Tension continued to grip Pakistan on Thursday (11 May) after the arrest of Imran Khan earlier in the week triggered chaos and violent protests across the country. Surreal scenes of the former prime minister’s enraged supporters storming the Pakistan military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi city and ransacking the residence of a top army general in Lahore shocked many.
This signals the massive popularity the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief enjoys among his followers. But what explains this immense admiration for the leader? Let’s decode.
Pakistan Supreme Court declares Imran Khan’s arrest ‘illegal’, orders his immediate release
Violence, chaos, and more: How Imran Khan’s arrest has increased instability in Pakistan
Khan is not just a political leader for his followers, but he has built a ‘messiah-like figure’ among them, noted Outlook.
As per The Express Tribune, the PTI chairman’s supporters “view him not only as a political leader but as the political messiah, the only hope for an otherwise ‘doomed nation’”.
Khan is the most popular leader in Pakistan with 61 per cent of people having positive views about him, the Daily Times reported citing a nationwide survey conducted by Gallup Pakistan.
His popularity has only surged since he was ousted from power in April last year through a no-confidence motion.
Before making the political plunge by forming the PTI in 1996, Khan was already a revered cricket icon in Pakistan who led the nation to its historic victory in the 1992 World Cup.
For his supporters, it seems Khan can do no wrong. “Whatever story he comes up with, right or wrong, rational or irrational, people support him,” Samina Yasmeen, director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, told Time magazine.
“He has this knack of convincing people that he’s the only honest person in the whole pack.”
“PTI is not exactly a political party which evolved naturally over time, but rather a messiah-centered personality cult… core supporters are more ideological, having been successfully tutored in Pakistani textbook nationalism and are enthralled by Imran who, in their opinion, is the embodiment of patriotism and religious devotion.
Personality cults by nature are immune to negative news (even if they are completely true) and in fact, are likely to interpret these as false accusations and conspiracies,’’ Raza Habib Raja, columnist of The Express Tribune, wrote.
Attacking the ‘corrupt elite’
Khan’s strategy has been to maintain pressure on the country’s corrupt political parties by building a narrative and dividing the society into “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”, according to The Express Tribune.
Even after becoming the prime minister in 2018, Khan continued to raise the issue of his predecessor government’s corruption. This is why, his arrest becomes more significant as it is in a corruption case. Khan and his wife have been accused of obtaining land worth millions of dollars as a bribe from a real estate firm through his Al-Qadir Trust, a non-governmental welfare organisation. The PTI chief has denied the allegations.
“The fact that Khan was arrested for corruption, rather than defamation or another charge, is likely an attempt to tarnish his virtuous aura,” Samina Yasmeen was quoted as saying by Time magazine.
But she said that the move could “backfire”. “The reality is that he commands a lot of support in Pakistan. It’s coming to the point where, in some quarters, it’s lost all rationality,” she added.
Khan has reportedly been booked in over 140 cases, including defamation, terrorism and corruption.
But even if he is indicted, he is unlikely to lose the backing of his core voter base.
Opinion polls show that Khan can easily win the general elections.
Charming the youth
Khan’s promise of a ‘Naya Pakistan’ has found resonance with the country’s youth. His party has effectively used social media to engage the youth, which comprises nearly 65 per cent of the total population, Sitara Noor, an independent political and security analyst from Pakistan, told Outlook.
“The rise of the PTI has been down to the mobilisation of a disillusioned class of Pakistani citizens, many of who represent the middle-class urban youth,” The Express Tribune columnist Zeeshan Ahmad said, as per Outlook.
Ahmad noted that Khan’s popularity has developed “independently” of the army. It is widely believed that the same army had propped up Khan in 2018 to get rid of Nawaz Sharif. However, the PTI chief has fallen from the all-powerful military’s grace since he started attacking officials openly, even blaming former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa for his ouster.
Khan’s dramatic arrest by the paramilitary Rangers outside the Islamabad High Court premises on Tuesday is believed to have the blessings of the Pakistan Army. Interestingly, Khan was nabbed a day after Pakistan’s military openly lambasted the former prime minister for his repeated allegations against a senior Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) official. Khan has accused the officer of trying to have him assassinated.
Now, how long will Khan’s supporters continue to hit the streets will depend on the army’s response to the current unrest in the country. As Indian Express noted, his arrest has already boosted his “status among his followers as a fighter for a democratic Pakistan”.