WITH the no-confidence vote to be voted on today (Saturday) by a restored parliament by order of the Supreme Court, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s term could be over by noon. But even if that happens, the cricket captain and his cult are poised to cause mayhem in the weeks and months to come. For his followers, he is the only honest and sincere politician in Pakistan and must be followed.
Cults – political and religious – can be long-lasting and deadly dangerous. In 1978, devoted groupies followed Jim Jones, their discredited leader, in a mass suicide that left 909 dead, including 304 children. Specifically: Donald Trump spent four disastrous years in office and attacked American democracy, yet he is still worshiped by simple-minded Bible Belt Americans who cling to their guns and their religion.
Building on his cricketing success and his cancer hospital, Imran Khan worked tirelessly for decades on self-promotion. His growing cult swallowed up story after story: the corruption would end in 90 days; the national treasury would overflow once “looted dollars” hidden by political rivals in secret overseas accounts were brought back. Never again, he said, would Pakistan see the dirty politics of the horse trade.
Naya Pakistan would overflow with milk and honey – Khan would “commit suicide but never return to the IMF”; foreign policy would be based on principles rather than opportunism; the most wanted passport in the world would become the green passport; and Pakistan would become a tourist paradise. Jobs would be plentiful, the judicial system would be overhauled, civil servants appointed solely on merit, and the police system overhauled. Emigrants, Khan said, would choose Naya Pakistan over Europe and America.
Imran Khan may not be a money hunter, but his lust for power makes him dangerous for Pakistan.
Well-meaning overseas Pakistanis, desperate for good news from their ex-country, took advantage. But the reality turned out to be radically different.
Just months after winning a hard-fought election, Khan’s government asked for a loan from the IMF. Critical dependence on the United States has been traded for equal dependence on China. Today the Pakistani passport is no more desirable than before and the only foreign tourists are intrepid mountaineers. In January 2022, Transparency International announced that the perception of corruption had taken a leap forward. As for the looted billions that come back: of course, keep dreaming! During this time, the dollar exploded.
Horse-trading politics received a boost once Khan ruled that “eligible” candidates would be preferred over principled candidates. Although he now admits “mistakes”, the future might not be different. In a desperate move, Punjab’s chief minister – apparently chosen by his first lady and highly praised by Khan until two weeks ago – has just been thrown under the bus. His replacement, handpicked by Khan himself, has already been derided by Khan as a bastard.
To save his sinking ship, Captain Khan made up the rooster and bull story of an American plot to oust him. This, he said, is due to his independent stance on Ukraine. So why didn’t Narendra Modi – also ambivalent about Russia’s aggression – allege the same? Khan’s groupies can’t explain why this week-old “revelation” only came after a motion of no confidence threatened his survival.
What makes cults so attractive and cultists so impervious to factual evidence and reason? Why do so many people set aside common sense and worship leaders? Of course, some followers quit when the truth gets pretty ugly. But for others, even that does not happen. The herd instinct, the reluctance to admit a past mistake or the continued attachment to a utopian vision still maintain some.
Anthropologists have linked the degree of sectarian affiliation to perceived uncertainty in an environment. For example, they find that rougher seas prompt fishermen to engage in more elaborate magical rituals. As a result, the lack of a shared national goal in Pakistan creates space for putschists and captains who promise to steer the ship of state out of stormy waters. Reason and rationality are temporarily suspended lest they undermine faith, unity and discipline.
Military interventions that weakened democracy paved the way for miracle magicians like Imran Khan. Shattered idols of other budding messiahs with bigoted supporters litter the political landscape. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Altaf Husain and Maulana Fazlullah also had sophisticated city dwellers among their followers. This happened even before the invention of social media, but technology has created virtually impenetrable silos of political groupthink.
Today, a particular belief rests safely in a nuclear-protected bunker and can survive even a vote of no confidence. The common wisdom is that all opposition leaders are greedy cheats of money and Khan, even with his flaws, is clean as a whistle. To correct? After all, it is commonly believed that all opposition politicians are venal, even if there is disagreement over who is more corrupt.
Imran Khan wins on this point. The hunt for money is not his first priority. Of course, opponents point to his magnificent Banigala palace, his life of luxury, the minimal payment of personal taxes and the doubts raised by the ECP regarding the foreign funding of the PTI. These are minor sins. But it’s Khan’s insatiable lust for power that makes him truly dangerous to this country. While money fattens individuals, absolute power brings catastrophe. Donald Trump wanted both money and power, but Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot only needed the latter.
If parliament impeaches Khan, how will he rally his supporters again? He has already revealed his strategy for the upcoming elections: stoking xenophobic nationalism; mobilizing the religious sentiment he helped generate by encouraging the TLP’s anti-France anti-blasphemy agitations; and turn Pakistanis against Pakistanis. The pro-Khans are patriots, those who oppose him are traitors, and the bums are, in his words, mere animals.
If Imran Khan is ousted from power today, Pakistan will have won a temporary victory. However, its broader interest requires that all political parties obey the rules and the Constitution. They must embrace democracy and pluralism and stop pursuing narrow interests. Aggression and the spreading of hatred, the use of foul language and the denigration of women and religious minorities should have no role to play in politics. Instead, live and let live. Let reason and rationality prevail over blind faith in leaders.
The writer is a physicist and writer based in Islamabad.
Posted in Dawn, April 9, 2022