The perception and image-building effort of portraying Imran Khan as the political messiah started in 2011. Some viewed the exercise as filled with noble intentions. There was exasperation with dynasty politics and shambolic governance. Corruption had gnawed deep into the system. There was a need for a re-set.

Imran Khan writhed on the sidelines of politics since 1996 when he first entered politics. He could not dent the established politicians. But he had it all: Charisma, clean image, the grand promises of reform, the earnest sounding talking points. All he needed was a little push. The public already adored Khan, the country’s only global celebrity, who stood tall, handsome and distinct among his peers. But the inertia and resistance to change were much more complex and deeply entrenched. It was finally in 2018 that ‘Tabdeeli’ saw its triumph.

A ‘Hybrid government’ was put into place, after a lot of pushing and shoving—and its architects saw it as a long-term project. It was to last for the next ten years. Nothing could go wrong. Already, the past decade of image-building exercise had cemented the narrative about Khan as above the fray in the ‘hearts and minds’ of most living in the urban upper and middle-class neighbourhoods. High on self-righteousness and full of revulsion for the civilian traditional politics, they were invested deeply in the hybrid regime in many ways. A new political order tasted power for the first time. It was intoxicating.

But the beginning was hobbled. The inexperienced lot fumbled and faltered. Khan’s lofty rhetoric and promise of principled politics descended into Machiavellian ways. Allies were shunned and treated with scorn. The inner-circle grew immensely powerful and unaccountable. Untouchable and not to be spoken about. Khan started to enjoy the pomp and show, the accoutrements that come with state protocol and privilege. The charismatic sportsman-turned politician, who could tap into and voice the anguish and disgruntlement of the ‘silent majority’, vanished. A gaping disconnect emerged.

The cosmopolitan star had, in fact, long disappeared. Now, a new identity was being carved, built on the edifice of conservatism and religious pontification. Imran Khan was now to be addressed as “Khan Saab,” with the hushed, dutiful tone of reverence. His swagger became even more pronounced, surrounded by the men in uniform. And, he was now encircled by a coterie of yes-men, uncouth and foul-mouthed, with no local stakes. He himself liked and encouraged their unhinged ways. Political vendetta eclipsed everything else. Propaganda was touted as a success. Positive criticism was treated as a sign of enmity. The urge to suppress and repress political opposition and news media became overwhelming and blinding.

During all this time, the Establishment provided unprecedented support. All kinds of tools were used to ensure the new setup withstood any pressures. But the internal contradictions began to surface soon. The superficial understanding of issues and an equally amateurish way of dealing with delicate matters of the state began to tear the structure apart. The architects saw through the charade with dismay and shock. Their chosen one was just interested in self-preservation and self-glorification. The image of one man, larger than life, bigger than everything else, was beginning to weigh down over everything. On both internal and external fronts, the incendiary, self-immolating rhetoric was nothing but an illustration of scorched earth policy. Arrogance and hubris defined the leader’s way of conduct. Even the minions and the sidekicks acted with extreme arrogance and dismissiveness. And, most alarmingly, the leader was willing to trample over and shred into pieces the very core of the Establishment that had brought him to the fore.

The disengagement came with a lot of reluctance. The neutrality had, in fact, become a compulsion. But it carried risks and was fraught with unintended consequences. The space ceded provided the Old Guard with a big playing field. They took full advantage of it. But in the eyes of the public, the Old Guard was discredited and tainted. Khan, with all of his shortcomings and failures, was still better than those who had been dubbed and tarred as incorrigibly corrupt and decadent. It left many deeply conflicted. Khan himself would not go down with a fight. He played the ‘conspiracy card’ masterfully. He turned the game on its head by refusing to play by the rules.

And, many mid-ranking and senior retirees found it very difficult to pivot to the new reality. Power and influence suddenly slipping away made them angry, and frustrated. Understandably, the unexpected crumbling down of a 10-year project post-2018 resulted in a meltdown and shock. They took aim at the top of the pyramid. They were joined in the chorus by a deluge of invective and abuse over social media. After all, the loyalists were adept at amplifying their voice, using social media platforms and creating magical optical illusions. The internal grumbling grew louder. There was talk of a rift. There was a suggestion of dissent within the ranks. Such rumours were deliberately fuelled. Exert enough pressure so it cracks. Pepper it with threats, veiled initially, but with enough intent to show that the gloves can be taken off.

It was reckless and brazen. It was also unprecedented. Never before, has the authority and legitimacy of the most powerful in the land been questioned like this. It also posed a dilemma as a response was calibrated and thought out. The errant insiders could be made to fall in line using the vast coercive apparatus at disposal. But there is a downside: the more you exercise power, the more it gets diluted. And, using it on your own would further widen the fissures.

Someone will blink first in this game of nerves, run out of steam. Those who have always prevailed will most likely prevail again this time. But there has to be a rethink. The Project collapsed in a spectacular way. The unravelling happened at a dizzying speed. Its debris is now full of stench and acrid grime. It’s a sad and sorry reflection on everyone in the power game.