Until recently dismissed as a fringe political player, Imran Khan’s successful mammoth rally in Lahore has forced not just his rivals in Pakistan but also Washington to take notice On October 30, fifteen years after launching his political career, former Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan made headlines for all the right reasons. A week later, the hoopla over his rally in Lahore, which had over a 100,000 people in attendance, has not died down. The rally’s location, in former Pakistani prime minister and Pakistan Muslim League (N) chief Nawaz Sharif’s bastion, forced the establishment to take notice.
Until Recently, Khan, who heads the Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement of Justice), was dismissed as politically impotent. He faced criticism for choosing to boycott the 2008 elections and his celebrity image lingered on from his cricketing days with political pundits writing him off as a publicity seeking lightweight unready for politics.
However, what sets Khan aside from the rest in the ruling PPP and its coalition partners is his consistent agenda. His consistency, documented in a Wikileaks cable in 2010, left his rivals red-faced. Pakistanis today are fed up of the establishment parties’ lies and that is the tone Khan toes.
Khan never minces his words when it comes to defining the Pakistan-US relationship in which his nation is “not an ally, but a slave”. Since 2008, Khan has maintained that the US drone strikes violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. He has always argued that the indiscriminate bombing killed innocents. He bases his statements on his meetings with civilians in the region who have been disabled or displaced due to the strikes. The added fact that the Americans do not share intelligence with Pakistan proves, according to Khan, that the “ally doesn’t trust us”. Another of Khan’s favourite quotes is that “Pakistan is a hired gun” that gets America’s “dirty work” done.
Khan’s views echo the prevailing national sentiment. A survey in June by Pew Research Center, a Washington-based pollster, found that 73 percent of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of the United States.
Coupled with the anti-drone stance comes Khan’s anti-‘war on terror’ agenda. For Khan, the Afghan dilemma began as a political one and deserves a political solution. He holds former Pakistani president and army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf responsible for a “moronic policy” that has left thousands of soldiers dead and no end in sight. Interestingly, Khan backed Musharraf after the coup and favoured his seven-point agenda. This move evoked great criticism and ridicule after it was clear that Musharraf failed to implement it. Khan withdrew support, but the damage was done. Until now, the turnout at Lahore suggests all is forgiven.
Khan’s anti-American rhetoric has been welcomed with great enthusiasm by the less fortunate, the educated but unemployed youths, and frustrated middle-class professionals, all of who demand that change begin as soon as possible. Khan’s support base within Pakistan seems solid, but his agenda has triggered grave concern from a five million strong diaspora that benefits greatly from ties with the West.
But are charisma and idealism enough to propel Imran Khan into a greater role in Pakistani politics? Whether his 100,000-strong crowd in Lahore can translate into voters for his party is an open question. Tehreek-e-Insaaf does not have many other attractive parliamentary candidates. Khan needs to build his lower ranks quickly before the elections that are scheduled for late 2012/early 2013. Media groups have already predicted 55-65 seats for Khan's party in the 274-member National Assembly, a number large enough to make him a decisive factor in any coalition.
The West has also recognized the coming political shift in Pakistan. Washington is watching Khan closely. Riding this wave, Khan needs to ensure he doesn’t make any rookie mistakes for his critics to pounce on. For one, there has been no mention of the Pakistani army’s role and that silence could backfire.
Imran Khan- the cricketer - brought home the World Cup to Pakistan in 1992. If two decades later, Imran Khan –the politician- can repeat that story in his new pitch, he could well be credited with a defining political shift in Pakistan’s history.
Sumitha Narayanan Kutty is an editorial assistant for the online section of the Georgetown Journal and a student in the MA in Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.