A Unique Prime Minister

Imran Khan enjoys enduring goodwill despite a hobbled start

Islamabad - Prime Minister Imran Khan received a standing ovation as he walked in to attend the Defense and Martyrs Day ceremony at the General Headquarters earlier in September. Imran Khan had taken oath as the prime minister just a few weeks ago and was basking in the glow of his electoral win.

When General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Army Chief, invited the new prime minister to address the ceremony, for a moment, Imran Khan seemed unprepared. The start of the extempore speech was slightly awkward, but Imran Khan soon recovered as he spoke about his dream of strengthening the institutions, promoting merit and eliminating corruption. The audience – mostly military families— burst into loud applause. Those in attendance seemed to have paid little attention to the imperfect start of an important speech at an event known for its formality, preparation, and decorum. There was an abiding air of goodwill for the new prime minister.

Fast-forward a couple of months and that sense of goodwill for Imran Khan has endured. His popularity has not dipped; the charisma that has awed two generations shows no sign of fading. It does not seem to matter that the government’s initial days seemed hobbled and directionless. Or that most of the cabinet ministers were found bumbling, and the criticism over the handling of the economy hung heavily, like a dark cloud, over the first hundred days in office.

Anyone else would have found the cacophony of criticism and political opposition’s loud condemnations daunting and unnerving. Imran Khan, on the other hand, seems impervious and unscathed by the barrage of criticism.

More importantly, the faith of those who elected Imran Khan to office remains strong. The confidence of the civil and military bureaucracy about the honest and sincere intentions of their new leader has not eroded. While questions about capacity and capability hound most of the federal cabinet’s ministers, such critique loses bite when it comes to Imran Khan. Nothing seems to stick. No U-turn makes a difference. No misstep matters. He is Mr. Teflon.

In the corridors of power, in the anterooms of government offices, a strong belief persists that Prime Minister Imran Khan is at least working hard.

His intentions trump every other failing or shortcoming.

Imran Khan has always been a tireless and selfless campaigner. It is an envious image, developed and cemented over time. Whether it was the cancer hospital or the university or even politics, Imran Khan was never about himself. After all, he himself boasts that Allah had already given him everything – fame, wealth, and global stardom—before he ventured into politics. The foray into the knavish world of politics was not personal but for a national cause.

Mr. Khan’s supporters say his drive and energy is unparalleled. It is in stark contrast to many of his predecessors, who lapped up comforts of the office and slacked in luxury.

“You can see that he is putting in an effort,” said a senior military official who spoke on condition of anonymity, as he is not authorized to talk to the media. “The government has made a good start. It has taken steps in the right direction.” The men in uniform invariably seem to share this sentiment, no matter posted in the General Headquarters or outback in the country.

Many civilians feel the same way.

“I have worked with several governments. However, this time it is different. The intentions of those at the top are honest and sincere,” said Sakib Sherani, who is advising the government on the economy.

A bureaucrat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, echoed the sentiment.

“I also have great admiration for Imran Khan because his belief system is radically different from a decadent ideological world-view that both Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari had,” the bureaucrat said.

The regard and goodwill that Imran Khan enjoys said the official is, “primarily because of the nature of his political struggle, his honesty of convictions, and his humility and compassion despite a tsunami of political appeal that he enjoys as a leader.”

Imran Khan’s untainted image, unblemished by charges of corruption and financial wrongdoing has eclipsed every personal failing and episodes of political naivety.

“Imran Khan is not financially corrupt,” said Sheraz Malik, an economics teacher, based in Lahore, and a supporter of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. “And he genuinely wants Pakistan to succeed. You can see it in his words and actions that he deeply cares about fixing Pakistan.”

Imran Khan’s supporters feel that sincerity in his high baritone voice, even in his grimaces and facial contortions during public speeches, and his deliberately unfussy sartorial choices.

“He has enduring goodwill because his goodwill has endured,” Mr. Malik said. “We're a land of fallen heroes. Whomever we make a hero, turns out he's just a scam. They develop goodwill, but they don't live up to it; their goodwill fades,” he said.

“Imran Khan has stood up and kept standing even when you laughed at his dharnas, at his civil disobedience, at his childish push-ups for breakfast.”

Imran Khan often shoots from the hip. Several of the gaffes and faux pas of the current government and Imran Khan would have damaged anyone else irreparably. But Imran Khan has managed to shrug off any such embarrassments. To his supporters, he is a lovable novice at a game where the other players are cynical old hands.

At the ceremony marking the government’s 100-days in office, Imran Khan’s reference to chickens and eggs, buffaloes and cows elicited loud cackles from his opposition. During the speech when he said that government “would give eggs,” there was loud laughter from those present. As the camera panned to the audience, several female supporters could be seen laughing and clapping but “It’s OK. Khan is a simple man,” one in attendance put it later.

Many of his critical statements would be anathema to anyone else’s political career. When he criticized the military, he was a no-holds-barred critic. But that did not stop Imran Khan from coming to the forefront of national politics.

In a recent interview to a panel of talk show hosts, Imran Khan said the military stands behind his party’s manifesto. Any other politician in the past would have been reprimanded by the military and reminded that the military does not stand behind any political party’s manifesto. But this time, the military spokesman explained untroubled: the prime minister’s statement was made in a specific context.

Critics say that the dragnet of accountability has been thrown around leading politicians in a bid to weed out the old political elite, to ensure that Imran Khan faces no opposition.

Admirers of Imran Khan vehemently deny these assertions. And insist with a conviction that the day is not far when NAB turns its attention to Khan’s own party, and that Imran Khan will not lift one finger to help anyone to hide ill-gotten wealth. Convinced quarters hint that the day is not far when these convictions will be duly tested, and Khan will prove himself without hesitation.

Some contend that Imran Khan gets away with his political U-turns because he has been a national icon and celebrity for decades, idolized by both women and men.

“Imran is a post-colonial sports icon, whose sexualized masculinity matches only that of a film star and hence a hypnotic adulation follows him,” said Dr RA Siddiqui, a professor of politics and international relations. “This image overrides his political fumbles. Pakistan has had a love affair with Imran Khan for a very long time. Even at 66, he is like an old flame. Like all love affairs, it is irrational.”

Imran Khan’s supporters take exception to this view and say that corruption is a far more significant and pervasive problem for people than most analysts like to admit. They stress that Imran Khan’s support persists because he represents the anti-corruption, the anti-status quo.

“Underneath it all, we don't care whom he marries, if he eats ‘kukkar’ or ‘Katta,’ if he prays or preys. If his following was for his personality then people will clearly be disturbed with this kind of demeanor,” Malik said. “It's the standing up to a rigged system, which we, the people, have to put up with every day that makes us stand behind him.”

It is too early to tell whether this goodwill and popularity would last throughout the full term. But Imran Khan enjoys a unique position, unfettered by the circumstances and compulsions of past prime ministers and buttressed by a deep well of goodwill, almost cult-like adulation, of his supporters.

Only Imran Khan can fail himself now.