Teflon man Imran Khan & negative political role of educated middle class by Abdul Q. Kundi

Politicians around the world are facing the wrath of the people because of their failure to deliver. In Pakistan, there is a long tradition of allegations against politicians during short stints of democratic rule. Asif Ali Zardari was labeled as Mr. 10 % and Nawaz Sharif is now labeled as head of a Sicilian Mafia. But surprisingly no such allegations or label has ever stuck with Imran Khan. He supported Musharraf referendum; falsely claimed painti puncture, and allowed corrupt to join him but still retain the perception of a clean and honest man. It is because of this that he has been called a Teflon man by some prominent journalists like Nusrat Javeed and Najam Sethi. Why is Imran Khan a Teflon man? and what political material this Teflon is? The answer probably lies in the political attitude and behavior of the educated middle class.

Since Pakistan’s independence educated middle class has played a negative role in politics. After independence, most of these middle class comprised of bureaucracy, police, judiciary, intellectuals, and military. They had worked closely with British Empire and considered themselves the natural rulers of illiterate rural masses. But just like we have experienced in Arab Spring they were small in numbers (even now 10-15%) and had no political organization to win a political mandate. To overcome this hurdle, they found a natural ally in the military. That became the basis of first martial law and it was celebrated by mithai distribution.

After martial law failed to live up to their expectation the educated middle class rallied around Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) through creation of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). PPP manifesto, ideology, and organizational structure were developed by middle-class intellectuals. They were able to emerge as a majority party in West Pakistan in 1970 elections but despite this success for some odd reason ZAB decided to reach out to feudal for 1977 elections. In other words, after achieving success ZAB decided to abandon middle class and reach out to traditional feudal baradaris. He was not forgiven for that breach and provided a reason for the middle class to once again ally with the military to overthrow him. They did not shed any tears when he was finally sent to gallows by the military government. Since that departure middle class did not overwhelmingly support PPP. It now relies on some fringe liberals, poor segments, and feudal baradaris of Sind and South Punjab.

Middle Class never supported Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). They always derived their support from oligarchs, merchant class, and rural feudal. It is because of this lack of support from the middle class that Nawaz Sharif was never able to fight back the establishment whenever they had a conflict. The latest ouster is just one more confirmation of that.

Imran Khan became the new poster boy of the educated middle class which contributed towards his surge during last year of Gen Musharraf. It was at that time that middle class effectively used social media to support the judicial movement for reinstatement of Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. Imran Khan, along with JI and MQM, represented middle class in that struggle while Nawaz Sharif carried the support of poor and rural masses. Nawaz Sharif was rewarded by his supporters when Imran Khan boycotted the 2008 general elections. Imran Khan’s compensation remained due until he was given a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as a major opposition party in parliament in 2013 general elections. But the problem arose was that a person was running central government that had no support in the middle class as well as a history of clashing with the establishment. This is when the situation became interesting.

For middle class to fight oligarchy supported Nawaz Sharif it was important to maintain a good reputation for Imran Khan through social media activism. In last one year whenever I met with intellectuals I would ask them why were they supporting Imran Khan and the most frequent answer was that only he can loosen the grip of Nawaz Sharif on power. When I would ask a follow-up question that in the process Imran Khan is damaging his own political prospects the most usual response would be that it is the price that has to be paid. They would always advise me not to publicly disagree with Imran Khan because that could damage the cause. In other words, they were comfortable with sacrificing Imran Khan if he could oust Nawaz Sharif. This was the Teflon material that became the reason that Imran Khan maintained perception of a clean politician. In my view, it was a wrong strategy because PTI was relying heavily on Imran Khan’s personality and any serious damage to his politics would also damage the prospects of a party that represented middle class nationally.

This is the negative political role middle class has played throughout 70 years of Pakistan’s existence. The positive role of the middle class is important if we want Pakistan to progress through a stable and effective democratic order. Instead of supporting civilian or military dictators they have to support the development of political institutions. We need to develop PTI (my personal choice), PPP or any other party as a national political platform that offers an opportunity for leadership to all those ambitious people that want to serve this nation by securing a mandate from the people through free and fair election. They also have to form civic and advocacy institutions that demand structural reforms in the electoral process, fair taxation, utilization of taxes, and clean government. PILDAT, Gallup, FAFEN are doing important work but more efforts are needed especially in civic interest promotion. Middle Class should avoid short term approach and engage in anarchic social media activity. We have to take a long-term view and work on it.

Imran Khan is in crisis now because the role middle class assigned to him is finally over. He has been used as a tool at the cost of his political future. Second reason is his decision to accept lotas of other parties remind them of ZAB’s breach. Imran Khan will do what he thinks is best for him but we have to do our efforts to save PTI as a national political institution.

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