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PTI: from movement to Party

PTI: from movement to party
Apr 8 2012
The writer is the founder of

What was the most striking feature of the PTI’s March 23 Lahore rally? It was not necessarily the turnout nor was it the enthusiasm of the crowd nor was it what Imran Khan did or did not say.

If anything, the PTI’s second big Lahore rally showed an organisational ability that the party lacked before. It showed the party had broken away from being a one-man show to having a structure independent of the party leader. More importantly, it has become only the second political party after the PML-N to achieve mass appeal in post-1972 Pakistan.

To understand this perspective, we have to remember the most persistent criticism of the party was that it was essentially a ‘fan club’ and that supporters would only turn up to see the star and not vote for him. Despite this, it is often easy to forget where the party started from and how it has reached where it stands today.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf story begins in popular imagination with something as simple as a newspaper column. The first inkling of Imran Khan’s interest in politics begins with newspaper columns he wrote in the mid-1990s. The columns focused on the dismal state of affairs in the country and the ‘brown sahib’ culture, as well as Islam and people voting with their feet. There was also a scandal – unexplained to this day – of the role of Hamid Gul in the party’s formation.

Pundits at the time noted the similarity with the launch of another tehrik in the past. Air Marshal (r) Asghar Khan (who along with Sherbaz Mazari was cited at one time by Imran Khan as political ideals) had done something similar in the 1960s before launching his originally named Justice Party which eventually became the Tehrik-e-Istiqlal .

In 1996, Imran Khan launched his party from Lahore, but before it could find its feet Benazir Bhutto’s government was dismissed and elections were held. The party narrative was simple: ‘anti-corruption’. It was memorably explained to a group of lawyers in 1997 when Imran was allegedly asked how he would sort out corruption. He reportedly said it would stop after he hanged the corrupt. It was this and his subsequent appreciation for speedy justice via jirgas that would shock liberals while earning praise from many in the middle class.

Barely prepared, Imran Khan threw himself into electioneering, contesting from seven seats ranging from Karachi, Dera Ismail Khan (against Maulana Fazlur rehman), Mianwali, Lahore, Abbottabad, Islamabad and Swat.

Attempting to avert a split in the Punjab vote, the PML-N is said to have approached Imran Khan for a seat adjustment and offered 20 seats to his party. When Imran refused to take the bait, the response was swift and brutal with a major smear campaign launched against Imran Khan and his personal life. What little momentum the party had was shattered and the eventual result was a foregone solution.

Nationally polling just over two percent of the vote, the closest anyone from his party came to winning a seat nationally was Imran Khan himself when he polled his best performance in Swat. This seeming greater support from the then-NWFP was to be a sign of future trends in the province towards the PTI.

Attempting to reinvent the party from 1997-1999, a conscious decision was made to draw in electables and old party men with organisational abilities. This meant that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ‘electables’, MPAs like Shehzada Gustasip and Mohsin Ali Khan joined the party on the one hand and on the other the old guard of the PPP like Meraj Muhammad Khan and Rao Rashid. This clash between the induction of ‘electables’ and the old guard triggered the resignation of many of the founding members of the party, including Nasim Zehra and Owais Ghani.

By 2002, Imran Khan and the PTI were facing a greater crisis. Many old PTI members with technocratic skills or electoral potential had through the carrot or the stick defected to the PML-Q. Despite having backed Musharraf in the notorious referendum, Imran Khan had turned down the offer to join Musharraf’s cobbled together national alliance.

Angering Musharraf and his allies, another smear campaign was launched against him by the PML-Q and a determined effort was made to ensure he was defeated in Mianwali. Despite this, Imran Khan managed to win his first national assembly seat from Mianwali and a solitary provincial assembly seat from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The party once again suffered a rout all across the country and its small share of the national vote dropped further.

Imran Khan’s decision to support the joint PML-N – MMA candidate for prime minister Maulana Fazlur Rehman antagonised many of the old liberals in the party and led to many quitting. This alliance with the religio-political forces invoked a level of confusion amongst many of his liberal supporters. A disillusioned Meraj Muhammad Khan quit the party, criticising the ‘fan club’ mentality of many supporters around their leader.

In the period between 2002 and 2005 Imran Khan and his PTI cut a lonely figure in the country, ignored by the major parties and lacking the resources to broaden the party’s base. It was doomed to become a single-seat tonga party of the likes of Asghar Khan’s party or the late Nawabzada Nasrullah’s party.

Fate, however, had something else in store. This was the era of the massive media growth in the country. With Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif out of the country, getting Imran Khan on a TV show was usually a guaranteed ratings boost. With his long experience of working with the media, he was to become a regular on the talk show circuit and was gradually introduced to another generation of fans.

It was also an opportune time because Musharraf’s alliances with the US and the ‘war on terror’ allowed a new narrative to be built, moving away from corruption alone. The party was seen now as anti-American, anti-drone, anti-corruption particularly appealing to northern Pakistan and the middle class.

Cementing his alliance with the lawyers’ movement, it was this new constituency that subsequently decided to fall on its own sword and boycott an election where opinion polls had it doing well, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Along with other members of the All Pakistan Democratic Movement, he boycotted the 2008 elections and was a bystander as the PPP and PML-N swept into power. Despite this, again with time and luck the party has once again seen opportunity land in its lap. The difference was that this time the actions that followed have left a lasting impression in the public’s mind.

Critics mock the party and its leader for faults perceived and real. The fact is that it has appealed across ethnic and religious lines to the urban voter in particular. It has created a positive precedent by holding intra-party elections and now has a party structure capable of functioning independent of its leader.

Where it lacks is something more systemic. It has shown a tendency to be intolerant to criticism from outsiders, and is often a victim of its own rhetoric as shown by the poor handling of issues like alliances and the inability to reach beyond its core support in northern Pakistan and Karachi. If that obstacle is not overcome, the party’s tsunami may end up as a high tide.
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