The rise of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and politics of charisma

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Yasser Latif Hamdani[1]

In this essay I attempt to show how PTI, a charismatic party under Imran Khan, has institutionalized itself. The rise of PTI has been remarkable but not unexpected. It is a party of the right which has deployed ultra-nationalism and politics of protest to gain national prominence.  This was not possible only on the basis of Imran Khan’s charisma. Imran Khan’s charisma is supplemented by masterly organizational skills and captainship that has made PTI a formidable force.  The challenges remain. Will PTI become an extreme right wing party bordering on a fascist organization?  Will it manage to remain institutionalized after Imran Khan has played his innings? My conclusion is that PTI is definitely a party of the right which may or may not become a full fledge fascist party. I examine the PTI phenomenon against classic Weberian definition of charismatic leadership – i.e. Imran Khan – and a charismatic party – i.e. PTI- and how far has the leadership gone in routinization and regularization of the charisma in terms of party institutionalization. I also argue that PTI’s flirtation with the Taliban is part of an overall strategy of using the Taliban as a fulcrum to balance itself against PMLN and the PPP.  It will also help the party maintain relevance with the establishment.

Political parties and constitutional politics in Pakistan

Pakistani political parties do not always fit neatly into the left, right and center categories.  Part of the reason is that each mainstream party has attempted to appeal to as a broad an electorate as possible, attempting to mean all things to all people.  However any analysis of Pakistani politics must take into account the foremost pillar of electoral politics in rural Pakistan i.e. Biraderi or clan loyalty.  Biraderi is the most basic unit of Pakistani political structure. This is the groundswell on which regional politicians build their campaigns.

In a complex power sharing structure in a society of multiple identities, the share in power is often more important than political principles.   Only on three occasions in Pakistan’s sordid political history was a political party been able to override biraderi to win.  The first was actually in 1946 when Muslim League used the Pakistan slogan to mobilize areas of what is now Pakistan to win Muslim seats. PPP in 1970 managed to do the same by appealing to roti, kapra and makan and by playing on the popular resentment against the military regime.  The third is the partial success that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf got by using anti-corruption and ultranationalism as slogans.  A corollary of the biraderi politics is power-positioning vis a vis the establishment. Biraderi politics seems to always favour the status quo and is therefore favoured by the establishment as indeed it was favoured by the British during the Raj. Yet this does not mean that the establishment, when push comes to shove, doesn’t jettison its regional allies.  However on a longer time line the establishment prefers to play ball with the established social order and is suspicious of any move that threatens that order. Yet many new players, at times working cross purposes, have now seriously eroded the capacity of the traditional social order.  In addition to the head of the clan and the head of the village, the new aspirant is the clergy.  Long gone are the days that the job of the Mullah was to look after the mosque.  Now the Mullah is an arbitrator, a sage, the local keeper of conscience and God’s representative.   Religion is the great leveler in the class struggle within the existing social structure.  The Mullah uses the pulpit to his great advantage and political parties have taken note of it.  Another aspirant is the social worker or the NGO.  Armed with donors money,the civil society activist is not just another facilitator but is in fact a sought after commodity.  An NGO’s good graces mean financial reward. Political parties have been slow to jump on this bandwagon.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, more than PPP or All India Muslim League before them, has successfully institutionalized itself and has relied on cohesive party organization. This is an oddity because charismatic parties in societies like Pakistan which are organized on biraderi lines etc have seldom succeeded in doing so.  The All India Muslim League’s demise in the aftermath of partition is a case in point.  PPP itself survived as a result of the persecution of its top leadership as well as its reliance on Sindh as its bastion, where again it was heavily dependent on the traditional social structures.

What makes Imran Khan a charismatic leader

The ex-cricketer turned politician Imran Khan is by definition a charismatic leader. What is a charismatic leader?  The Weberian definition of Charisma is:

“A certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader […] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.” [i]

Imran Khan’s cricketing career was legendary in its own right but it was his historic triumph in the 1992 World Cup that lent him the charismatic halo. His journey from an Oxford educated playboy to a born again Muslim added to the mystique. Then came the remarkable achievement in the form of Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital.

For a charismatic leader, power is “legitimized on the basis of a leader’s exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers”.[ii]Imran Khan, for his followers, can do no wrong.

