Imran Khan’s defense of these compromises is not convincing. These old politicians – he parries – are welcome to join his party but he will vet them for corruption before he awards them the party’s tickets to the national and provincial assemblies. If the Tehreek cannot win the rural constituencies without enlisting the local power barons, he will have to embrace many more of their kind. Should he do this, however, he will surrender his chief strength – the unwavering commitment to reform the old order. Once the scions of the traditional political families begin to fill his party – even if they look less corrupt than others – the Tehreek cannot implement the reforms that will hurt the economic and political interests of this class of people.

Aware of these risks, Imran Khan is seeking to strengthen his hand by organizing his base, consisting of younger voters. He has launched a drive to register them as members of the Tehreek. Once the membership rolls are ready, he promises that they will elect their local, regional and national leaders. It is a formidable undertaking; it has never been done by any party other than the Jamat-e-Islami that restricts membership to practicing Muslims. If the Tehreek succeeds in this endeavor, this may begin to alter the dynamics of power at the local levels. As a grass-roots party with a strong organization, it could stand up more effectively against the power of the local barons. This will reduce the need to bring these rural barons into the party; the Tehreek could use them selectively to win a few seats in districts where its support base is weakest.

The Tehreek has a chance to extend its populist appeal to the rural areas with its plan to institute thousands of elected village councils. This is the only program that carries the prospect of mobilizing the peasants behind the Tehreek, but for this populist appeal to take roots, the party has to do two things. It must ensure that the rural population hears about this program and understands the benefits it can bring to them. More importantly, the Tehreek has to come up with a plan to assure the rural poor that these village councils will not be captured by the local power barons. How is this to be done? If the party members can be organized at the level of the villages, they can pit their organized strength against the bullying of the local thugs. The Tehreek should also create mobile brigades of young idealist college students who will be ready to travel and deploy to the villages to support – with their disciplined but non-violent presence – the rural poor during the elections to the village councils. The elections can be staggered to ensure that these college volunteers are available at the village elections. In addition, these elections should be held only after the Tehreek has had time to reform the police force.

Since it began drawing crowds, its rivals have accused the Tehreek of receiving support from the ‘establishment,’ a code word for the security agencies working under the umbrella of the Pakistan army. This is a smear. The Tehreek’s support has grown because the people can see more plainly than before their country being pushed ever closer to the brink by the unbridled corruption of their rulers: and they see Imran as their only real chance of reversing their country’s slide into chaos. The Tehreek should continue to distance itself from any material assistance of the security agencies, but I hope that that it enjoys the tacit support of the mid-level and junior officers and the jawans in the military, who cannot be too happy at having to kill other Pakistanis and whose lives were sacrificed by the military leadership so that they and the civilians leaders could collect blood money from the United States. In 1996, the Pakistan army faced a spate of desertions from its ranks as they were asked to fight the Afghan resistance and their Pakistani hosts. Although these desertions were contained, it cannot be doubted that resentment still simmers in the army’s rank and file against the military leadership for their readiness to do the bidding of the United States for pecuniary gain. One hopes that as the Tehreek ratchets its campaign, it will work in subtle ways to win the esteem of the rank and file in Pakistan’s army. The knowledge that their own rank and file have their eyes on their backs will restrain the generals who may want to extend their profitable partnership with the United States.

The Tehreek should also send out signals – convincing signals – that it has a second arrow in its quiver. It must let Pakistanis know that it is ready to mobilize its ranks for more forceful action if the corrupt political elites will use dirty tricks to extend their corruption binge for another five years. Pakistan cannot survive another five years of their depredations. In times of crisis – and has Pakistan faced a greater crisis than it does now – the movement to save the country must be ready to proceed along two tracks: change through the electoral process but if that is obstructed the people must be ready to bring down the corrupt rulers through massive and sustained but non-violent protests. Victory only comes to those who are prepared to broaden their democratic struggle if change becomes impossible through the ballot box.


[1]   Alam, M. Shahid, Pragmatic Arguments in the Qur’an for Belief (July 26, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

[2]   In only two areas have Pakistanis produced distinctive creative work over the past few decades, music and poetry; in both areas, this success derives in no small part from their connectedness to tradition.