foreign policy. It is looking for a pretext to jump in the thick of things.

Lastly, Imran Khan found himself at the crossroads in his political career and he chose the one which was predetermined by his ambitious albeit myopic nature: principled idealism or unscrupulous pragmatism. Principled idealism dictates that PTI already has a government in KPK; using his acumen Imran Khan could have rebuilt the province, but apparently his Scandinavian model fell flat when confronted with the Pakistani reality of meager resources and huge populations. He could also have used these four years before the next elections to build a political base and to organize his party, but apparently he has little faith in such ‘political gimmicks.’ So he chose the path of political pragmatism, but he didn’t choose this path today, he took this decision a while ago when he opened the doors of his party to the political turncoats. It’s just the naïve masses who associate great expectations from the ordinary midgets.

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