PTI as a Charismatic Party

Charismatic parties are parties where the dominant coalition has a symbiotic relationship with a charismatic leader.  PTI is a classic example of such a party because it has within its folds disparate ideologies and people of polar opposite outlooks coming together because of their faith in Imran Khan.  Ami Pedhazur and Avaraham Brichta discuss in some detail the “institutionalization” of such parties, especially those which are committed to an extreme right wing agenda. [iii] Using empirical evidence, they show that right wing charismatic parties have on several occasions institutionalized.  Their conclusions show that the success of right wing parties like the French National Front and Austrian Freedom Party have done so more successfully than parties on other places of the spectrum.  There is also consequently a routinization of charisma, allowing the party to achieve functional institutionalization of the party.  How is routinization achieved?  In PTI’s case it has happened by allowing a typical bureaucracy of the party to take over coupled with cloning of Imran Khan’s charisma by local leaders.  The myth of a honest and clean political worker is played to the extreme. This creates a micro-charismatic leadership on the basic level. In other words there are – to use a trivial example-  mini-mes of the charismatic leader at grassroot levels.

PTI’s road to institutionalization has followed a steady and gradual course.  In 1997, barely months into its formation the party failed to win even a single seat.  In his search for survival and for relevance, Imran Khan hobnobbed with General Musharraf’s military regime.  Indeed, PTI was a major ally and was instrumental in mobilizing its cadres for Musharraf’s referendum campaign.  However, when the regime failed to promote Imran Khan’s political career, PTI turned into an opponent of the regime.   In 2002 elections, the party was identified as a marginal player when Imran Khan won a solitary seat to the National Assembly.  2004 to 2007 were the wilderness years for PTI with committed party cadres, primarily extracted from urban middle classes, who would organize protests and rallies and speak of the chairman’s message.  In 2007 PTI seized on the anti-Musharraf hysteria created by the Lawyers Movement and the aftermath of the Lal Masjid operation.  However its efforts were overshadowed by the assassination of PPP leader Benazir Bhutto – a cataclysmic event which returned PPP to power on a sympathy wave.  The 5 years that followed under PPP rule saw Imran Khan organizing and stabilizing the party.  The party had entered the organization phase.  It had a growing membership and grassroots organization. Simultaneously began the rise of micro-charisma amongst its leaders.  The game changer which led to the party stabilization came with the October 30th 2011 rally in Lahore.   The 2013 elections saw PTI not just becoming the second largest party by popular vote but also winning the key province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Initially Imran Khan had adopted a strategy of elite recruitment without relying on a formal party machine on a grassroots level without much success.  In its organization phase PTI had encountered severe problems of a growing party which threatened to overturn the centralized political hierarchy. One of these problems was the consistent demand for party elections and ugliness on ticket allocation. The chairman insisted on complete loyalty. Imran Khan took control of expansion himself, thus bringing the centre and periphery closer together and limiting members’ and regional organizations’ autonomy in decision makers. For more than 16 yearsImran Khan has led his party and kept it tightly under his control. Members like Mairaj Muhammad Khan who showed signs of independence were expelled early on or have been marginalized.  Khan has also led organizational reform that centralized the party and enabled him to coordinate and arbitrate disputes between warring factions within the PTI.

Thus, the PTI success in attaining legitimacy and influence in the center and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was expected. Over the decade since 1997, Imran Khan has built PTI into a formidable party machine with all the accoutrementsof an orthodox political party, including hierarchical organization, local branches throughout the country, a series of affiliated organizations like the tabdili razakars, and a highly sophisticated election and propaganda apparatus, especially utilizing modern techniques of political campaigning including social media.

The real test of creativity for Imran Khan as a charismatic leader is now.  Increasingly the political organization has come under stress because of the disputes between the parliamentary party, especially in KPK, and the organizational structure. He faced his sternest test when Chief Minister Pervez Khattak refused to resign as an office bearer of the party. That is still unresolved.  More interesting was the way he handled his alliance with Qaumi Watan Party. At the earliest sign of dissent, Imran Khan sent the allies packing on grounds of corruption.  The message has reverberated as has Imran Khan’s continuing interference in provincial matters to the chagrin of opposition in the province. Both actions have further cemented Imran Khan’s authority as a chairman of the party and de facto chief executive of the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. From grassroots right up to the central executive committee, the PTI worker is under no doubt that real power lies in the hands of Imran Khan himself.

