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Recently Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan has been referencing former prime minister Z.A. Bhutto (ZAB) to contextualise his political standing. Ever since his dramatic rise in 2011, Khan has often compared the dynamics of his party’s populist upsurge with those of Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the late 1960s.

It is quite apparent that Khan has been studying the early history of the PPP to explain and even understand his own rise, and more so, what to do with it. This was not the case before 2011 when Imran’s party was a tiny entity which — since its birth in the mid-1990s — was more of a reactive lobby of sorts, and a political expression of a man who had abruptly discovered a world which he had hidden himself from as a flamboyant cricketer and an ‘international sex symbol.’

In 2011, Khan’s political status and party began to experience a sudden lift and momentum. This thrust was aided by the social and political ruptures which had been created by an unprecedented rise in terrorism; the tense relations between the Zardari regime and the military establishment; a buckling economy; and a growing but increasingly restless urban middle class that couldn’t transform its cumulative economic influence into political leverage. Some political scientists have described this new middle class (in the Muslim world) as the ‘blocked elite.’

Khan was unprepared after the 2013 election when the PTI rose to become a truly animated populist enormity. And this is when Khan’s references to ZAB began in earnest. After sailing through an entirely secular, glamorous and apolitical existence as a popular sportsman and a so-called ‘playboy’ in the 1970s and 1980s, Khan rolled over to the right after his retirement from cricket in 1992.

The PTI chief not only borrowed a page from ZAB’s playbook, he executed it better than the former prime minister

He was initially mentored by far-right figures such as the former chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the late Gen Hamid Gul. Later, he fell in with the political philosophy of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). However, once hit by that sudden wave of populism after 2011, Khan was quick to realise that the dynamics of populist politics are not compatible with the right-wing elitism and exclusivism advocated by Gen Gul and the JI.

This is when Khan began to closely study the rise of Z.A. Bhutto because he felt that he was now in the same furrow that Bhutto had been in when he rose rapidly as a populist entity in the late 1960s. When Khan promised a “naya (new) Pakistan” in 2011, he was simply exhuming a slogan which Bhutto had used in December 1971. Author Phillip E. Jones in his essay on Bhutto in the History of Pakistan — edited and compiled by Robert D. Long — points out that Bhutto promised a ‘new Pakistan’ immediately after taking over as president from Gen Yahya Khan.

But when Bhutto used this expression, he had done so to explain a country which was already new, having lost its eastern wing (East Pakistan) in a civil war. What was once West Pakistan was now the only Pakistan and Bhutto described it as “naya Pakistan.” So Khan rehashed this slogan in the context of a different reality.

But he did see similarities between the violent ethnic militancy in the former East Pakistan and the post-2007 mushrooming of religious militancy in the Pakhtun-majority tribal areas (Fata) and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). This perception greatly angers Pakhtun nationalists. They see Khan naively echoing a now-eroded perception which explains religious militancy in KP and Fata as an evolutionary expression of Pakhtun nationalism.

Pakhtun nationalist parties such as the Awami National Party and the Pakhtunkhawa Milli Awami Party have insisted that (between the early and mid-2000s) certain sections of the ‘establishment’ proliferated this perception in order to neutralise the Pakhtun nationalist sentiment. This perception has now largely evaporated, mainly due to the unprecedented belligerence of extremist militant outfits against the state, and the continual mainstreaming of established Pakhtun nationalist parties.

When Khan saw his party become a large and boisterous outfit after 2011, he was forced to expand the party’s message. For this he again went back to Bhutto. In his speeches between 2011 and 2014, Khan often praised the social welfare model on which the economies of various Scandinavian countries were constructed.

PPP’s 1967 founding documents too praised the ‘Scandinavian model.’ The PPP used this to explain the party’s meaning of socialism. But Khan adopted the other aspect which the founding documents also emphasised: i.e. an admiration for the economic policies encouraged by various established social democratic parties in Europe.

But economics alone did not contribute to the making of European welfare states. Social democracy also advocates various left-liberal ideas in the social sphere which are entirely anathema to the more conservative sections of Pakistani society. Once again, Khan returned to Bhutto to address this dilemma.

Jones in the aforementioned essay wrote that when the PPP came under attack by the JI for ‘promoting atheistic socialism’, Bhutto encouraged Hanif Ramay to insert the term ‘Islamic Socialism’ in the party’s manifesto. Bhutto began to describe the party’s socialism as Masawat-i-Muhammadi. Christophe Jaffrelot in The Pakistan Paradox wrote that Bhutto often explained Masawat-i-Muhammadi as the just and egalitarian system implemented by the Prophet (PBUH) in seventh-century Madina.

Khan has adopted this posture word for word. While Bhutto was constantly attacked for being ‘anti-Islam’, Khan — apart from being hailed by a large section of the quasi-liberal middle classes — is championed by a new breed of religious conservatives.

I believe this is due to the one thing which Khan did and Bhutto did not: Practice religious ritualism in public.

For example, Mehboob Hussain in his paper “Islamisation of the Constitution” wrote that in 1973 when Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam chief Maulana Noorani wanted the Bhutto regime to amend the constitution to make certain Muslim rituals compulsory, the government responded by saying: “Pakistan was not created to uphold the rituals of Islam, but to implement Islam’s economic system that was egalitarian.”

Khan left this bit out from his continuing usage of Bhutto’s rhetoric and ideas. Instead, he began performing the namaaz on stage during his rallies. At least this is one reason why his social democratic rhetoric has drawn a more positive response from conservatives than Bhutto’s did.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 1st, 2017

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