Imran Khan’s personality cult

Khan felt he could ignore concerns of his fellows, saying and doing whatever he thought was right by ignoring and blaming those who disagreed

ISLAMABAD  -  Pakistan’s 22nd prime minister Imran Khan was ousted on April 10, 2022, through a vote of no-confidence over allegations of mismanaging country’s economic system and mishandling its foreign policy.

Having huge global followership amid his cricketing and philanthropic resume, Khan made his way through Pakistan’s dynastic political realm with a vision of contemporary politics. Vowing to eradicate poverty and corruption, he founded Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in 1996 and chanted slogans of ‘Naya Pakistan’. Soon, his superstar personality garnered him enough support to become the chief executive of the country.

Emerging as a visionary leader, he brought some massive transformations in the political culture of Pakistan. In fact, he was one of the few leaders who had support of the both, the poor and the elite. His government’s ‘Single National Curriculum’ initiative and other educational, health and philanthropic reforms including poverty eradication endeavours under the umbrella of the ‘Ehsaas Programme’ were major examples of such initiatives.   His other green initiatives including the ‘Ten Billion Trees Tsunami Programme’ were publicised to international acclaim. But under his leadership, the country also witnessed no major legislation, no consolidated policy framework, economic management, and his government appeared to have failed foreign policy,   blamed for political victimisation of the opposition and misuse of the state institutions.  Despite all the failures, his die-hard followers, the majority of whom were sound reasoning intellectuals from much respected professions, were not ready to abandon him in any circumstances. In fact, his followership grew more when he was ousted from the office. With the passage of time, there has been an increasing global shift in politics. Political systems, these days are more polarised rather than democratic. There is a selection bias toward certain negative personalities such as grandiose, self-promoting, and genuinely narcissistic leaders rather than emotionally stable or intelligent leaders.

As seen through the Freudian lens, the reason behind such bias is that the followers replace their narcissistic tendencies with those of their larger-than-life leaders. He dubbed these narcissistic leaders as ‘those who impress people as being ‘personalities.’ In such cases, the love for their leader is a substitute for self-love. And so in a country like Pakistan, where the people have renounced a major part of their integrity due to political, economic and social victimisation, personalities such as Khan attract a great deal of admiration and even envy for maintaining such a blissful state of mind, despite all the odds.

No doubt that narcissism is ingrained in the marrow of Khan’s bones. He is a skilled orator who has a lot of street power and can stir enthusiasm among his audiences due to his magnetism. Like Bhutto, he can mesmerise the masses with his rhetoric.  The reason, his followers look up to him is that he has the audacity to take risks and make bold statements when needed. His wildly popular stance on Kashmir, Palestine and Islamophobia, his infamous statement “absolutely not” and visit to Russia during the war in Ukraine has global reverberations.

Freud argues that there is a dark side to narcissism. After a certain degree of self-assurance, narcissistic leaders become spontaneous, free of constraints, thinking they are invincible. And it can progress to a level that can lead their nation to catastrophe. An amusing yet troubling observation shows that as Khan came into power, he showed some visible signs. He started to feel that he could ignore the concerns of his fellows, saying and doing whatever he thought was right. Rather than persuading, he ignored and blamed those who disagreed, creating an isolation bubble around him. Thus, his overly dramatic persona sowed the seeds of his downfall and brought him to a point of self-destruction. Narcissists cannot leave office and they do not have good endings. It was obvious that Khan would not leave quietly either. Backed up by his famous anti-American rhetoric, ‘Foreign Letter Conspiracy’ was a psychological attempt to prevent his followers from realising that he had lost the politics over no-confidence motion. It maintained him as their champion, who was not just an invincible hero, but who was wronged and victimised. ‘Victim Card’ is extremely important for narcissists.

Being a successful propagandist, he made sure his message was reaching the masses in a unified way. Effectively using electronic, print and social media, his party echoed this propaganda through all the channels.

In a country like Pakistan, where psychological issues are perceived as taboos, it’s nearly impossible to believe that people will analyse and consider the positive and negative traits of their leaders. In that case, the leaders should be responsible enough to realise where they cross the line. It can only be hoped that Khan recognises his limitations and rather than repeating Hitler and Trump’s history, prepares himself for the next challenge of winning the elections again in a productive way, because countries, whose narcissistic leaders realise their limitations, get the best of them. For others, they could turn out to be the worst.


–The writer is a member of the staff at The Nation. She can be reached at and tweets @plvasha

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