Is PTI a party of the right? And if so is it fascist?

Consistently PTI has stoked the fires of right wing populism. On May 11, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf got the mandate to govern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  On an all Pakistan level, the party also emerged as the second largest party by popular vote[iv] and the third largest party by the number of seats in the National Assembly. Consequently PTI decided to sit in the opposition at the center and form a government in Peshawar.  The KPK government is a crown of thorns which is why Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as a consummate politician, decided not to heed Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s advice to form a coalition government of his own in that troubled province.  PTI is only now beginning to realize that the task of governing a province which has in recent times suffered most because of terrorism is not going to be easy. Thus having failed to perform, at least as rapidly as projected, the PTI has resorted to politics of mass agitation around the issue of Taliban and drone strikes. In any event PTI needed a peg – a national hook- against the ruling PML-N which even by the most critical analyses has done a good job in an extremely bad situation.

Having been placed in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government and in opposition at the centre, the PTI positioned itself to the right of the centre right PML-N, which had the overwhelming majority. The impact therefore has been precisely the opposite of what one had expected of the PTI’s rise. Instead of pulling the extreme right to centre right, the PTI has allowed itself to be pushed into the extreme right. To be fair, the first indication of this came when the party abandoned its principled stance on equality of citizenship by targeting an already demonized group, the Ahmadis, just before the elections. Next came the angst on display in Lalak Chowk in DHA, Lahore. The hitherto apoliticised urban middle class was upset that, despite having voted for Hamid Khan — the PTI candidate from NA 125 — PML-N’s Khawaja Saad Rafique won the election. He did so because the overwhelming majority in NA 125 was not of DHA dwellers but of the slums around it. Saad Rafique had done his homework. Hamid Khan failed to do his. Yet PTI supporters were unable to reconcile themselves with the results; they wanted to know why, when they had braved the heat in May to vote for their favourite candidate, was he not elected. This is a dangerous attitude in a democratic process.

The PTI won fair and square in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It did so because its anti-corruption slogan and pro-development stance resonated with the people of that province who were sick and tired of the previous government’s woeful performance. Admittedly the PTI’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been unable to overcome the multitude of problems confronting their province, which is also not their fault. Instead of working hard at delivering on the many promises of their manifesto, the PTI has chosen the easy route; the unconstitutional politics of agitation. The agitation has been centered solely on the drone issue. I do not wish to go into the merits or demerits of drones but suffice it to say that the PTI’s rhetoric on the issue is composed largely of false statements and outright distortion of the facts. They have used pictures from the Balochistan earthquake and Gaza as evidence for their claim that drones killed innocent civilians in the recent Hangu drone strike. The Hangu drone strike killed Afghan Taliban leaders but the PTI’s information secretaries, not just in Pakistan but also in places as far off as New Jersey, continue to mislead the ordinary rank and file of PTI supporters with false evidence.

These ordinarily intelligent and amenable folk become rabidly fanatic when someone holds a point of view contradictory to their own. Their charge is always the same: anyone who disagrees with them is being funded by the US. Imran Khan must share the blame for this. He has openly accused everyone who criticises him on his policies of being a US agent. I do not say that there are absolutely no critics with ulterior motives but to accuse everyone of being an agent is just plain wrong. In a democratic society there can be and there should be many voices. Dissent is the central feature and the strongest attribute of an inclusive and democratic country.

In comparison, we must consider the main attributes of fascism. Obviously, fascism in the 21st century is not going to be the same as fascism in the 20th century. The paraphernalia of the Nazi regime and Italian fascists may be the most enduring historical symbols of fascism but they are irrelevant to modern reality. The three core ideological components of fascism are said to be the rebirth myth, populist ultranationalism and the myth of decadence[v]. Let us see how the PTI fares on these. The rebirth myth is self-evident in the ‘Naya Pakistan’ (new Pakistan) slogan. Drone agitation is a classic case of populist ultranationalism. Finally, every PTI worker believes that the system is completely decadent and must be brought down by radical politics outside the constitutional realm. The nature of the radical politics that PTI supports is also opposed to all forms of anti-conservative nationalism. These are the makings of a genuinely fascist party. One hopes that democratic urges from within will help stem the rot.

