Nadeem Paracha Deconstructs Imran Khan’s Rise And Ultimate Fall Brilliantly

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Nadeem Farooq Paracha is a well-known Pakistani author, social commentator and columnist. He has written seven best-selling books on the social, political and cultural histories of Pakistan. ‘Imran Khan: Myth of the Pakistani Middle Class’ is his eighth book. Paracha’s talent and dedication to the craft of political analysis is evident in his exquisite writing. His book is a must-read for political scientists and anyone who wishes to understand the whys and hows of the current mess Pakistan is in. It uses intricate theoretical frameworks and relevant examples to explain the rise and ultimate fall of Imran Khan.

The book is divided into four chapters. The first one is called ‘The anti-leader.’ Paracha explains in detail how Imran Khan evolved from a magnetic, good-looking cricketer to a leader brought into power by the Military Establishment (ME) whose government was ineffectual, unsure and volatile – an anti-leader. Paracha graphs the political rise of Khan. He then elaborates how, once in power in 2018, Khan responded to the country’s economic crisis like a plagued crusader. Khan was undiplomatic in his relations with influential countries such as the U.S., Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., and even China. All this caused concern to the ME who found Khan was too volatile and naïve. According to Paracha, perhaps the ME was naïve in bringing Khan into power. Paracha questions, “Couldn’t the likes of Pasha, Raheel and Bajwa see the erratic and violate nature of his politics during his 2014 sit-in against Nawaz?” Paracha asserts that Khan’s political musings were a mixture of half-baked ideas borrowed from Abul Ala Maududi, Edward Said, Shariati, Iqbal, Chomsky – usually picked out of context. Khan supported Islamic militants who he thought were misguided ‘brothers’ not knowing that by 2013 these so-called ‘brothers’ had killed over 40,000 Pakistani civilians, soldiers, cops and politicians – a huge death-toll.

Other than Khan’s supporters who are still deluded in thinking there has never been a political leader like him most are now aware that there has never been a more self-destructive politician for Pakistan.

As Paracha explains, “He had everything going for him. He had star power and charisma that were systematically nurtured by the powerful ME. It peddled him as an incorruptible and ultra-patriotic leader with a ‘vision’ to create a ‘Naya Pakistan’ (New Pakistan), devoid of corruption, immoralities and old ‘degenerate’ mainstream parties such as PML-N and the PPP.” The ME put massive effort through electronic and social medias – to make Khan seem like a messianic figure, especially to the 38 percent of the burgeoning urban middle classes, now an important electorate. As Paracha explains, rather than a politician, Imran Khan behaved like a jilted lover when he was finally dumped by the apparatus that constructed him. He became what Arnold Beichman calls an ‘anti-leader’ – “a popular and charismatic politician but one who subverts himself and, in so doing, seeks the subversion of an entire society.” Khan became to politics what male anti-heroes are to films and novels – captivating, archetypal heroes whose flaws and conflicted temperaments are the source of their charisma, and this becomes a trap. As Paracha clarifies effortlessly, “He continued to believe that he was irreplaceable by a desperate ME. All the while, his opponents were slowly cutting him down.”

Instead of negotiating and compromising Khan became an existential threat which was an anti-hero stance. In my view, it’s tragic that Imran Khan tried to subvert the entire fabric of Pakistan only to achieve his selfish goals of attaining absolute power.

Paracha’s second chapter is titled ‘The Flowing Fantasies of a Blocked Elite,’ in which he uses S. Akbar Zaidi’s definition of ‘aspirational classes’ – the most active acquirers of consumer goods. In Pakistan, as mentioned, this accounts for 38 percent at present. While Pakistan was faced with Islamization and 70,000 Pakistanis lost their lives in the brutal campaigns of suicide bombings and assassinations by militant Islamic groups from 2004 and 2015 the middle-classes were in fantasies of a Pakistan that Khan was selling to them at his rallies. Paracha gives the example of the December 2014 Peshawar school bombing incident where 140 people were murdered. Yet this didn’t seem to matter to wailing women at Khan’s protests who saw him as their saviour. German researcher Jochen Menges calls this the ‘awestruck effect’ in which the ‘charisma as a dominant behaviour is successful only when it is matched by submissive behaviour on the part of a leader’s followers.’ This was characterized by Khan’s supporters back in 2014. A ‘cult of personality’ was created around him. Paracha gives apt examples of this: Khan’s photographs while performing prayers, or working out, or speaking to youth were all over social media to create an image of him being “morally correct and a fit father-figure who could do no wrong.”

Paracha writes that middle-classes fear being demoted to a lower status – i.e. becoming lower-income economically, which triggers anxiety, and often sets off an identity crisis among them. The middle-class had become increasingly conservative and the national meta-narrative has become one of ‘Political Islam,’ – led by the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 and General Zia’s dictatorial rule in 1977. This has produced a traditional middle-class, but one invested in neoliberal economic models that dislikes politics based on class conflict. The middle-classes became a significant urban constituency by Musharraf’s era and the ME discovered in Khan someone who could be styled into becoming a civilian Musharraf for them. The Pakistani middle-class has felt more secure during dictatorships and has ‘consumed’ and participated in rallies such as Khan’s ‘Azadi march’ (freedom/liberation march) against the ‘corruption’ of the system when indulging in what historian Markus Daechsel calls ‘politics of self-expression.’ The aim is to live in their own conceptual universe where all societal constraints that curse the middle-class would end. Paracha elaborates that, “Both in Pakistan and India ‘rational’ political instruments and democratic norms are being attacked by the middle classes through the creation of spectacles that are being beamed by the new media universe.” Just like buying a new consumer good (e.g. iPhone users are savvy, ‘creative’, ‘fun-loving’) is a power trip, so is a “political activity” with a supreme ideology. According to Markus Daechsel this could stimulate forms of political radicalism that could be hard to control and the middle-class could be the destroyer of the very world they gave birth to.

