If Imran Khan were a rapper, he could have chosen the trade name I M Ran.
That bit has nothing to do with the rest of the post. I just wanted to get it out of my system because what is writing, after all, if not purging oneself of uselessly clever puns?
As Pakistan gets ready for its May 11 parliamentary election, it is hard to tell who the next leader of the country might be. Former cricket superstar turned an earnest politician Imran Khan thinks that for him and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf Party (PTI) the results are a fait accompli, in that they have won in their minds and all they need to do now is actually win at the hustings. It is a different story that his rivals, Asif Ali Zardari, the current president and leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister and the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have the same sense of fait accompli. (Excuse the two long sentences).
Politicians never lose; they merely get ready to win next time. In my long years of reporting politics in India, I did not come across a single politician who would say, “There is no chance of my victory but I am going for it anyway.” That’s because unlike so many other professions politics is about self-belief. Khan has no shortage of it himself. His primary calculation is that since out of the total electorate of 90 million 40 million will vote for the first time, they would like a fresh face with no political baggage. On paper, it sounds compelling to argue that the electorate feels jaded at the bunch of usual suspects who take their turns by recycling old ideas such as Zardari and Sharif. The new broom, as in the 40 million first time voters, might indeed sweep very clean and give Khan a chance. That is the theory of it.
The reality, as manifest in polls, seems to suggest that Sharif stands a stronger chance of coming back to power. But those are polls and they have a knack of going very wrong. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that the polls are right until they are wrong. Sharif’s return to power will merely keep up the cyclical nature of the parliamentary form of government where there are no term limits. The limits are only on the tolerance of the people.
The last time I met Sharif was almost exactly 20 years ago in October, 1993. A cricket team of foreign correspondents based in New Delhi was invited by him to play a friendly match against his team. Sharif was an avid cricketer in his younger days. Unfortunately, his government ran into what turned out to be a terminal political crisis in 1993 during our visit and he could not play. He did, however, come to the cricket ground in Lahore to greet us during the game which ended in a draw. I managed to slip in a political question while still wearing my flannels. I asked him whether he hoped to overcome the crisis he was in. “Insha’Allah, Siyasat ek lamba khel hai. (God willing, politics is a long-term game)”. That two decades later he is still here, after having been dislodged in a bloodless coup by Pervez Musharraf and hounded out of the country, is compelling enough vindication of his observation.
Coming back to Khan, what I wrote on September 3, last year is worth repeating. (Even if it is not worth repeating, what are you going to do? Not read me?)
When one looks at the breakdown of the voter rolls, one cannot help but be struck by the sheer demographic and hence, by implication, political weight exerted by just two of the country’s six provinces. Punjab with its 48,308,644 registered voters and Sindh with its 18,432,877 registered voters alone account for 66,741,521 voters. That constitutes over 79 percent of the voting public. The other big number provinces are Khyber Pakhtun Khwa with its 12,064,597 voters and Balochistan with 3,278,164. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Federal Area account for 1,675,967 and 604,802 registered voters.*
I am not quite sure what Khan considers his stronghold but I suspect that he is looking at a combination of the voters in the age group 18 and 45 who together add up to about 57 million. He is possibly also eyeing the votes out of the FATA and Khyber Pakhtun Khwa because lately he has positioned himself as strongly opposed to US policies such as the drone attacks. The drone attacks have impacted these areas quite a bit and have intensified anti-American sentiment. This is my surmise and I could be wrong.
Over the last 65 years Pakistanis have tried all kinds of leaders who have fallen woefully short. There may not be a particular danger in trying out a cricket superstar notwithstanding his nebulously defined political ideology. As a bowler Khan was regarded as one of the best swingers of the ball, particularly the reverse swing. Let’s see if he reverses the tide of history in Pakistan in the next general election.
I think it is only appropriate that I slightly rework the great Pakistani poet and rebel Faiz Ahmed Faiz here. The people of Pakistan, after voting Khan to power, could say, “Aur kya dekhne ko baqi hai? Imran se bhi dil laga ke dekh liya.” (What else is there to experience now? We also tried falling for Imran).
* Since I wrote this, the electorate figures have changed somewhat. According to journalist Mariana Babbar in the Outlook magazine, they are now “Punjab with 49,229,334 has the highest number of registered voters, followed by Sindh: 18,963,375, Khyber-Pakhtoonkwala: 12,266, 157, Balochistan: 3,336,659, and FATA: 1,738,313 voters. The revised numbers do not affect the core of my political argument.