Pictures of followers kissing the windshield of the car in which Imran is travelling, attacking security personnel as they attempt to arrest him, and frenzied crowds cheering jubilantly when he arrives in public bring forth visuals of a revered head of a cult, who mesmerizes his audience with his words and mere presence. Imran has built for himself the persona of a messiah who would rid Pakistan of all its ills and convert it into a ‘medina’ state. He has challenged the establishment as no other PM in history, adding to his image.
In an article in Live Science titled, ‘What do cult leaders have in common,’ of April 2017, Megan Gannon writes, ‘every cult leader is a narcissist.’ She adds that cult leaders are charismatic as also make tantalizing promises including, ‘changing the world or changing quality of life.’ She also observes that cult leaders thrive on ‘chaos,’ create ‘crisis situations’ and are ‘often power-hungry and authoritarian.’ Needing to be in control, they compel their followers to have ‘total regard for their leader.’
All cults are not necessarily religious, some are formed on beliefs and ideology. Imran Khan has mixed religion with politics in the right proportion, thereby playing to the gallery in a state dominated by religion and corruption. Speaking to his followers, inciting them, Imran Khan mentioned, “Don’t worry about being batoncharged/jailed by police. That’s how Allah tests people. If you are patient, Allah will reward just as he rewarded Muslims in Medina. Police who are baton-charging you today will salute you tomorrow.” Such messages flow from delusional cult leaders who desire victory at any cost, ignoring injuries to their supporters, who are anyway irrelevant in their long-term plans.
Imran, as most cult leaders had done, created a state within a state at his residence in Zaman Park, Lahore, convincing his supporters that the government is out to eliminate him and hence they should resist attempts to arrest him, including employing violence. It resulted in his private army fighting pitched battles against state forces to defend the honour and power of Imran. Aware that violence and casualties would work in his favour, Imran encouraged violence and refused to surrender limiting options of the government which has worked to tie him up in a legal quagmire. Imran, the cricket captain of Pakistan’s world cup winning team, was a political novice, dabbling in politics, making no headway, till circumstances opened doors for his emergence.
After the ouster of Nawaz Sharif and the refusal of Shehbaz to toe the army’s line in 2016, Imran became the next choice as PM. He exploited his position as the PM to create an image of honesty and capability despite making U-turns on every promise made during his election campaign.
When his economic policies began to collapse, Imran was considered unfit and pushed out in a political coup by a no trust vote, an avenue adopted for the first time in Pakistan’s chequered history. At the end of the day his misdeeds are out, which he denies, claiming they are as fabricated. His ego prevented him from accepting his dethroning till the very end.
Having tasted power, Imran, exploiting his cult image, has fought back. A true cult leaders’ trait is ‘intolerance to criticism’ and this is what Imran continues to display refusing to accept his failed policies. He generates conspiracy theories on his ouster, claims assassination attempts on a daily basis, accuses political parties and the army of ganging up against him, all the while conveying that without him Pakistan will collapse.
Imran’s speeches, like those of any cult leader, are filled with narcissism, grandeur, honesty and promises to change Pakistan. He threatens to remove the overarching influence of the army, which is currently unacceptable to the establishment but desired by the public. He demands justice but refuses to submit to it, sending the message that he is above any justice system and that the current judicial setup is being pressured to debar and arrest him. Every relief from the court is considered a victory over the state.
Addressing global media networks during the siege of his house, Imran mentioned that he is willing to be behind bars but will not surrender, implying that security forces will have to battle their way through the wall of his supporters, shedding blood thereby promoting his cult and building his image. Imran has adopted every means to enhance his following including sacrificing lives of his brainwashed followers. His interactions with global media convey his belief that the power of the state is being harnessed to side line him, solely because he refuses to bend to the army’s will.
The current ruling dispensation of Pakistan hesitates to accept Imran’s terms and conditions, aware it will be termed as a surrender. It would also set a precedent and convey that the law can be circumvented by those who can afford private armies and back violence. It would also propagate a belief that the state is afraid to challenge him thereby creating a largerthan-life image of Imran Khan.
The courts are now the preferred option for curtailing Imran Khan. By granting him relief and bail in cases, they are projecting an aura of neutrality. Sentencing in a single case could debar him from politics.
To ensure that Imran can no longer incite violence from his residence, the walls and gate of his house were broken, projecting that the state can and will fight back. The timing of the police assault was perfect as it was done while Imran was on his way to Islamabad. He had no option of turning back and stalling the police. The discovery of ammunition and bombs from his residence indicated that Imran was prepared for a prolonged siege and could stall any police action, a reminder of instances of cults across the world where arresting cult leaders resulted in multiple casualties.
The Imran cult has taken deep roots in Pakistan. It will be a challenge, if not immediately curtailed, as it could create conditions for the emergence of a dictator, who would rule, not based on law, but on his whims and fancies, backed by a mass movement of brainwashed followers.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.)