History has been created in Pakistan when a relatively younger political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by former cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, won elections and has been able to form the government at the centre and two key provinces, the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and become part of a coalition government in Balochistan province. PTI Chief Khan has been able to win by appealing to Pakistanis to vote for his party so as to bring about a “new Pakistan” that is free of corruption, nepotism, hunger and want. The people fed-up with former ruling parties including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and their misrule in the last 40 years saw in Khan and the PTI a hope for a better future.
The PTI may have won the elections and has also been able to form the government at the centre and two key provinces of the country, yet Khan and his fellow leaders of the PTI have a lot of image issues. These image issues have to be overcome because without it the government may not be able to convince foreign governments and citizens, international institutions and organizations as well as Pakistanis, local businessmen and civil society of the appropriateness of the government policies, priorities, agendas and strategies to reform Pakistan, bring about political and economic stability and contribute to the welfare of citizens and development of the country.
There may be a misperception, based on the optimism of supporters and voters of the PTI, that Imran Khan has a very favourable image across the world. There may be some truth in it, but it is also important that our prime minister has a very negative image in some aspect across the world and even in Pakistan. This negative image started when Khan, in the late 1970s rebelled along with many other cricket stars and refused to play for their national sides and instead went to Australia to join an unofficial cricketing league started by Kerry Packer. The latter was offering hefty sums of money to renowned cricketing stars to make his league successful at the altar of international cricket. So Khan was charged with playing for money instead of for country. However, Khan and many other cricketers, who became part of the Kerry Packer league had their own argument that without international cricketing on commercial lines the game had no future. Nevertheless, decision to join the Packer League created a negative image of Khan but his subsequent unprecedented cricket victories as captain of Pakistan including the 1992 World Cup, redeemed his image.
When in 1996 Khan joined politics and formed his PTI, he did not have a very good image as a politician and despite a decade-and-a-half he could not create a niche for himself in the political arena of Pakistan because most people considered him a great sportsman but a political novice. This image Khan carries with him to date.
Internationally, Imran Khan’s negative image started evolving in the West, particularly the United States, when he opposed Pakistan becoming part of the Washington-led global war on terror. As a Pakistani nationalist, Khan argued that the GWoT had brought untold misery to Pakistan, which had a lot of substance. It may also be recalled that Khan, at one point, had staged days-long sit-ins and agitation against the United States Central Intelligence Agency- operated unmanned missile attacks generally knows as drone strikes inside Pakistani territory.
In the Western world the negative image of Khan was reinforced when he, at the height of Pakistani Taliban terrorist attacks in the country, suggested holding “peace” talks with the Taliban. Khan’s suggestion was made at a point when the whole country was brimming with hate for the Taliban and their terrorism. This suggestion of talks with the Taliban proved critical to image of Imran Khan, as he inured the ire of all and sundry, who dubbed him as “Taliban Khan”. The contemptuous label was aimed at defining him as a Taliban apologist and sympathizer.
The fact of the matter was that PM Khan was never a Taliban apologist nor their sympathizer. He very rightly justified his negotiations call with the TTP by stating that there was no choice for the state but to talk. He argued that if the state had failed to control the Taliban through military operations, and it was not winnings what options were left with the state but to talk with the insurgents? He had further argued that talks with the Taliban could be used as a strategy to separate the hardcore elements from the malleable ones and this would be instrumental in creating cracks in the ranks of the insurgents. Although most of the political leaders criticized Khan for his talks suggestion with the TTP, but the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, defying the advice of all his cabinet ministers to hold talks with the Taliban, had visited Khan’s Bani Gala residence and had immediately extended talks offer to the TTP. The TTP then led by Hakimullah Mehsud, responded by announcing a one-month moratorium in terrorist attacks. Noticeably, Khan’s advice was instrumental in reducing the number and scale of terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Because after the government’s talks offer and the TTP’s response, the hardcore elements within the latter refused to talk and soon rifts started appearing within the ranks of the TTP. This was the beginning of the end of the TTP. However, Khan had already earned the title of “Taliban Khan” and this has been exploited by his opponents and the international media to infuse doubt in the western countries and also in India. This has inflicted huge damage on Khan’s national and international image. There is a need for the image managers of Imran Khan to explain to the world that he was never a Taliban apologist, rather his advice of talks with the Taliban was instrumental in inflicting an irreparable damage on the TTP. *It is in this context the recent Pompeo-Imran exchange must be seen. It was reported in the American press that US Secretary of State Pomeo, told Imran Khan to curb the terrorists on Pakistani soil. A report vehemently denied by the Pakistan Foreign Ministry.
Interestingly, the so-called religious parties particularly the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and its head Fazlur Rahman, considering Khan as a main challenger to their conservative political constituency in the KP province and former FATA, painted Khan as a “Jewish and Zionist agent” predicating their labeling on the former Jewish wife of Khan, Jemima. So on the one hand, Imran was labeled as “Taliban Khan” and, on the other, he was dubbed by the real apologists and sympathizers of the Taliban, as a “Jewish agent”. This labeling also has had a significant negative impact on the image of Khan, particularly in conservative areas of Pakistan, particularly KP and Balochistan provinces.
The PTI head in the 2018 and 2013 elections defeated the so-called religious parties, who have been supplying rank and file members to Pakistani Taliban groups. In other words Khan and his party has been a political bulwark against the forces, who have been the real supporters of the Taliban and from whose office-bearers’ house Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the Al Qaeda mastermind of September 9, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, was nabbed by Pakistan forces. The image managers of PM Khan also require to highlight this aspect of the PTI and Khan’s political influence which has neutralized radical parties.
The image problem of Khan and the PTI has also been due to the lack of clarity about their agenda and ideology. This is due to the fact that the PTI cannot be placed in any of the traditional political-ideological categorizations. The PTI is not a revolutionary party whereas Khan’s continuous use of the term “anti status-quo” smacks of it being a totally non-conservative party which wants to transform the extant social, political and economic order, which has been bringing benefits merely to a few groups or families. Instead the party wants to make the system broad-based and equally beneficial to all.
It is high time that Khan’s negative image in the West and within Pakistan is worked upon by his team and efforts should be made to build a new and totally positive image of the new prime minister of Pakistan, as now all Pakistanis would suffer due to any negative image of Khan.