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Bowling a dot ball

Bowling a dot ball

If not in politics, Pakistan’s world cup winning captain Imran Khan has certainly always been a larger than life cricketer. My favourite Imran story dates back to a Sharjah match in the late 1980s. On the eve of the game, Imran was told of reports that some of his players were looking to ‘fix’ the match. Angered, he called a team meeting and told the players that their entire match fee was being put on Pakistan winning the game. He warned them, “If I find any of you not giving 100% on the field, I promise you will never play for Pakistan again.” Sure enough, Pakistan won the game.

That was Imran the cricketer, the most successful and charismatic captain Pakistan has known. On the field, he was the great dictator, setting lofty personal goals, always playing his cricket with an intense self-belief and passionate desire to win. It is that same missionary zeal which Imran has attempted to bring to his politics. Only, as the recent elections in Pakistan have confirmed, politics is an entirely different ball game.

Imran has been accused in the past, perhaps justifiably, of self-love. While he claims in his autobiography that he never considered himself good looking, the truth is he was the most sought-after cricketer of his generation. While he may have been a shy and private person, constant adulation can spark off vanity and a man with Imran’s unquestioned all-round cricketing skills almost came to believe that he was destined for greatness. It’s this sense of destiny that drove him into public life: first, to build a cancer hospital in the name of his mother; then, to embark on setting up a political party that he claimed would cleanse his country of the evil dynasts and looters.

Now, 16 years after having formed the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice), Imran is still some distance away from his original goal of becoming Pakistan’s white knight who would chase away the Bhuttos and Sharifs. Yes, he is now in a position to be Pakistan’s main opposition leader, his party could form the government in the Khyber Pakhtunkhawa region, and he has registered an impressive growth from just one seat in 2002. He can no longer be written off, his raw courage is admirable but his limitations too have been revealed, especially in Punjab, the real battleground in the Pakistan elections.

Those limitations are as relevant for Imran as they are for many sub-continental politicians. Firstly, Imran tried to tap into a popular rage against the West and corruption. The anti-West rhetoric made him an iconic figure amongst extremist groups in the volatile tribal belt who saw in the one-time global pin-up boy a born again Muslim. The anti-corruption agenda drew a section of the middle classes and elite to him, even if ironically some of them had been the beneficiaries of  the same corrupted system. Where Imran’s agenda failed is that it didn’t offer a new vision for Pakistan beyond the anti-establishment anger. What he did offer was himself and his personal credibility. With a cricket bat as a symbol, he was promising to beat up his opponents and jail them once in power. What he couldn’t convince a majority of Pakistanis was the manner in which he would get his country’s faltering economy back on track, or indeed, take on the scourge of home-grown terror.

Secondly, Imran’s cheerleaders genuinely believed that the youth of the country was fully behind him. The social media campaigns were seen to be a critical element of this age group’s desire for change. Imran was able to harness social media effectively and draw new faces into his political party, but when it came to the crunch it became clear the ‘youth’ factor was a little exaggerated as was the appeal of a twitter and facebook generation. The social network universe will always be lesser than the political universe. In the heat and dust of the countryside, it doesn’t really matter how many followers you have on twitter. These followers can create an echo effect across media platforms; what they cannot do is influence voting patterns across a diverse population.

Thirdly, while Imran is seen to have made a sincere attempt at initiating some kind of inner-party democracy, his party organisation still revolved around the personality of its leader. A top-down approach, which doesn’t build a grassroots network of activists, will always find it tough when going into highly competitive political battles against traditional party structures. Parties like the PML(N) and PPP may have ageing hierarchies, but their capacity to galvanise voters at election time remains a core strength. Moreover, ‘tajurba’ or experience is not to be scoffed at: Imran was, at the end of the day, still seen as a relatively naïve politician.

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Finally, Imran’s mixed results in these elections reveal the limitation of charisma in sub-continental politics. Yes, there have been film stars who have achieved some success in electoral politics. MGR and NTR truly stand out in this context, cinematic legends who were able to transfer their celluloid power onto the political stage in spectacular fashion. But MGR in particular had a strong AIADMK network to assist him; his folk hero image was a bonus. Other ‘star’ politicians have realised that politics is more than just dialogue delivery and good looks.

Like Imran, there are politicians in this country too who believe that the sheer force of personality will propel them to victory in the next general elections. Maybe, they need to re-strategise and look beyond one-man shows and divisive slogans. Equally, there are dynasts who need to draw a lesson from the PPP debacle and realise family lineage cannot compensate for five years of corruption and misrule. The big and open question is: who will be the Nawaz Sharif of India 2014: a politician with money, administrative experience and an earthy, regional appeal?

The views expressed by the author are personal

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