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Cult Political Movement

Come next general elections, Pakistan is headed towards another era of confusion.

By Nikhat Sattar | May 2022

The political drama that the Pakistani nation and, indeed, international onlookers saw unfold during the first week of April was entertaining and finger biting for some, and humiliating and worrisome for many others. The manner in which former Prime Minister Imran Khan resisted all forces to remove him from office was evidence of his resilience and goal orientation on the one hand, and arrogance, lack of strategic depth and inability to politically compromise on the other. He hung on, by a weak and worn thread, even as institutions and people around him were adamant to cut it. And they did.

The style of Khan’s removal from premiership aside, his relatively low-key detractors now have a field day in dissecting his stint as the leader of the country and his future. Newspapers and television channels suddenly beam news and talk shows of inefficiency and corruption of his government. The massive and willing turnout of people of all ages and backgrounds in Khan’s rallies in cities as well as his criticism on his ouster deserves barely a mention: reluctant and sarcastic. Commentaries on “Lettergate”, overshadowed by the Toshakhana case cast doubts on the existence of any letter at all. Op-ed writers are churning out piece after piece in which many suggested that the Imran Khan phenomenon was here to stay.

One favourite aspect of the ongoing analysis is whether Imran Khan is leading a cult with a following that buys into his rhetoric laced with defiance - this towards the very forces that are said to have brought him to power. The other possibility is that this is a continuum that can bring about a sea change in the mock democracy games this country has been cursed with. The majority of scribes and commentators lean towards the former view. Khan’s supporters are young and from the elite overseas Pakistanis who were carried away by their dream of an Islamic hero, they say dismissively.

At present, however, Khan seems to be pulling crowds across the country almost as if this was an endogenous movement likely to sustain itself. Given Khan’s tenacity and capacity to hammer at the same target (despite the U-turns when in power), he might just transform at least part of his so called populist, religio-patriotic slogans into political ones that recognise economic needs but question their relative importance. Pakistani voters, always with strong, nationalist leanings, can sway easily from concern for day to day survival needs to a call to their national spirit: remember Bhutto’s famous statement: “We shall eat grass, but will get our own atom bomb; we have no choice.” The same strategy applies here. The limited cult groups could expand, from only patriotic and religious-minded individuals to a vast populations willing to forget Khan’s red underlined report card in governance and economy while the educated ones as well as the forceful women will likely gloss over his misogynistic statements and will respond to his calls for self-respect and autonomy. The regressive and dangerous TLP might just tilt over as an ally and could be JUI’s answer in Khan’s support camp (although accepting TLP would be a gross mistake). They could also act as a pressure group that can bring those sitting on the fence to his side.

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