This past Sunday was Christmas Day, PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif‘s birthday, and the 135th birth anniversary of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan.
This past Sunday was also Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (“Movement for Justice”)’s much-anticipated political rally in Karachi. For those of us not physically at the Minar-e-Quaid (Jinnah’s Mausoleum), the PTI jalsa was cause to gather at friends’ houses, tweet feverishly, and offer sideline commentary to no one in particular. Or maybe that was just me.
By this time, you have undoubtedly read a flurry of news coverage on said jalsa. But for those who haven’t, here is the rundown. PTI leader Imran Khan – the oft-labeled “cricketer-turned-politician” – has gained much political traction and popularity in the last year, after launching his political party officially in 1996. Fahad Desmukh, in his radio piece for PRI’s The World, noted,
The PTI attracted mostly urban educated professionals, but failed to get a mainstream following. In fact, in the 2002 parliamentary elections, Imran Khan was the only candidate from his party to win a seat…But now Khan has managed to mobilize enough young urban professionals to become a rising political force. In the past, this demographic shunned politics as a dishonorable activity. But young people are coming out now out of frustration with the current leadership.
Last month, PTI’s jalsa in Lahore garnered between 100,000 to 200,000 supporters – one of the largest political rallies in the country. This past Sunday, thousands of people came out on the streets of Karachi. Although PTI estimated the number at 500,000, news agencies report that the number in attendance was closer to 100,000, still making it one of the largest rallies in Karachi in recent years. Mutahir Ahmed, a professor at the University of Karachi, told Dawn, “He is riding a wave of popular politics right now. There is a lot of frustration among ordinary people, as well as political workers right now, which he is cashing on.”
In an article for the Express Tribune entitled, “Imran Khan Wins Hearts & Minds at Karachi Rally,” Shaheryar Mirza and Saad Hasan interviewed one rally attendee, who said, “I don’t know why but Imran Khan gives me hope. I want change, security and a better future for my children.”
Ah, the psychological underpinnings of hope and change. We saw it work with the Obama 2008 presidential campaign, and leveraged again by Afghanistan’s Abdullah Abdullah during his recent presidential run. It’s the promise of something different. And though it may just be semantics, words like hope and change induce positive associations with absolute ideals of happiness, progress, and prosperity. For a fatigued and frustrated Pakistani populace, that is a fuzzy but welcome option.
I don’t claim to be an expert on our political system (I actually don’t claim to be an expert on anything), but I have been fascinated with the perceived rise of PTI & Imran Khan in recent months. Here are a few observations both on the lead-up to the December 25th jalsa, the rally itself, and subsequent reactions post-rally.
- PTI Snakes on a Plane: You have to give it to Tehreek-e-Insaf. They know how to market their vision to urban masses & millennials alike. Prior to the Dec 25th jalsa, the party generated buzz by launching a telemarketing scheme akin to Snakes on a Plane (if you received a phone call from Samuel L. Jackson telling you about those mother**** snakes on the mother**** plane, then you know what I’m talkin’ about). Many Karachiites received a 30-second phone call from Imran Khan inviting them to the rally. Although the call was pre-recorded, many almost believed they were receiving a personal call from the man himself. Insert swoons here. The strategy is a reflection on the party’s overarching marketing approach – the use of choice words (hope, change & the like), leveraging social media, telemarketing all enforce a broader theme: Imran Khan & PTI offer something new, something approachable, something hip, something different from the status quo.
- Imran Khan Cricket Hero, Imran Khan Politican = Same, Same: I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many cricket analogies. Oh my goodness. In a BBC interview prior to the jalsa he noted, “It’s like playing a World Cup final…this could be a defining moment in Pakistan.” In the lead-up to the rally, Imran reportedly called PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif a club cricketer “flexing muscles with a Test cricketer.” The list goes on. And while I think cricket & “tsunami” references could form its own drinking (coke! hee!) game, the analogies further raise positive associations of Imran circa 1992 World Cup. Imran the politician + Imran cricket hero = Imran heroic politician.
- Rally like it’s a Britney Spears Concert: When the band-formerly-known-as-Junoon’s lead singer Salman Ahmed started singing Junoon songs, all I could think was, Wow he sounds just like Ali Azmat! And then I realized he was lip-synching. It was, in fact, Ali Azmat. Such a Britney move, dude. In their post on the rally, Cafe Pyala noted, “With more ‘heavyweights’ joining, PTI youth may have to live with the fact that the music has died with the Lahore jalsa.”
- PTI – Stragglers Welcome: Ahsan over at Five Rupees had a great post on the politicians who have crossed over from their own parties to join PTI, and what it all means: “…when the potential for success for [insert party here] ticket goes down, and PTI’s chances of success go up, we’re more likely to see politicians from [insert party here] to leave for the PTI,” though this may not be the case for MQM or Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). The new additions to PTI are relative heavyweights, including Javed Hashmi from PML-N & Shah Mehmood Qureshi from PPP. Before watching the jalsa, I thought they were sure to help PTI’s clout. But then I watched SMQ talking like a wannabe Shakespeare (community) theater actor about nuclear policy during the rally, and am now grumpy and undecided.
- Insecurity is the Best Form of Flattery: You can tell other political parties (namely the PPP & PML-N) are beginning to feel threatened when they start resorting to petty mudslinging and banding together. PM Gilani, who reportedly also made a statement that Zardari was actually younger than Imran, also told media outlets, “Those people who are talking of revolution – are there any new people among the revolutionaries or are they mostly those who wanted to bring revolution along with Musharraf?” Curiously absent from those critiques – the MQM. Curious indeed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been impressed with the perceived meteoric rise of Imran & his party. His speech, especially in comparison with the other speeches at the jalsa, was powerful & hit all the right notes – from wishing Pakistani Christians a Merry Christmas to addressing the Balochistan issue. And though the PTI Manifesto can and should be a better representation of how PTI aims to do much of what they promise (including, ahem, ending corruption in 90 days! Eee!), I do think Imran has steadily moved away from the days where he stood against everything and for nothing. Does that mean I still have my reservations? Hell yes. Does he really have the establishment on his side and what ramifications will that hold? What does an Islamic Welfare State mean in reality? What does all of this mean in reality?
Every political leader in our country has set out to prove that they can undertake the ideals laid out in Jinnah’s vision. Every leader makes vague promises, tugs on our heart strings that this time, dear citizens, they will be different. The difference with Imran is that he is an option we have not tried before.
Does that merit my vote? I’m still undecided, but at least his campaign has spurred me to vote. You should too.
Other blog posts/related pieces you should read:
A Reluctant Mind – Pedaling Obscurantism (esp. on the female dress issue)
Obama Says Do More – The PTI Rally in Karachi or Democracy is Alive & Well in Pakistan But Not Really
Dawn – Cowasjee’s Open Letter to Imran Khan (from 1996)