PTI and the Taliban

PTI’s consistent position has been that Pakistan must negotiate with the Taliban.  Indeed this was also the outcome of the much awaited All Parties Conference. Now here is the problem. Article 256 of the Constitution of Pakistan explicitly bars private militias. Therefore any negotiation other than negotiation for the surrender of Taliban elements are patently unconstitutional.  PTI portrays the Pakistani Taliban as a reactionary force which has emerged as a byproduct of the War on terror.  A corollary of this argument is that if drone attacks stop then terrorism will wither away automatically.

This is a disastrous miscalculation. First of all, the Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan is a subsidiary of the Afghan Taliban.  The presence of Mullah Fazlullah in Afghanistan and the fact that Latif Mehsud was captured from there are all indications of this. The Taliban in Afghanistan are not merely fighting the Americans and NATO forces.  Their stated objective has been constant since they first emerged as a force in the mid 1990s i.e. the establishment of an Islamic Emirate. This would be a universal Islamic Emirate not concerned with borders, hell bent on conquest and defeat of all those who disagree with its brand of Islam. It is an entirely different world view, but a view that clashes not just with the Non-Muslim world but within the Muslim world as well.  The TTP is their Pakistani chapter. If the PTI thinks that the Constitution of Pakistan with its Islamic provisions will be enough to mollify the Taliban’s Islamic sensibilities it is sorely mistaken.  The Taliban look at our Constitution and don’t see a document promising them their version of Islamic rule but sheer hypocrisy of the people of Pakistan. The Constitution speaks of fundamental rights including freedom of religion, equality of citizenship regardless of religion or gender, freedom of expression and speech, etc.  These fundamental rights are fundamentally opposed to the Taliban world view and in particular their view of Islam. So are things like courts, banks, schools, etc.  Our memories are short. Such an Islamic Emirate has already been tried once – the Taliban rule over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. They plan on resuscitating that model and imposing it on anyone they can.

So those who want to talk to the Taliban, and admittedly that is the stated position of both PML(N) and PTI, have to decide what the cost is of talking to them.  Any such talks will only give the Taliban both the legitimacy and the space to regroup and strengthen.  Nor is a cessation of hostilities, drone or otherwise, going to end their campaign.  The Taliban did not emerge after the war on terror nor after the Afghan War.  The Taliban were there in Balakot in 1831. They fought against Lord Curzon under the leadership of Mullah Pawindah.  Then in 1936, they regrouped under the leadership of Faqir of Ipi.  Faqir of Ipi, who has a road named after him in the federal capital, waged a “Jehad” against the Pakistani state duly backed by Pushtun Nationalists of the time. Today Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Faqir of Ipi’s grandson, leads the Taliban in North Waziristan. He is considered a “strategic asset” by some quarters. It remains to be seen whether he is the asset or his handlers are.

Ayman Al Zawahiri – the Al Qaeda terrorist and ideologue- wrote in 2009 a treatise on the Pakistani Constitution which argued  that Pakistan’s constitution despite its outwardly appearance was essentially an unIslamic constitution because it had fundamental rights, a parliamentary democratic form of government and because its Islamic provisions could be amended by a two thirds majority.  This is a universally accepted view amongst the Islamist insurgents like the Taliban. They consider participatory democracy as well as equality of citizenship as patently unIslamic and therefore worthy of waging jehad on.  Pakistan thus is despite its Islamic protestations, a legitimate infidel target.

This is what makes the whole idea of talking to the Taliban so futile.  The Constitution of Pakistan in any event states that the existence of private militias is unlawful.  Meanwhile the Taliban argue that their final demand is an end to constitutional governance in Pakistan to be replaced by an Islamic theocracy where they the Taliban are judge, jury and executioner i.e. Afghanistan from 1996-2001.  In such circumstances the clamor for peace talks is at best akin to sounding out in the echo-chamber of self delusion.

Constitutionally, legally and morally, PTI does not have a locus standi to determine Pakistan’s foreign policy. The mandate it received from the people is limited to governing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. At the center it sits on the opposition benches.  Under the Pakistani constitutional scheme, foreign policy falls in the federal legislative list. The determination of what Pakistan’s policy is going to be vis a vis NATO and ISAF forces in Afghanistan lies squarely with the central government.  Yet it has not stopped PTI from upping the ante when all else has failed.  What interest does PTI have in cavorting with the Taliban? In this writer’s opinion, the PTI seeks to use the Taliban phenomenon as a fulcrum to balance its national ambitions on.  Much like the Pakistani establishment, PTI seeks to use the Taliban as leverage against the PML-N.  This strategy – whatever the attrition- is likely to pay dividends in 2014 when the US finally leaves and Afghanistan becomes a free for all. It will help PTI position itself better vis a vis the “deep state” or the establishment in jostling for power with PML-N and PPP, both have little credit with the establishment.

