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A catch he can't miss

Imran Khan's political salvation could lie in awakening Pakistan's dormant youth. Jayatsen Bhattacharya writes.

india Updated: Oct 17, 2012 23:13 IST
Jayatsen Bhattacharya,Imran Khan,Pakistan

Imran Khan, for reasons cosmetic or charismatic, has become a sort of political tonic for Pakistan. As a cricketer, he bowled an in-dipper like no other, batted with the felicity of an all-rounder, but fielded ordinarily in his patent mid-wicket position. As a politician, however, this is precisely the area he could improve if he is to make a dent in a polity rendered volcanic by self-interest groups. Parallely, he has to set a better field. And, for starters, he could grope for inspiration in Franklin Roosevelt, who had famously quipped that nation building is "about building the future for the youth by building youth for the future''. He can look at someone closer home for a way to ensure precisely that: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Like any politician worth his salt in Pakistan, Bhutto saw currency in wresting access to the youth, ushering in what is commonly believed to be the most active area of student politics. The 1970s witnessed one of the most democratic periods in the history of student politics in Pakistan. Bhutto's party openly promoted and patronised student bodies in universities and colleges, culminating in a phenomenon that remains the most reassuring symbol of symbiosis between the establishment and fledgling political minds - the Student Union Ordinance of 1974. Student unions, in turn, unabashedly popped the cork when Bhutto won the general elections, heralding a semblance of socialism in a hitherto militia-manipulated Islamic polity.

But Bhutto didn't build on this much in the coming years. Rallying political young minds was one thing, giving them a defined role in the larger polity was quite another. He ignored the fact that a disaffected clergy was approaching the students who hailed from conservative rural areas, and blackballing the aggressive Maoist and Marxist posturing of the city-bred student unions. Soon, Bhutto grew tired of the well-intentioned ambitions of the hardline leftists in his party, and showed them the door, opting for the more manageable option of inducting feudal chieftains into his cabinet, empowering them again the Islamists, which, of course, was an umbilical union of the clergy and the army. When Bhutto went to the gallows under Zia-ul-Haq's military regime, it just required a few murmurs of 'judicial murder' on the part of the now already throttled student groups, to ensure they were banned, being deemed as anti-national nurseries of political thinking. Neither Nawaz Sharif nor Benazir Bhutto lifted the bans on student unions, crippling the egalitarian progressive element in Pakistan's politics. An element that would do Imran a lot of good.

It is said that Imran resonates well with the young of Pakistan. But 'young' is a broad-based term. A recent United Nations Development Programme reports suggest that almost 70% of Pakistanis comprise people of and under 30 years of age. That, prima facie, should enthuse him. But a good 30% of this segment is illiterate. This means Imran has his task cut out for him. For his popularity is limited to the urban and tech-savvy youngsters who are too smug in life with the promise of future comforts to dabble in thoughts related to bettering the socio-economic fabric of a country which treats them well anyway. Those yet untouched by Facebook continue to bemoan the two maladies that have for long riddled the Pakistani State: nepotism and hypocrisy.

Imran lacks a political signature as does his party. Given the fact his outfit piggybacks on his image and does not yet represent any economic or ethnic constituency, his trump card, therefore, could well lie with the youth. Fundamental changes in a democratic polity, good or bad, come with the support of numbers. And potentially Imran has almost 70% of the nation's population to convert into a pressure group and give shape to a Pakistan which can boast of a polity he would like to captain. This is a catch he cannot afford to miss.

Jayatsen Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based advertising professional

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Oct 17, 2012 23:05 IST