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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: