- From 1996 to 2018: PTI's journey from 'Ehtesaab' to 'Tabdeeli'
“Imran Khan is welcome in politics, provided he doesn’t indulge in ball tampering.” With those words, Benazir Bhutto, then prime minister, welcomed the latest entrant to Pakistan's politics when Imran Khan announced the formation of his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) nearly 26 years ago on April 25, 1996.
It was a heady time for the former cricketer. His 1992 World Cup victory had brought joy to a country where cricket is the second state religion. Two months prior to his entry in politics he had hosted Princess Diana, the Queen of Hearts, and in the process won quite a few hearts himself. His cancer hospital had become a reality, a task once thought impossible. Bollywood royalty had danced at his fund raisers.
He was courted by Mian Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, and was a darling of Pakistan’s and global elite.
Soon he would be schmoozing with Archbishop Tutu, Quincy Jones, Mia Farrow, and Naomi Campbell, all guests of Nelson Mandela who had invited them for a celebratory train ride in South Africa.
Imran’s stock was at an all-time high, but the country was going through an era now called the 'wasted decade' by Pakistan’s economists.
Political uncertainty had shook the nation. The decade was only at mid-point but had already seen its 7th prime minster, three of them caretakers. Double digit inflation and a depreciating local currency was affecting public opinion.
Asif Ali Zardari, who served as Pakistan’s Investment Minister, Chief of the Intelligence Bureau, and the head of the Federal Investigation Agency, was accused of taking kickbacks. Overall, the country’s mood was shaky with “corruption” being the word on everyone’s lips. Imran was very much in the thick of the populist mood and the PTI then, as now, picked “corruption” as its battle cry.
Instead of 'Tabdeeli', back then 'Ehtesaab' was the PTI’s tagline and picked up by a wide cross section of society.
Junoon, the most popular music group of the time, fueled the fires and captured the zeitgeist in their song 'Ehtesaab' for which Salman Ahmed partnered with columnist Hassan Nisar for the lyrics. Salman’s friend Shoaib Mansoor was brought in for the song that was less a pop tune and more of a revolutionary clarion call.
As Salman Ahmed said in an interview, “His (Hassan Nisar) poetry advocated a bloody revolution if there was no accountability before the elections. It was very visceral.”
The song was recorded at music producer Nizar Lalani’s studio at Tariq Road and Ali Azmat, Najam Sheraz, Nizar Lalani, Shaheen Sher Ali and Salman Ahmed sang the lyrics of both Hassan Nisar and Shoaib Mansoor.
Ultimately, the less fiery 'Ehtesaab bus Ehtesaab, Har sawal ka jawab' penned by Shoaib Mansoor was chosen and soon popular figures such as Abrarul Haq and Amanullah Khan would take to the streets along with thousands of others to demand the accountability the song was drumming on.
The corruption label was sticking, and PPP was under fire from status quo politicians, media, celebrities, and the establishment. Imran had joined the fray at a fortuitous time and picked the pulse of the nation. Benazir’s carefully worded barb was launched to put a damper on Imran Khan’s much-heralded announcement.
But the bells were tolling and in less than seven months, Benazir herself was on the political trail as her government was dismissed on grounds of gross corruption and incompetence by her own hand-picked President Farooq Leghari.
The eighth Prime Minister Malik Meraj Khalid, fourth caretaker, announced elections for February 1997 by which time the PTI would be nine months old and competing in its first national election.
On the cool night of February 2, 1997, there was a scattering of PTI’s supporters in Karachi’s Clifton areas deliriously waving flags with diya (lamp) on them.
The bat had not been yet adapted as a symbol by the party. Teenagers were blasting Jazbah Junoon from the car stereo, shouting 'Estasaab' and 'Vote for Imran Khan'. Even the most fervent supporters did not expect the prime minister’s seat but hope springs eternal. The skeptics were right, The Great Khan didn’t get a single seat. Headlines screamed: Imran out for a duck!
The next few years Imran was out in political wilderness, first backing Gen Musharraf’s referendum but then becoming a firm opponent.
A solitary seat came in 2002, the only one for PTI. 2008’s election was boycotted by the party. He would be on TV, the only known person of his party, lambasting the establishment for their acquiescence or support of the US drone programme on the War on Terror.
He took on the then-MQM, when the party was as close to omnipotent in Karachi as any political force in any city had ever been and boasted cabinet ministers and a governor. His debate with Dr Imran Farooq held in Geo’s London office broke records for a political programme as he said things considered well beyond the red lines set up by MQM, a party so powerful it had prevented the Chief Justice of Pakistan to come on Karachi’s roads.
The media loved him and when a political show host caustically told Imran that he gets enormous airtime despite not a having single seat in the National Assembly he shot back that his presence was good for the channel as it brought viewers, a riposte which silenced the TV anchor and got chuckles from the other guests.
An editor once confided that he deliberately put out an Imran-based opinion piece every week as it was a lightening rod. Imran was a force even if on media, but by the time the noughties were over it was apparent his party was not anywhere.
And then Lahore happened. The city where Imran had lost the 1987 semifinal turned out to be his true launch pad as on October 30, 2011 he gathered a crowd of hundreds of thousands. The whispers grew louder, took on the form of statements and then gathered steam to become a wave, the much lauded 'Tsunami'.
Pundits were scratching their heads, how could a person without a single national or provincial seat host a Jalsa that rivalled Benazir’s power show held on 10 April 1986? Another conundrum for them was the diverse group of supporters that Imran had attracted: from posh liberal arts graduates in urban centers to bearded reactionaries in the tribal areas.
While the former was latching on to the slogan of 'Tabdeeli' and against dynastic kleptocrats, the latter were drawn by his call to religion, his vociferous criticism of the western world’s liberalism, and his bold opposition of the war on terror with its accompanying drone attacks which did not discriminate between the terrorists and their victims.
Somehow, Imran was able to simultaneously appeal to this disparate body people and transcend ethnicities and ideologies which had not been done for decades. His opponents derided him as a political neophyte, a playboy-turned-mullah, the 'Taliban Khan'. Sita White was brought up again and again. Imran’s marriage to a Jew made him all the more attractive to criticism.
But nothing stuck and his supporters were more than willing to overlook the various contradictions and discrepancies that resided in him in immense hope that he would lead them, and would rid the country of the status quo politicians, that he would set the clock back and take Pakistan to the country its founders had envisioned it to be.
Anyone but them, was a constant refrain. As theories were put forth to understand the groundswell of support one was thing was clear: Lahore is his city, could he repeat this and that too in Karachi, the bastion of his enemies? He did.
The rally held in the grounds of Quaid’s Mazaar on December 25, 2011, was the largest the city had seen. The crowds thronging the way to the Mazaar were so thick that it was impossible to drive there.
Hundreds of thousands of delirious supporters, decked in PTI colors, thronged the roads, and assembled in the vast ground ready to lay down for Kaptaan. By then the bias of TV channels was not as sharply clear as it is now, and every anchor seemed overwhelmed.
When Khan came on the stage it felt like an earthquake.
University students were crying themselves hoarse. An elderly couple who had flown in from Saudi Arabia were openly crying. Students were raising slogans calling for a revolution. The young and idealistic feed on hope and here was a virtual feast.
2011 was certainly a breakout year for Imran but what was the real reason behind it besides the much talk about support from Pindi? It needs to be recalled that 2011 was an annus horribilis for Pakistan. The year started with the murder of Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor. Just three months after that minister Shahbaz Bhatti was also shot dead. Terrorism held the country hostage and was ripping it apart. All in all, there were over 60 terrorist attacks, an average of one every six days, leading to an estimated 6,300 deaths. Nothing was safe.
Terrorism was destroying society from within and things were equally bad on the external side. The year saw 70 drone attacks by the US government leading to more than 500 casualties. While the US government claimed most were terrorists, there was collateral damage and many of the people killed were civilians. Innocent Pakistanis were being killed in a war they did not want.
Residents of KPK and FATA where most of the attacks took place protested at what they saw as foreign invasion. Then on May 2, Osama bin Laden was found and killed by US soldiers in Abbottabad.
Pakistan was publicly called either complicit or incompetent by US officials while Pakistanis felt betrayed by an ally which unilaterally invaded sovereign airspace. This was coming on the tracks of the Raymond Davis incident.
When on November 29 US forces bombed Pakistan’s border post at Salala in the Bajaur tribal region killing several soldiers it seemed the last straw, especially when the Obama administration refused to apologise for the killing of an ally’s military personnel.
2011 was also a bad year on the economic side. Stagflation had taken a firm grip with GDP growth of 3.7% but inflation at 16%. Prices of essential food items skyrocketed; the price of sugar quadrupled. The central bank increased discount rates thrice in the year, eventually came to 14% in November. Foreign investment was down and reserves running low.
At the same time Pakistan was going through an energy crisis with power-cuts for more than 14 hours in urban areas and up to 20 hours in some rural areas. The citizenry was being crushed by terrorism, inflation, and power shortages while also feeling that the country’s leadership had compromised its sovereignty.
In this gloomy situation, Imran’s message of 'Tabdeeli' seemed heaven-sent and was passionately embraced by a large cross section of society.
By 2012 Imran really seemed to be going places. Karachi’s rally was a clear indication that Imran has the backing of those who matter and who decide. Cricket analogies were coming thick and fast. “Another wicket has fallen!” was the constant refrain.
The PTI picked a leaf from Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, utilising a nascent but powerful social media to leapfrog over its better-funded and entrenched opponents.
Soon came the elections of 2013 and it seemed everyone was a PTI supporter. The winds of change were seemed to be blowing, and Imran’s supporters were looking for positive signs in everything. The plot of Pakistani film 'Chambaili', released on April 26, 2013, revolved around with democratic change and politics. It was immediately seen as projecting the PTI’s message of much-needed change in the political landscape and caught with Imran’s supporters.
Droves of galvanised followers intoxicated with the heady wine of social and political activism saw Chambaili in cinemas making the film a major box office hit. When the film’s lead shouted, “Tu aam sahi, par ehem hai, tu kuch nahi yeh vehem hai!” theatres erupted with impassioned PTI slogans.
When Imran injured himself in a fall from the stage during a jalsa, prayer meetings were health for his recovery. When he spoke from the hospital bed about the importance of voting hardboiled men got misty eyed and women sobbed.
On the morning of May 11, 2013, millions of people who before PTI had never cared about politics lined up outside their polling station to vote. When results were announced there was delirium and disappointment in the PTI camp.
But at least there was KPK. The PTI now had a base. By winning seats across the country, the PTI had established itself as a national party of Pakistan, its main rivals PML-N seen as a party of the Punjab and PPP restricted only to rural and interior Sindh. A third force had arrived and PTI had what many decades old parties did not have: a chief minister.
The countdown for 2018 started on May 15, 2013. IK never stopped protesting the 2013 results, he was in full “container mode”. He was hunting for wickets. ECP was badgered. Courts were pushed. Cases filed. The media couldn’t have enough of him. Kaptaan was doing what he had done in his playing days, look for an opening and then rearrange the field for a complete assault.
His prayers were answered, the opening came in 2016 in the form of Panama Leaks. 2016 to 2018 were a whirlwind. The PML-N was beleaguered, besieged, betided with woes and besides itself with anxiety. When Nawaz Sharif was dismissed as PM it seemed a done deal — PTI cannot lose.
Deserters from other parties, “electables” to PTI and “lotas” for others, were flocking in like birds coming to roost. Imran took a sharp lesson from 2013: he needed resources and people who would win him seats, what, how, and whom is inconsequential. Faustian deals were agreed for the 'greater good'.
Javed Hashmi and Shah Mahmood Qureshi were Sydney 1977 and Bangalore 1987. Hashmi’s was a short stay but the PTI supporters only wished him good riddance. When Faisal Vawda and Aamir Liaqat were welcomed, the core was less than impressed. Old loyalists seemed to be sidelined, ideology was giving way to realpolitik. His followers forgave him. By this time, it was not about a choice of best among equals, it was about picking the least-worst option.
The 2018 elections seemed almost like a formality, fait accompli. Of course, Imran would win, and he did. But here it gets fuzzy.
On August 18, 2018, Imran become the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan, but had not been given what every PM wants: a two-thirds majority. He would have to rely on a motley crew, many whom he had bitterly criticised: PML-Q, MQM, Sheikh Rashid, etc.
But most importantly, the two were out. PPP and PML-N would be made pariahs, cases would be lodged, overseas high performing Pakistanis would become part of the government, the country would be a 'Naya Pakistan', a welfare state that would be a combination of the Medina of second caliphate and post-World War 2 Sweden. The naysayers were labelled as cynics, pessimists or simply traitors.
What could possibly go wrong?
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This article is part one of a three-part series