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Is Imran Khan the leader Pakistan needs?

By Ethan Casey

I’m not Pakistani, and for me to make pronouncements or pass judgment on Pakistani domestic politics would be presumptuous. But several Pakistani friends have asked me to write about Imran Khan. I do so now, albeit hesitantly, because what he represents is an important subject at this pregnant historical moment.

I’ll start by highlighting points made recently by two Pakistani writers. In a long and excellent profile in the magazine The Caravan, Madiha Tahir writes: “The political worldview of the middle and upper classes — whether it’s the politics of personal expression and individual rights, moral outrage against corruption, or the outspoken embrace of tradition and piety — has almost no point of overlap with the needs and desires of millions of Pakistanis who are too poor to exercise meaningful choice in such matters.”

This cuts close to something Westerners and some Pakistani liberals willfully fail to understand about Pakistan: that it’s not really feasible to promote both Western-style or Western-leaning secular liberalism and the interests and aspirations of the much larger numbers of the Pakistani rural and urban poor. Which gets in turn to a very interesting contradiction in Imran’s own character and position: he is an elitist populist. He is “at his strongest,” writes Madiha Tahir, “delivering a trenchant critique of the often self-satisfied assumptions that underpin secular liberalism.”

On, Akbar Ahmed, professor at American University in Washington, DC and former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK, begins with an obvious but crucial point: “There is a direct correlation between the depths of the gloom in Pakistan and the high expectations of salvation from Imran Khan. It is clear that the greater the despair in the country, the more fervent the hopes in one man as saviour.”

And he cautions: “There are already danger-signs as some old faces who have done the rounds with different parties have now jumped onto Imran’s bandwagon. The balance between making deals in order to chip away at the power base of the ruling Zardari-Bhutto dynasty and the Sharif one, and maintaining his integrity will be crucial.”

So, what do I think about Imran Khan? I don’t know the man and, again, I’m not Pakistani, but I’ve come to admire both his tenacity and his evidently genuine integrity and patriotism. And he seems to be channeling something both authentically and appropriately Islamic. But all this is not necessarily to say that I think he should lead Pakistan, or that he should want to. I certainly wouldn’t want to!

Imran has been hanging in there on the fringes of Pakistani politics for so long now that it’s easy to dismiss him or take him for granted. That’s understandable. But political credibility can consist in things other than National Assembly seats, and the enormous crowds who attended Imran’s recent rallies in Lahore and Karachi suggest that Pakistan might have crossed a Rubicon, or be approaching one. Whether the change that’s coming will be for the better, we can’t yet know. I do know from 17 years’ acquaintance that, for all its appalling inequities and glaring faults and notwithstanding the obstacles thrown in its path by not-so-friendly (not only imagined but also real) “foreign hands,” the Pakistani society does have the capacity to absorb such a change, and to become a better version of itself. Pakistanis are among the most resourceful and enterprising people I know. They’ve had to be, ever since 1947.

Imran is tapping into the natural urge all humans share — it’s part of what makes us human, by definition — to live above the level of material, moral, and social squalor, to be something better than cynical. And he’s absolutely justified and right to appeal to Pakistanis’ self-respect by telling them, essentially, that they don’t need, and shouldn’t want, to rely on aid or instruction from the United States. The challenge, as Prof. Ahmed alludes above, is what portion of the potential can be realised in the real world, where the rubber meets the political road. Relying on a single charismatic leader to change everything for the better is a setup for embittered disappointment and disillusion. Pakistanis and Americans are very similar, not least in being idealistic; and I’m sorry to have to remind you and myself of how much hope we Americans put in a charismatic figure who promised definitive change here, four long years ago.

So I’ll end these musings on a cautionary note, by telling the story of the press conference I attended at Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous house in Rangoon in November 1995. Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest a few months earlier, and her National League for Democracy had called the press conference to announce that they were suspending their participation in the military junta’s phony constitutional convention. It was both a stand on principle and an admirable attempt to take initiative and claim political space.

But I wasn’t convinced. The article I wrote for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, began: “Aung San Suu Kyi’s claim to the moral high ground in Burma may be indisputable. But her party seems headed down a slippery slope toward political irrelevance.” Those two sentences led to the severing of my relationship with The Globe and Mail, because I didn’t toe its wishful line, which held essentially that because Aung San Suu Kyi should prevail, therefore she would. It isn’t that easy.

Then again, making a difference usually requires staying power and years in the wilderness. Things are finally looking a little more hopeful in Burma. Could they be in Pakistan as well? If so, then I feel sure Imran Khan has a role to play.


Originally published by Dawn

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He can be reached at and

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