A few months before the July 2018 general election in Pakistan, I was waiting for the train in Berlin, when three Pakistani men conversing in thick rural Punjabi came and sat right next to me. I picked up that they were employed at a construction site as day laborers in Berlin. I listened silently, despite an urge to introduce myself as a fellow countrywoman. They were busy discussing their immigration status. One of the men said he was feeling insecure about his work-visa situation in Germany, and that perhaps he should move to Turkey. Given Erdogan’s Islamist approach, he suggested that Turkey might look at Pakistani workers seeking immigration and work favorably. The others remained dismayed. Another of the men said, “We Pakistanis have lost all hope. Even a country like Poland wouldn’t let us in. Pakistanis have no respect in the world.” The third man, sitting right next to me, enthusiastically added, “Then Imran Khan is right, is he not? Is he not right in saying that we have lost all respect due to our corrupt politicians?” They all agreed.
Since the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. we have witnessed a severe divide between the Democrats and the Republicans. In Pakistan, however, we have experienced a polarization between two different mind-sets and attitudes. The first can be characterized as stoic and materialistic, and perhaps even skeptical, while the second is idealistic and hopeful, both of which are perceived as naive in Pakistan. The recent election in Pakistan has divided people regardless of class along lines of idealism versus realism. Those following the lead of Imran Khan are being seen as falling in the former camp.
Although sociologists and economists are trying to pin down a class-based analysis of Khan’s voters, my experience teaches me that they are spread across different classes, while what binds them together is their psychological make-up. For instance, despite being a graduate student at The University of Cambridge, my political alignment with the working-class Pakistani men was not over any political or economic stance. What brought us together is what I would call the politics of hope or idealism. In my opinion, it would be wrong to assume that this has been an election of liberals over conservatives or morally upright over corrupt individuals. Even Khan’s party has a mix of corrupt and conservative politicians along with liberals and highly credible names. This has been an election where idealism has won over and above political and moral positions. This has been an election where now half of the country is holding the placard of being an idealist — or an idiot, depending on how you are perceived. We are following a fairly inexperienced politician, who is alleging to do what has never before been done in the history of the country i.e., the creation of systems which fight and eradicate corruption from its root. In my case, my educational experience in Pakistan forced me to succumb to Khan’s idealism.
In 2010, during the last year of my undergraduate degree, I was elected the head girl of Kinnaird College, a liberal arts college in Lahore. I was 22 years old and had no interest in politics or in the process of nation-building. My term as the head girl began with the leadership turmoil going on in the college. As the representative of the student body I was pulled in two different directions. One group consisted of faculty members within Kinnaird, who wanted to replace the then principal of the college, and the other group consisted of the leadership itself. The leadership was accusing the faculty of corruption in the admission processes, grading system, and their teaching responsibilities. And, the other group was accusing the leadership of anti-Muslim and even anti-Pakistani sentiments. I spent my last year in the middle of an acrimonious fight between these two groups. My dream of trying to make a real change or of contributing in a meaningful manner was destroyed. I felt like a child witnessing the worst possible divorce between two parents. There were protests held inside the college every day, television interviews, strikes and the ugliest accusations thrown at each other. As a 22-year-old I wanted to experience life, grow and acquire knowledge. This situation helped me script my future: I decided to leave Pakistan and never come back again. I knew I had lost a home and that the only choice left was to struggle and make a life for myself in Europe.
This story is a common one in Pakistan where many institutions face the same problems. There are plenty of opportunities for corruption, systems are weak and human beings are fallible. Many people claim that systems cannot be cured of corruption because certain people working in these institutions are inherently corrupt and they claim that Khan’s inclusion of corrupt or dubious politicians will not change the corrupt systems Khan himself is promising to deliver. What I witnessed in Kinnaird, however, was the total and absolute lack of will to change and strengthen the system by the management. As a young person who lived through the Kinnaird College administrative crisis, I realized that the responsibility for tightening and improving accountability as well as setting an example falls to those at the very top. I also realized that as long as systems are weak, I will never have the necessary platforms to grow and evolve since most initiatives eventually founder due to weak leadership.
It was during this time when I had a chance to meet Imran Khan. His party members were approaching student leaders, representatives and young people across country to think carefully about the systems which were in place. I remember it was a hot September day and I had come to college when someone came running towards me. “Maria Maria,” she said exasperated and out of breath. “We are going to meet Imran Khan at his residence.” For a twentysomething girl, Khan’s appeal as a successful athlete was undeniable. Moreover, he was the reason Pakistan had won its only Cricket World Cup in 1992 and he had built the only functional cancer hospital in Pakistan. In short, he was and has been the ultimate Mr Fix-it. We met him at his ancestral home and he began talking in his usual style about why we need to rid the country of political dynasties and corruption, and why he needs young people like us. I remember saying to him, “Sir, don’t you think that this sort of political change comes only with decades of education and what you are trying to do is extremely futile.” To which he replied at length as to why we need people at the very top who can establish systems which would reduce opportunities for corruption. For the very first time in my adult life, I heard a Pakistani politician talk sensibly about systems of accountability. At the same time, it all seemed too good to be true. Anyone who has supported Khan knows that we, his supporters, had accepted Khan’s fate as a permanent member of the opposition. Even that day when I met him in person I remember thinking that only a fool or an idealist could dream of breaking the regimented, regulated systems of corruption placed in Pakistan. I found Khan’s idealism a bit stupid!
I left Pakistan in 2010 in pursuit of higher education. In 2013, Pakistan had another general election and we saw Khan lose, but this time his party won a majority in one of the provinces. This was perhaps the first time I began thinking about the possibility of Khan winning a majority and forming a government. Could this dream be true? To many of my realistic and more practical friends this still seemed idiotic. They even consider Khan’s recent victory to be part of a plan by the Pakistani military. Khan’s ambition, his drive, his faith and his prophetic speeches pledging to change the fate of Pakistan have a deeply teleological tone. His inclination towards faith and spirituality, a move away from being a playboy of the Western world to a Messiah can seem extremely dangerous and boyish. But for many fools like myself, Khan’s victory has renewed a sense of faith and anticipation for a greater and secure future in Pakistan. His victory has brought a sense of having a home, a home where my dreams can be realized. A home, where I don’t have to stand in lines at immigration and visa offices. A home where I can speak my language and invite all my friends from around the world for safe and enjoyable vacations and visits. A home, where my talent and voice will not be drowned in a confused and guilt-ridden society. Hence, as an idealist and someone who believes Khan’s struggle against the major problems that beleaguer Pakistan, I hold him accountable for what he has decided to deliver: A Promised Land.
Maria Khan is a PhD student at Cambridge University, researching Turkish-German identity through Goethe’s Faust.