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Imran the saviour

Imran Khan is the new sensation sweeping through Pakistan’s cities. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Nov 20, 2011 01:47 IST

Imran Khan is the new sensation sweeping through Pakistan’s cities. Like a wave that relentlessly covers everything in its path, the Imran phenomenon has overwhelmed the urban population. Who can tell what impact he’s had on Pakistan’s villages and small towns but in Islamabad, Lahore, Pindi and Karachi they can’t stop talking about him.

It began last month when his rally in Lahore brought out over a hundred thousand in joyous support. This was not rent-a-crowd nor were they bussed-in from the countryside. The sheer size and enthusiasm of their response has shaken the country. Pundits claim that not since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rallies of the 1970s or Benazir’s homecoming in 1986 has such a political force been seen.

Consequently the questions urban Pakistanis are feverishly discussing centre around Imran’s prospects and what he stands for. The second is easier to answer. There’s something of Imran that appeals to everyone. He’s pro-business but anti-American, he’s a modern man but he won’t amend the blasphemy laws. He’s critical of old-style politicians but said to be close to the generals. No doubt it’s an ideological khichdi but it’s also a platform that offers something to everyone.

More difficult are questions to do with winning the next elections. The key is how will he translate his popularity into votes? If he has to ally with old guard politicians — the very people he accuses of corruption because they know how to work Pakistan’s baradari and kinship structures — will that dilute and damage his appeal?

Those who say no believe — more out of faith than reason — that Imran is destined to win. Certainly that’s true of the man himself. He doesn’t hide his enormous self-belief, even if it makes him appear arrogant. So the next set of questions are to do with his capacity to govern and his solution for Pakistan’s myriad complex problems.

Here doubts are bigger. Imran has been a successful cricket captain and he’s built an impressive hospital and university but he’s a novice when it comes to governance. He himself admits Pakistan is “a failing State”. That means it needs an experienced hand at the till. Can that really be Imran?

If it is to be, how will he handle the two biggest challenges he will face as prime minister, terror and the economy? For many Imran’s answers are idealistic to the point of being simplistic. He will appeal to people to pay more tax and negotiate with the Taliban. But he’s also clearly left room to add meat and muscle to the bare bones of his thinking. Like a fresh piece of paper he can carry with credibility any well-thought story he chooses to write on it.

For India the hope Imran holds out is his promise to stop terror and his fulsome acceptance of a proposal Asif Zardari made three years ago that Kashmir should be placed on the back burner for a later wiser generation to sort out while, today, we concentrate on building trust by boosting trade. Imran could make Zardari’s offer credible.

Meanwhile belief in Imran Khan reflects urban Pakistan’s deep disenchantment and disillusionment with its politics. The last decade — and the last year, in particular — have descended from depressing to dreadful. For many he’s the only hope on the horizon. That could be why metropolitan Pakistanis cast aside their scepticism and invest in him.

Is the 16 months to the next elections long enough to convince their rural brothers and sisters to follow suit?

The views expressed by the author are personal