First, show me the votes
So, he is the most popular of all political leaders today, and he is liked across the party lines – says the Pew Survey for 2011. But what’s new? From the mid 1970s onwards, in each of his avatars– the cricketer, the philanthropist, the progenitor of a stand-out university, par excellence in all three, and even as a politician – Imran has always been popular. That as many as 81 per cent of the PML(N) diehards and 61 per cent of PPP jiyalas like him may sound a bit out of sync, but then he has been a national figure for so long that people looking at him as an alternative is not surprising.
Imran stays popular even with Sir Ian “Pakistan is a country where you send your mother-in-law with a one-way ticket” Botham, or so he said in a Tim Sebastian grilling some seasons ago. And remember Imran had stabbed Sir Ian, not once but twice for good measure. First, in dispossessing him from the tag of ‘the greatest amongst the contemporary all-rounders’, and later pinching this Knight for half a million sterling through a Queen’s High Court for libel.
Compared to his stratospheric ratings (68 per cent, up from 52 per cent last year), Asif Ali Zardari’s are in the pits, a niggardly 11 per cent, compared to 20 in 2010 and 64 at his zenith in 2009. But Zardari is the president of the country, his party rules at the centre and three provinces through a coalition. What is more, in most dispassionate analysts’ projections, drawing strength from his policy of reconciliation and carefully constructed alignments, the situation for the PPP and Zardari is likely to remain the same, if not improve, at the next hustings. That is unless some political engineering intervenes to drastically alter the course.
And where does Imran stand circa 2013, or whenever the next elections take place? At best a dark horse and at worst a spoiler?
For someone who has been so successful in so many realms for so long, it is indeed astounding that he has been so singularly unsuccessful in his latest calling, since April 1996 when he decided that he is going to fly solo, and so used to being numero uno, naming himself the captain of Tehrik-i-Insaaf?
Given his popularity, his instant recognition, people’s faith in his financial incorruptibility and his call for justice and against endemic corruption that strike a chord with a people encumbered for so long with crooked politicians and rapacious dictators, his failure puts his lack of political savvy and his competence as an organiser of a party in sharp relief.
A strong believer in personal hard work and perseverance, it has failed to register with Imran that a political party cannot thrive without a structure, and that without a credible team and winnable candidates in which the electorate can repose its trust it cannot come good at the elections.
And in a Westminster style democracy, his lone cry would remain a cry in the wilderness unless, other than fawning admiration, he gets public opinion on his side translated in a reasonable number of seats in the National Assembly.
So far he has been singularly unable to do that – his solitary achievement: his own 2002 election to the NA. This success rate matches that of long-forgotten Air Marshal (Retd) Asghar Khan, whose so- called ‘tonga’ party, Tehrik-i-Istaqlal was the most famous before Imran and his PTI.
Though there are now signs that he is no longer averse to making compromises – like supping with the MQM, an anathema till a year or two ago when he had wanted its honcho prosecuted through Scotland Yard on ghastly criminal charges, and field winnable candidates even if they were discards of other parties and whose morality, like most Pakistani politicians, was not of the pristine variety.
So unlike the years gone by, Imran is showing flexibility, at the macro as well as micro levels.
Despite his supreme self-belief to be the king of all he surveyed after the next elections, the question again is, would he? The recent surge in his popularity though cannot be explained away just by saying that it has come about by default as all other parties big and small are weighed down by incumbency, and various degrees of failure in terms of good governance.
That maybe one reason, for Imran remains untried, but he may also be doing some things right.
Consider the evidence of a Lahore by-election last year where his party’s candidate lost to PML(N)’s by just 7,000 votes. It is a point of conjecture whether PTI guy would have won if the Punjab administration had not thrown its weight behind the N’s candidate, but the latter despite victory was left with a few scars.
That is where Imran is more of a threat to the PML(N) than to the PPP, for the PTI much like the PML(N) is strong in the urban centres, and appeal for both lies amongst the rightist vote. His staunch anti-American stance on the issue of drone attacks and his sit-ins against providing the NATO forces the facility of a supply line through Pakistan have only increased Imran’s lure for the right, despite the sceptics and the conspiracy theorists claiming that these were inspired by the establishment.
Imran and PTI’s trump here is that, in addition to the right, he also fascinates the upscale, educated youth, the so to speak burger crowd, who previously ended up sleeping on the day of the election.
So, if politics is ‘the science of surprises’, can this wild card entry be 2013’s surprise package? For the moment, he only has the looks of a spoiler – to the PPP’s glee and the PML(N)’s chagrin.
The writer is Sports and Magazines Editor, Pakistan Today.