I have lost count of how many times in the last three years I have found myself banging my head against the wall, tearing my hair out, or just screaming into the heavens, “Why?!” after Imran Khan has gone and done something spectacularly stupid. Today was, of course, another such day. It came a day after the previous such instance!
Before I continue, let me make a disclosure. I voted for the PTI in last election, and I will vote for them again. That’s not what this post is about. If you must know, I would just rather take an honest, arrogant egomaniac who prioritises education, health, law and order, and the environment over any humble, soft spoken, crooks whose sole purpose in politics is self-enrichment (not naming any names!). But that’s a personal preference.
And that is why Imran Khan is so infuriating!
Imran Khan’s outrageous statements about the foreign players that played the PSL final are just the most recent in a strategy that is consistently failing him. And yet, he persists with it. Please hold on as I try to fit in any many cricketing analogies as I can manage in what follows.
Turn back the clock to the election 2013. The PTI was a considerably smaller party consisting of first-time voters and mummy-daddies taking on the behemoth that is the PMLN - a party that has been around power in some form or the other for over thirty years. As one might expect in such a mismatch, the PTI’s strategy was to go all-out. Like any good underdog story, the Captain told his team to give it everything they had. They obliged. And like the better underdog stories (Rocky I, for example), they still lost, but after having given the PMLN a run for their money.
But the Imran Khan you saw during the election was not the Imran of old. Quite clearly, someone had told him that he was not ‘street’ enough for politics; his Aitchison/Oxford ways were not going to get him votes. He needed to speak the language of the street. He needed to berate his opponents, humiliate them, call them out. This would establish him as a tough man who could take on the status quo and get things done that the gentleman Imran seemed incapable of. So Imran sledged and taunted, and put up a spectacular show only to be defeated on the fifth day (1).
While electoral victory eluded him, Imran had achieved something quite spectacular. He had managed to get the burger crowd onto the streets. He had gotten people flying in to take ownership of the country. A group that had previously been drawing-room critics, outsiders to the system, were on the streets taking on the muscle of the established parties.
And that’s when things went completely wrong. People such as myself had hoped he would put this newfound force to developing a long-term plan for the next election. Essentially, canvass for him and keep the pressure on the PMLN to ensure his government got everything they needed in KPK.
Instead of appreciating the potency and fragility of his latest weapon, Imran decided to overuse it. He wasn’t going to be using his pace attack in short bursts. No, his Shoaib Akhtar was going to open the bowling and keep bowling until the opposition was either bowled out or knocked out (2). As PMLN managed to hold out one barrage after another, they started getting quite good at handling his attack. The constant aggression, bearing no fruit, instead of threatening the government, started to expose his weaknesses. The strategy was clearly not working. In fact, due to the constant frontal attacks on the same issue, Imran’s team seemed to be dropping chances all over the place, because they simply were not looking for them. Pretty soon he had all but depleted his reserves.
Unfortunately, there is a very predictable pattern to Imran’s gameplay. He has two modes – single-minded aggression and uber-single-minded aggression. When the first fails, it never occurs to him to back down and wait for the next opportunity to strike again. Instead, he doubles down. Sometimes it works, mostly it doesn’t! We’ve seen it time and time again: faced with a crisis Imran Khan raises the stakes. This what we saw today. He said don’t do the PSL in Lahore it won’t be successful, it happened and was fairly successful, he buckled down and insisted it wasn’t!
The perpetual war policy is at work where he feels he must harass the PMLN and its support structure at every juncture, no quarter must be given. The foreign cricketers were just collateral damage. Except this time, his judgement was completely off. Cricket is a touchy topic!
To be fair, his constant attack approach is not completely insane. In fact, I came across quite a few people who believed it was essential for Imran to bring the Sharifs down a peg or two to puncture the halo of “statesmanship” that the PMLN was trying to create around them.
I also suspect Imran believes in one thing above all else (possibly rightly so) – people support a winner! If he manages to knock out the government, all the naysayers will be silenced and all sins will be forgiven.
Unfortunately, there are two downsides to this approach. Firstly, with each attack, his chances of success are reduced, establishing the PMLN as the winner! Secondly, his is the smaller party. The only way his party can come back is by converting supporters from PMLN. His constant hostility makes this very difficult.
As a supporter of the PTI, I feel it is in desperate need of deep introspection. My qualms with Imran Khan are not based on morality. God knows, his many transgressions are nowhere near the sins of his opponents. The government in KPK seems to be making some progress as well and at the very least has its priorities in the right order. I even agree with Imran Khan that electoral reform and the Panama papers scandal are serious issues that should not be brushed under the carpet. But there are serious issues of election strategy that need to be addressed. I even agree that the institutions in the country are probably heavily stacked against the PTI simply because the PMLN has been around for so long. But the man who did this
To go a step further, I don’t even mind the fact that he has compromised on so many principles and inducted a host of unsavoury characters into the party. Politics in Pakistan requires such moves.
But the big question is, are these moves going to pay off? Will they result in PTI gaining more popularity and votes than the other parties? Could there possibly not be more electorally beneficial actions that could be taken? Could the “selling out” actually be backfiring?
Imran Khan and PTI should use this fiasco as a wake-up call to check whether they consider themselves to be on the path to a thumping victory in 2018, or whether they’re just hoping the administration will disqualify the opposition on match-fixing allegations (5). It really will not be good enough if 5 years on, the PTI is still playing the role of boisterous rag-tag outsiders they were at the last election. In 2018, they will need to be a well-oiled machine; a serious party. The PMLN have had their strategy and systems in place for a long time now. The PTI needs to figure out how to counter them – a task they have been largely struggling with so far.