The extent and entrenchment of Imran Khan’s appeal, across the political diaspora of Pakistan, has surprised even the most experienced of the political pundits. It has cer­tainly sent shock waves across the inert fabric of a disinte­grating status-quo, which had become all too sure of its un­challenged dominion over the political landscape.

Whether you agree with Im­ran Khan or not, whether you as­cribe to his narrative or not, whether you believe in his possibilities or not, there is no real way to deny the public appeal and resonance that Kaptaan en­joys from the snow peaked mountains of KP, to the flooded plains of Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. Even amidst lack of resources, natural disasters, and unprecedented use of force by the likes of Rana Sanaullah, Kaptaan has been thronged by adoring supporters at each step.

So what, at its core, is the reason, for such broad and growing appeal of Im­ran Khan? This fundamental question, which rests at the heart of Pakistan’s on-going political drama requires a deeper analysis. Political systems—authoritarian or constitutional—gov­ern the constituents through one of three mechanisms: through fear and force, through apathy and, through re­spect and leadership.

The first of these—governance through fear and force—is easy to rec­ognise, once it manifests itself. Despite sympathetic narratives, misdirection, and empty slogans, the governance of fear and force is impossible to dis­guise. It did not work for the colonis­ers. It is not working for the kingdoms. And it has never worked for self-pro­claimed democrats or would-be sav­iors, who assume and retain political power through the might of the state machinery. What happened on the May 25, 2022, across of the blood-stained fiefdom of Rana Sanaullah, was gov­ernance through fear and force. In the lead-up to Imran Khan’s planned march, the (un)worthy Interior Minister used force through the state machinery to in­still fear among the citizenry, and pre­vent them from joining Kaptaan’s cause. That worked, momentarily. And Rana Sanaullah, along with the likes of Mary­am Aurangzeb, concluded that Imran Khan “could not” mobilise people in his favour. However, as has been apparent, in the after math of May 25, 2022, you can rule the people through an iron-fist; but you cannot win them.

The second mechanism for gover­nance—through apathy of the constitu­ents—is often the toughest nut to crack. It is often imperceptible for the viewer. For this method, you construct a gov­ernance system that diminishes pub­lic ownership of the governance matrix. Decisions, concerning matters of pub­lic relevance, are made in rooms hidden away from the public eye. Accountabil­ity mechanisms have no public over­sight. The administrative policy is de­void of public input. The judicial branch remains isolated from public expression and public accountability. Most impor­tantly, the realm of political power is re­stricted to a select few who—through lineage, money, or fear—govern their ‘subjects’. Laws are enacted for preser­vation of the privileged, and prosecution of the meek. And any time that the public raises its voice against the governance paradigm or its stakeholders, the law is used to silence such detractors, and to protect the might. When that does not work, you refer the issue to a convolut­ed ‘system’ that neither yields any result, nor settles the controversy.

Eventually, in such a system, the pub­lic which is no longer a stakehold­er, starts to lose interest in the gover­nance mechanism. People who have been wronged, do not approach the po­lice, for the thana would never prose­cute the powerful. They do not knock the courts, for obvious reasons. And gradually, people’s faith in the system corrodes so much that they stop par­ticipating in it. How many times have you heard people saying that they will not vote for anyone? Or that its best not to inform the police of a crime, or ap­proach the katchehry for justice.

And then, the coast is clear. With an apathetic or disinterested populi, the participants of the system can wreak havoc at their pleasure. And this slow, suffocating surrender of public voice in governance, is declared as public ‘ac­ceptance’ of the system. The fact that people did not come out to protest, or were unable to protest in the face of State power, is deemed to be public as­sent of the government.

The third mechanism of governance—through respect and leadership—is a system we have no real experience with, in Pakistan. We do not know what it may mean. We do not know where it might take us. We do not even know if we will like it. Because all systems of resist what they have not seen before. And this, for the most part, is why the status quo does not accept Imran Khan. We just do not know what an independent Imran Khan, unshackled from the restrictions of the status quo, will mean for Pakistan.

But, short of Imran Khan being re­moved from the political scene, there seems to be no real way of stopping him for returning to power. Why? Be­cause Kaptaan has tapped into a res­ervoir of Pakistani sentiments that has not been tapped into by a main­stream politician. A sentiment that re­volves around slogans of ‘Absolutely Not’, and ‘Imported Hukumat Na-Man­zoor’. Some of these slogans, in differ­ent words, have been used before. But not together. Not like this.

Where will this lead Imran Khan, or Pakistan? No one knows. But one thing is for sure: with Imran Khan we have a phenomenon at hand, which has the po­tential of advancing or destroying the fabric of our society. Let us pray that this force is channeled towards progress and prosperity of Pakistan.

Saad Rasool

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: saad@post.harvard.edu, or Twitter:

@SaadRasooll