As he sat across from Karan Thapar, Imran Khan wore his smug and confident look. When Thapar asked him about militant groups and whether Khan would denounce them he answered broadly in the affirmative. But Thapar is not the usually naïve and unabashedly sick-of-democracy Pakistani television anchor. He proceeded to ask Khan whether Hafiz Saeed and Jamaat-ud-Daawa would be specifically mentioned. That was uncomfortable, for specifics are not conducive to Khan and his populism. Out came the reply which speaks volumes about the man and his philosophy. To paraphrase it Khan’s reply referred to Salmaan Taseer’s death about how the killer of a governor ‘becomes a hero’. Khan went on to say that Pakistan is the most polarised country in the world and that there is no point in being a hero in this country.
As many ‘electable’ candidates continue to join the ranks of PTI, Imran Khan has assumed unprecedented importance on the national scene. He is ambitious and an achiever in many ways. Yet I am not sure that he knows what he is doing. Worse? He knows exactly what he is doing and is continuing with it.
He is tapping into an anger that many in Pakistan feel – regarding financial corruption and the failings of the state. But his narrative is extremely narrow and perpetrates that what we must avoid. I have said it before in this space and I will say it here again today: financial corruption is not Pakistan’s biggest problem. Khan’s actions impliedly concede that yet his rhetoric never does — and I am pretty certain he does not realise this. His argument seems to be that once people join the ranks of his party, they will act differently. That concedes the point that corruption is not as deep rooted as he makes it out to be. But every time we question Khan’s logic there are personal attacks and my personal favourite criticism: ‘Who is this guy? Who lets him write?’
I do not share the one-dimensional view of financial corruption that most PTI supporters do. For me, ideas are important and I respect people who get agitated about ideas and not personalities. I do not see individuals as saviours and I loathe the messiah complex that far too many young people of my generation are plagued with. I do not think that taking money for private gain is limited to Pakistan or that that is what has restricted Pakistan’s potential. Financial corruption was not what broke Pakistan into two and financial corruption is not what is threatening Pakistan’s integrity.
I usually would be the first to distrust Transparency International’s indices about corruption and its perceptions. But even by that measure Pakistan has performed better under this government. Of course that is not a conversation that the PTI, its followers or the national media wants to have. What none of these understand is this: Institutions struggle with each other as a country evolves and they end up imposing checks and balances on each other — not always out of benevolence or the national good but because they want to retain their own clout. That is a natural process and must be given time. The national media which often treats democracy and politicians with shameful disdain needs to realise this.
PTI supporters and sympathisers often make the argument that Khan needs electables with him to bring a change. But I am not sure what this so called change implies. To someone who already thinks that financial corruption is not the biggest issue there are bigger and more difficult battles to pick and the civil military imbalance and the fight against militancy tops the list. And by fight, I mean the fight of ideas just as powerful as the fight of arms.
It is every bit as corrupt for a leader at the national scene to see something and then not speak out against it if he disagrees with it or sees its potential dangers. It is far more corrupt for someone to engage with an ideology without bothering to confront the destruction it has wreaked. The lack of an ability to tolerate dissent and questions and then to perpetrate that as change is the most invidious sort of corruption in my eyes.
It is not difficult to stir up the emotions of Pakistanis – we are an emotional lot. Far too many of us for far too often have been fed this military establishment sponsored narrative in which all politicians are corrupt and the system needs an overthrow every now and then. This narrative focuses on financial corruption and not ideas. It focuses on simple one-line answers and not nuanced approaches. It facilitates blaming other powers — for using us, for leaving the region etc — and not ourselves for breeding militancy.
A few among the many in Pakistan have managed to distort the national discourse — with the threat and use of arms. There are also those who do not want questions regarding Khan because, as the argument goes, ‘who else’? But someone who believes that this country does not need a hero is a coward and does not believe in the fight of ideas. He believes not in pragmatism but rhetoric. Someone who avoids specifics has shallow ideas and a failure to admit that is inherently corrupt. Someone who fails to confront all that is dangerous within Pakistan (chiefly, the army sponsored narrative) is exactly what we need to avoid. Khan is wrong, dead wrong. We need difficult questions and we need a battle of ideas. Standing up for ideas might make you unpopular and make others resent you. But that is exactly what we need. Regardless of what the PTI supporters tell you, let us not forget that there is every point in being a hero in this country and condemning violence and the narrative that apologises for it.
The writer is a Barrister and an Advocate of the High Courts. He has a special interest in Antitrust law and is currently pursuing an LLM at a law school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.