Veteran journalist and TV anchor Saleem Safi recently uploaded two interviews on his YouTube channel. This seems to be part of a series in which Safi talks to those prominent TV anchors who were once seen as being ‘diehard supporters’ of Imran Khan but have now become vehement critics of him.
In the two interviews that Safi uploaded, the anchors — Kamran Shahid and Irshad Bhatti — confessed that they had unabashedly supported the rise of Imran Khan at the expense of ‘status quo politicians’ such as the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and former president Asif Ali Zardari. The anchors confessed that they (like most other pro-Khan TV journalists) had had no qualms in echoing Khan’s constant tirades against Sharif and Zardari (of being ‘corrupt’). Kamran Shahid even went to the extent of saying that he, along with the channel that he hosts his show on, declared Khan rallies that had 400 people as having 40,000!
Indeed, owning up to one’s mistakes and misdeeds takes courage and should be encouraged – especially if a person is a mainstream journalist with a large audience. Senior journalist and TV anchor Kamran Khan, who till a few months ago was insisting that all was well and that the country had a ‘perfect hybrid political system’ headed by PM Khan, recently uploaded a damning diatribe against the PM on Twitter.
Kamran Khan is often seen as ‘the Establishment’s man.’ So his denunciation in this context was understood by many as a reaction to the manner in which PM Khan got in the crosshairs of the military chief General Qamer Javed Bajwa. PM Khan did this by dragging his feet when asked by General Bajwa to appoint a new head of the ISI.
Apparently, not only was the PM unwilling to replace the current ISI man – who it is widely alleged, was instrumental in shaping Imran Khan’s political rise and continuation of his government – but the PM also perceived the move as a signal by the military that it was now unwilling to back a failing regime.
Ever since he left behind his days of lifestyle liberalism and plunged into politics, he has repeatedly behaved as a person with political notions shaped by badly digested ideas of men such as the intellectual Edward Said, the political Islamist Abul Ala Maududi and even the former Pakistani prime minister Z.A. Bhutto
The military establishment, TV anchors, and all the way down to a large number of supporters of Imran Khan, have not been shy anymore to castigate the government for being incompetent. Even though the military has quietly (but perhaps not entirely) lessened its support for PM Khan, the other two have not hesitated to acknowledge that they were fooled by Imran Khan’s fiery rhetoric and promises.
According to the political analyst Najam Sethi, the realisation within the military that it had overrated Imran’s political acumen was surprisingly slow. It is surprising because thought-leaders in the military are often extremely rational and precise in assessing the viability of a military manoeuvre or a political project.
How could the security establishment have been so callous in undermining the assessment of various analysts and journalists who, especially form 2011 onwards, had been warning against such a venture, knowing well that Khan may be more subservient than Sharif or Zardari, but he was not the person to head the government of a country riddled with complex economic, security and political issues, and surrounded by increasingly volatile borders? Khan has always been impulsive, egocentric and not very well informed in the fields of international relations, political administration and history.
Ever since he left behind his days of lifestyle liberalism and plunged into politics, he has repeatedly behaved as a person with political notions shaped by badly digested ideas of men such as the intellectual Edward Said, the political Islamist Abul Ala Maududi and even the former Pakistani prime minister Z.A. Bhutto. Add to this an admixture of contemporary populism and the increasingly absurd narratives of so-called ‘identity politics’ that has more relevance in the West, and you have what Khan is.
Back in 1997 the editor of TFT Jugnu Mohsin wrote one of the first pieces highlighting the many political and ideological oddities and naïveté that Khan had already begun to exhibit. But 14 years later, the same man was given a large audience in Lahore by his early establishmentarian patrons. Had he changed? Not quite. In fact, his critics in thought he had gotten worse.
They weren’t judging him as a person, but as a politician. Yet, the timing of his sudden emergence on the big stage was near-perfect: Pakistan was facing an unprecedented onslaught from Islamist militants; the former military dictator General Musharraf had been unceremoniously ousted from power; Zardari and Sharif were back; and a whole new generation of young urban Pakistanis had emerged that had only known Musharraf’s ‘enlightened’ dictatorship and the chaos caused by militant Islamist groups.
This new generation of young Pakistanis had little or no memory of how we came to be like this. That’s why Khan’s rhetoric revolving around the elimination of corruption, Naya Pakistan (new Pakistan), ‘Riyasat-e-Madina’ (state of Madina), etc., sounded fresh and original to them — especially coupled with performances from pop stars and ‘show-biz’ celebrities, most of who were still sulking about Musharraf’s departure.
At the end of the day, the fact is: what Khan was saying was neither original nor new. It had all been said before and used in the most cynical manner by numerous political pretenders in Pakistan. But whereas the young and the apolitical lot who came out to support Khan can be excused for not knowing this and for also being unaware of how previous generations too were suckered in by such promises, one does expect high-profile TV journalists to know better.
Let me explain. The disappointed anchors who spoke to Safi claimed that they found Khan’s words extremely appealing, new and hopeful. They added that none of them had heard a politician promise what Khan was offering: End of corruption; Naya Pakistan; Riyasat-e-Madina and/or ‘Islamic welfare state.’ This proves that like most Khan supporters, these gentlemen too had no clue about the country’s political history before the arrival of General Musharraf in 1999. So, like many others, they too found themselves believing that someone entirely unique had arrived. It was political stupidity.