The third chapter is titled ‘The Making and Mutation of a Political Messiah.’ In it Paracha tells us how Shariati was able to bring about ‘Red Shi’ism’ in Iran – giving traditional Shia thoughts and rituals a twist to topple the Shah in 1979. He gives us an example of how political messiahs were made in history. Paracha states that the reason why the middle-class fell for Imran Khan was because he “might have created a political religion.” They all valued his moral rhetoric over any material results. The ‘spirituality’ and ‘knowledge’ that poured out from a messiah who was a member of their class was relatable. Paracha says that Khan, “positioned himself as a reformed, incorruptible man…the fact is, he always lusted for political power…” Khan filled the void in the middle-classes’ spiritual-selves as they began attending his rallies and fervently joined PTI. As his government’s performance became disastrous, they began to formulate a ‘Lost Cause Myth.’ This was the myth that Khan was a victim, not a villain. That the criminals were those who wanted to oust him because he was pursuing a war against corruption and Islamophobia – he was the light, struggling against dark forces. Khan simply loved talking about the 7th century State of Madinah but Paracha explains that the anthropologist Irfan Khan and historian Patricia Crone have demonstrated that there was no clear concept of this State anywhere in pre-modern times, West or East. Khan was only dealing in what Paracha labels as Anemoia, he was waging war against modernity but not offering anything new, instead trying to “revive romanticized pasts which did not exist in the shape that they are often remembered as.” Khan failed to solve Pakistan’s problems and his hotchpotch of Islamic schemes led to utter confusion, finally leading to his downfall.

The book’s fourth and final chapter is titled, ‘The Existential Angst of Coming to Terms with a Detested Reality.’ In it Paracha answers the question asked by many: why was Khan supported by so many ‘liberal-looking’ or ‘liberal-sounding’ Pakistanis? Paracha explains that by 2022 Khan had become a right-wing populist leader who was much better at spewing conservative views on social issues than in matters of governance. Paracha also writes that many members of the middle-class turned against the ME after Khan’s fall. He explains that the middle-classes rebelling against those that lead to their economic growth can be viewed as defensive behaviour. There is also data to suggest that the lower-middle, middle and upper-middle-class income groups show more religiosity in South Asia than the classes below. Paracha elaborates: “The PTI became the embodiment of the economic marriage between the higher/middle-income groups and religiosity…” When Khan was failing his middle-class supporters responded by using anti-corruption speechmaking, calling anyone against Khan traitorous, odd behaviour such as releasing badly composed training sessions of ‘fighters’ ready to battle anti-Khan forces. Oddly, the liberals maintained their drinking, jet-set lifestyle but wanted a conservative Islamic State. Paracha explains that Sara and Jack Gorman write in their book ‘Denying to the Grave’ that one of the ways in which ‘charismatic’ leaders rationalize their power is by asserting that there is no other substitute and creating a perception of crisis. Khan did exactly that by giving his followers Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari as symbols of corruption but Khan’s promised rewards never came through, instead his own government became plagued with bribery and ineffectiveness. When Khan’s government fell, venerable anchors such as Kamran Shahid and Irshad Bhatti showed great courage and came forward to acknowledge what was their ‘political stupidity’ – a lack of information and certain facts where people voluntarily close their ability of critical thinking when swept by rousing rhetoric. Kamran Shahid even declared that he had stated Khan rallies that had 400 people as having 40,000 attendees. Paracha says plainly about the situation and Khan: “His knowledge of history and the complexities of the Pakistani polity, and of international politics was no better than that of his young supporters. They can be forgiven for it. They were young. But not a man who turned 70 in 2022, nor the TV anchors and his uninformed patrons in the ME who should’ve known better.”

Paracha closes saying that the ME thought a ‘hybrid regime’ would work with Khan at the front but a hybrid regime needs to maintain relations with developing countries and have democratic neighbours to transition to a democracy. When Khan was installed, both elements were lacking, with a tactless Khan and an eroding Indian democracy and theocracy in Iran and Afghanistan. The Khan government was bound to fail.

To conclude, Paracha states that the effort by the middle-classes to attain power was jeopardized by their own messiah – Imran Khan. Only the future will tell us how the middle-classes will try to assert themselves in the corridors of power once again. Reading this book, it is clear that any upcoming elected government would be wise to keep political analysts like Nadeem Paracha and others on speed dial, or else, like Imran Khan, they too will fail to lead Pakistan out of turmoil. Paracha’s book is a complex theoretical analysis of the political history of Pakistan. It is a must read for all those who wish to understand the brave voices of rationality and sanity.

Meezan Zahra Khwaja
Meezan Zahra Khwajahttp://www.thescoop.pk
Meezan Zahra Khwaja is the author of ‘Mad, Not Stupid’ the first book about bipolar illness from Pakistan. She has worked in the development sector for over twenty years for the UN, World Bank, Save the Children, SDPI and PCP. She writes freelance for The Scoop, TFT and The News on Sunday.

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