Comparisons with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the Pakistan People’s Party

It is instructive to note the similarities and dissimilarities between PTI and the PPP under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.  Both parties are charismatic parties.  Bhutto used populist ultra-nationalism in the aftermath of 1965 war to play on the discontent of the Pakistani people.  Bhutto – also an Oxford educated playboy- was seen as a man’s man and a champion of the people and Pakistan’s Muslim Nationalism.   Bhutto – a keen student of history – had studied party formations on both right and the left and his populism embodied characteristics of both.  The Federal Security Force and the various repressive measures adopted by Bhutto during his government were reminiscent of one-party states.[vi]When Oriana Fallaci[vii]asked him about his fascination with Nazi and fascist leaders, Bhutto laughed it off saying that he was a man of the left whereas fascists were the men of the right.  There was some merit to this claim. Bhutto’s support base came from the socialist and generally left leaning classes along with the masses.  Unlike the PPP, PTI’s support base is urban middle class (hence PTI’s success is smaller than PPP’s overwhelming success) which in the post-General Zia period has become radicalized.

PPP survived Bhutto’s demise in two ways.  First it used Bhutto’s martyrdom as a potent political slogan. Secondly the charisma of Bhutto turned into a hereditary charisma to be inherited by his children, namely Benazir Bhutto and now after Benazir Bhutto possibly Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.  PTI is unlikely to have the same kind of hereditary charisma.  Imran Khan’s sons are not in the public eye in Pakistan and are unlikely to follow in their father’s footsteps.  His daughter is subject of controversy and will never find public acceptance.  Without Imran Khan, some of PTI’s shine is likely to come off.

Imran Khan is said to admire Bhutto’s style of politics.  While not gifted in oratory quite the same way, Imran Khan has increasingly used the language of protest and resistance that was employed by Bhutto, even after he was in power.  Like Bhutto, Imran Khan has ambitions that extend beyond Pakistan. He projects himself as a leader on the global stage leading Pakistan to an Islamic renaissance and self sufficiency. There is a certain amount of self belief that both men had in common.  Imran Khan is said to refer to himself as the only hope of 180 million people both publicly and privately.  Bhutto too was prone to referring to himself as a larger than life figure embodying something greater than his mere mortal soul. He would refer to himself as an idea on a global stage with emphasis on national pride and self reliance.

Will PTI survive?

Institutionalizing of charismatic parties is not irreversible.  A massive political failure or Imran Khan’s departure from the scene for whatever reason is likely to severely test the political mantle of the PTI.  It has no cohesive ideology other than the ideology of protest (dharna) and vague anti-corruption slogans.  The absence of a charismatic leader in the second tier of the party will plunge the party into a succession crisis marked by cliques which engage in fratricide leading to fragmentation.

In order to move forward the PTI will have to lose its protest characteristic. If it retains its protest characteristic and emphasis on extreme right wing rhetoric, it will limit itself regardless of Imran Khan’s charismatic leadership. Instead it needs to adopt and emphasize more of Imran Khan’s humanist aspirations and achievements.  Ultimately politics is for power, but power should always be a means to an end.


[1] The author is a practicing lawyer based in Lahore.  He is also the author of the upcoming book “Jinnah; Myth and Reality.”  He can be contacted at (0300) 555 2232 or at Yasser.hamdani@gmail.com


[i] In German: http://www.textlog.de/7415.html

[ii]^ Kendall, Diana, Jane Lothian Murray, and Rick Linden. Sociology in our time (2nd ed.), 2000. Scarborough, On: Nelson, 438-439.

[iii]https://www.academia.edu/248454/The_Institutionalization_of_Extreme_Right-Wing_Charismatic_Parties_A_Paradox Accessed 22.12.2013

[v]Griffin, Roger, The Nature of Fascism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), p. 201.

[vi] See Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan by Stanley Wolpert

[vii] Interview with Oriana Fallaci was conducted in 1972. http://www.scribd.com/doc/13262958/Interview-With-History