Imran Khan: reformist or a demagogue?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, this ancient proverb aptly captures former Prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan with his populist politics and demagoguery. He can best be described as a demagogue defined as “a political leader who tries to get support by making false claims and appealing to emotions rather than facts”. Khan exploited the incentives provided by social and mass media for his demagoguery and deeply polarized Pakistan’s political community and society.

Ousted in a Vote of No Confidence (VNC) on 10th of April 2022, after almost four years in office as prime minister, Khan had come to power with the support of Pakistanis yearning for real change and democratic governance. Yet, he failed to engage with the cacophonous parliamentary process of introducing laws as evidenced by the fact that over 50 laws were passed through presidential ordinances, instead of following due democratic processes in the parliament. This speaks volumes of Khan’s populist and non-democratic disposition to say the least.

At the outset, Khan managed to portray himself as an anti-status quo and pretended to embody sentiments and aspirations of the common Pakistanis by vehemently criticizing the PML-N and the PPP as family fiefdoms. He also claimed to have all the qualities of a good leader and promised to address the various socio-political malaises afflicting Pakistan’s political system and society. Above all, he made lofty claims to introduce democratic reforms and provision of justice at the door steps. Probably, he did not seem to realize that being a good cricketer doesn’t naturally make one an equally good politician or leader of a country. In retrospect, it was his lust for power and desire to become the Prime minister by hook or by crook that he promised a ‘tsuami’ of change to establish ‘New Pakistan’.

Many well-reasoned Pakistanis at the time and some even now unwittingly believe in his rhetoric of a reformer but that reformist image of him is fast fading as his government turned out to be no different than those of his predecessors. In fact, it faded away with the same pace with which he took U-turns and compromised on his professed ideals so conveniently and unabashedly. According to an interesting study titled “The Great Reset: Public Opinion, Populism, and the Pandemic” published by Cambridge University’s Bennet Institute for Public Policy, the mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis by populist leaders across the globe and desire for stability and a decline in polarizing attitudes have swayed public opinion away from populist sentiments which Imran Khan is trying hard to keep and feed these days in Pakistan by targeting state institutions and rival political parties.

Khan not only betrayed his supporters and dashed their hopes for a ‘New Pakistan’ by resorting to the same old political gambling and expediencies of relying on the ‘electables’ to form government but also proved to be an utter failure in the realm of foreign policy. For instance, his government demonstrated criminal indifference to India’s revocation of article 370 and 35 (A) to annex Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) and failed to mount adequate pressure on it. He could have mounted adequate international pressure on India for its utter violation of relevant United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on Kashmir by engaging concerned and relevant organizations including the UN and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) but he deemed it apt to renege on his promises to approach the International Court of Justice than to take any meaningful action against India’s illegal annexation and human rights violations in the IOK.

Given his preoccupation with the self-concept of a reformer and self-proclaimed peacemaker, it could plausibly be argued that he lacked even the basic understanding of foreign policy issues of Pakistan let alone the fast-changing dynamics of global politics. Needless to say, he clearly lacked political foresight due to which he contradicted himself time and again. Moreover, to the chagrin of oppressed Kashmiris and in utter violation of Pakistan’s long-standing commitment to the cause of the self-determination of Kashmiris, Khan went so far as to congratulate his Indian counterpart and hawkish Prime minister Narendra Modi on his re-election despite the fact that the latter had made no qualms about his ugly agenda towards Kashmir.

Another major cause of people’s disillusionment with Khan is the fact that even as a Prime minister, Khan acted as if in opposition and continued to blame others to deflect public attention from his government’s abysmal performance. With no hope of change in Khan’s non-democratic actions, worsening economic crisis and growing political polarization and instability resulting from his government’s unprecedented disdain for opposition parties in the legislative assembly, his own coalition partners ultimately abandoned him and sided with the alliance of the opposition parties thus leading to his ouster from office.   

Since his ouster through the constitutional Vote of No Confidence, Imran Khan, the former cricket star-turned-politician, has embarked on a destructive path that portends ill for the national unity, economic security and stability of Pakistan. In fact, in the light of Pakistani laws and constitution, Khan is guilty of court of the contempt of court and treason as he has been attacking state institutions and has been threatening high-ranking public officials for the mere sin of carrying out their professional responsibilities. Khan’s inflated ego is badly hurt due to all such developments including the perceived ‘insult’ of no confidence vote brought against him by his political rivals.

The extent of Khan’s obsession with power and his lack of empathy for millions of Pakistanis can be gauged from the fact he is calling for protests, sit-ins and long marches just to force the incumbent government of the PML-N to hold early general elections on his favorable terms while millions of Pakistanis who have been rendered homeless and food insecure by the devastations of recent floods are in dire need of expeditious relief efforts. Imran Khan has displayed a disgusting apathy towards them and has made lives worst.

It is high time for Khan to realize that roaming around targeting state institutions including the military, judiciary, and political rivals without any reason or rhythm makes him not a leader, not even a good politician but an unwanted anarchist and a demagogue. Clearly, Pakistan cannot allow and cannot afford any further political instability and anarchy, especially so, when all state institutions are making concerted efforts to undone the damage that Khan has caused while in power to the economy, socio-political fabric and morale of the state institutions including the military. Khan’s attempts to drive a wedge between the people of Pakistan, its military and the elected government of the people smacks of foreign conspiracy that needs to dealt with iron-fist.

Nisar Ahmed Khan
Nisar Ahmed Khan
Freelance researcher and columnist, based in Islamabad