Political stupidity doesn’t mean lack of intelligence. It means a lack of information and certain facts, yes, but not intelligence. According to the German theologian and thinker Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the British philosopher Sacha Golob, political stupidity is about large groups of people voluntarily closing their minds and freezing the ability of critical thinking when swept by rousing rhetoric.
Now let’s explore how Khan’s core rhetoric was a rehash of what had already come (and disappointed) before.
Let’s start with the promise of wiping out corruption. The first time it was used politically was when President Iskandar Mirza and military chief Ayub Khan engineered the country’s first coup d’état in 1958. They used the ‘spread of corruption in the society’ as one of the major justifications for implementing military rule. Interestingly, corruption was still an issue when a popular anti-government movement forced Ayub Khan to resign as president in March 1969.
However, those opposing him only occasionally brought corruption up as an issue against his regime. On the left-wing side of the opposition, accusations of economic exploitation, and on the right-wing side, the regime’s ‘secular’ and ‘anti-Islamic’ policies were more vehemently aired than corruption. Then during the 1977 movement against the Z.A. Bhutto regime, corruption as an accusation was present, but was not as prominent as accusations of the Bhutto regime being authoritarian and un-Islamic.
His knowledge of history and the complexities of Pakistani polity and international politics is no better than that of his young supporters. Or perhaps, now, ex-supporters. Like I said, they can be forgiven for this. They are young, and many were largely apolitical
When General Zia toppled the Bhutto regime in July 1977, he largely echoed the rhetoric of the anti-Bhutto parties. Therefore, during his first address on TV and radio, he rarely used the word corruption. Nevertheless, corruption did eventually come into play as a justification when, in 1988, Zia dismissed his own handpicked PM and parliament. He had to use the word because by the mid-1980s — as the economist Shahid Javed Burki has demonstrated in his writings on the period — political and economic corruption had become institutionalised.
Using corruption as a justification to remove governments really came to the fore from the 1990s. Both the Benazir Bhutto regimes were removed by the establishment because they were accused of being ‘corrupt.’ The first Nawaz Sharif regime also faced the same charge before being removed. When Benazir was dismissed the second time in 1996, the usage of corruption as an excuse became more than a justification. A caretaker government handpicked by the establishment expanded the word’s political consumption by establishing an ‘Ehtesaab Bureau’ and then commissioning few pop songs and videos against ‘corrupt politicians.’
The imagery used in this regard was ‘revolutionary.’ It was as if a revolution of sorts was being triggered by a handful of bureaucrats, industrialists and military men. It was surreal. Musharraf, too, used corruption as a justification to keep Sharif and Bhutto away. So, Khan simply picked up a worn-out cliche but packaged it in the manner in which the ‘revolutionary’ Ehtesaab Bureau had done in 1997. The irony is: the Bureau had facilitated the electoral victory of a man (Nawaz) whose government had been ousted on charges of corruption in 1993!
Now, about Khan’s supposedly original slogan of creating a Naya Pakistan. Z.A. Bhutto, in his first national address as head of state and government in December 1971, talked about ‘building a new Pakistan.’ Indeed, by this he meant a Pakistan that had by then lost its eastern wing due to a gruesome civil war. So, what Bhutto got was a different Pakistan. A new country. But when his phrase was used by pro-government newspapers, it was meant to be a Pakistan free of economic exploitation, manipulative bureaucrats and ambitious military generals who Bhutto called ‘Bonapartists.’
Khan’s slogan/promise of creating a ‘Riyasat-e-Madina’ is a direct offshoot of how politicians before him had promised ‘Khilafat-e-Rashdeen’ or the ‘pure rule’ of Islam’s earliest caliphs. In 1967, the Jamat-e-Islami promised a ‘Khilafat-e-Rashdeen’ which it interchangeably used with ‘Hakumat-e-Ilahi’ (rule of God). This didn’t get the party any significant votes, though. It was routed in the 1970 election.
PM Khan often described Riyasat-e-Madina as an early (Islamic) example of the modern welfare state that took shape centuries later in various Scandinavian countries. Many found this claim rather fascinating. Yet, it was first used in this manner in PPP’s 1967 ‘Foundation Papers’ and then again in the party’s 1970 manifesto. In explaining the party’s socialism, the Foundation Papers claimed that it was not communist, but more like the social democracy of Scandinavian countries. Then it further expanded this idea by calling it ‘Islamic socialism’ or the kind of socialism, that the party claimed, was implemented by the early ‘rightly guided caliphs.’ It also gave it another term: ‘Musawat-e-Muhammadi.’
General Zia, too, often used the term ‘Khilafat-e-Rashdeen,’ all the while institutionalising corruption and intolerance in the society.
Recently, when Khan directed his ministers to celebrate this year’s Eid Miladun Nabi ‘with great gusto,’ and ‘like never before,’ he was actually taking yet another page out of Bhutto’s playbook. In 1976, with the economy buckling under the strain of rising petrol prices and facing increasing hostility from religious parties, the Bhutto regime decided to hold an international ‘Seerat Conference.’ Ulema from Pakistan and various Muslim countries were invited to highlight the life and conduct of Islam’s Prophet (PBUH). The conference took place during the celebrations of Eid Miladun Nabi.
As a politician, Khan is nothing like what he was as a dashing cricketer. As a political being, he is unoriginal and ill-informed. His knowledge of history and the complexities of Pakistani polity and international politics is no better than that of his young supporters. Or perhaps, now, ex-supporters. Like I said, they can be forgiven for this. They are young, and many were largely apolitical.
But not a man about to enter his seventieth year and TV anchors and uniformed patrons –who should have known better.