It was a crisp morning in Lahore, on the day before Halloween, in 2011. Political pundits had made their predictions, and partisan hacks had made their speculations. Everyone, with their gaze towards the Minar-e-Pakistan, and abated breath, waited to find out if the day would mark the end of Imran Khan’s promise, or witness the birth of a new political force. And then it happened: they came in groups of tens and twenties and hundreds – on donkey-cards and Land-Cruisers, from affluent living-rooms as well as dusty fields, some bare-footed and others in Prada shoes – till the swell of humanity became the PTI ‘tsunami’. They waited patiently and danced for hours in anticipation of one person alone: Imran Khan. There was no Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Chaudhary Sarwar, Aleem Khan or Shafqat Mehmood on the stage. In fact, this ‘tsunami’ had gathered to celebrate the antithesis of what these individuals stood for. The moment was a fracture in the fabric of our political history, and marked the inception of a new hope.

However, disappointingly, somewhere along the past five years, Imran Khan and his PTI have lost the plot.

Let’s start at the beginning: at least in October of 2011 (the true date when Imran Khan political party was born), PTI was defined more by what it was not, rather than what it was. The narrative was that while ‘everyone else is a ‘chor’, PTI is not!’; members of other political parties hide their assets and evade taxes, whereas PTI members do not; other parties frequently settle on their principles (‘muk-muka’), whereas PTI does not. And this definition formed PTI’s identity and appeal among a new generation of disillusioned voters who had been disappointed by decades of bad governance!

However the past five years, this definition has received fatal blows. Today, at every jalsa, we find Imran Khan flanked by faces that he promised he was ‘not’! But why has it been necessary for Khan Sb. to reach out to individuals with questionable loyalties and tarnished political legacies? Why did he allow for party idealism to bow at the tainted altar of the ‘electables’? And the answer, at its core, represents a sentiment that belies Khan Sb.’s overt persona: Khan Sb. must not be convinced that his political message and vision is enough to convince the masses; that PTI’s message itself is not ‘electible’, and therefore the party needs electible personalities.

This compromise was a miscalculation on part of Khan Sb. And as a result, when even his ‘electibles’ could not make a strong showing in the 2013 elections (in terms of winning national assembly seats), Khan Sb. lost two important things: 1) the election; and 2) the defining feature of his political appeal – that unlike other, his was a party of clean members, who do not suffer from the ghosts of the past.

Still, there were skeptics who started were not ready to accept that Khan Sb. was losing the plot. That is, until Khan Sb. reinforced this idea with his support of ‘peaceful negotiations’ with the Taliban. The few thinking minds that supported him, ran for cover. How do you defend such a position? How do you shake hands with an outfit whose other hand is holding a pistol to your children’s head? But Khan Sb. persisted with his thought, only to be embarrassed when TTP announced that they would like Khan to be one of the individuals who should negotiate, on their behalf, with the State of Pakistan.

Khan Sb. had started to lose the plot further. And this time, he was in the tall grass.

Still, however, there were a few political struggles that had the potential of redeeming Khan and his party. And the first of these was concerning allegations of rigging in the 2013 general elections.

Having gone through the rounds before the Election Commission, the Tribunals, and even (Iftikhar Chaudhary’s) Supreme Court, Khan finally brought this fight to the streets. With able help from a few outside forces (including the establishment and Tahir-ul-Qadri) Khan playing this dharna innings reasonably well. There were a few nights when one thought that Khan’s efforts might result in regime change. But again, for reasons known best to Khan, he lost the plot towards the end of that dharna. With one eye towards the finger of the third-umpire, Khan started to lose his crowd, and his direction. Finally when, in the shadow of the APS Peshawar tragedy, Khan finally got his judicial commission (led by an impartial Chief Justice), Khan and his party failed to prove any of the allegations that they had been chanting for months. And again, the promise of Khan fizzled into thin air.

In the months that followed, Khan and his PTI faced much criticism for their politics of protest. At the same time, observant analysts started to point out PTI did not have much to show for its performance in KPK. And slowly, it became apparent to most people, that Khan Sb. had lost the political plot.

Enter Panama Leaks. At the end of an arduous political journey, Khan Sb. has been gifted with a God-sent opportunity; Nawaz Sharif and his family have been implicated in Panama Leaks, and further, have sullied their cause by giving contradictory statements about it to the national and international press.

Khan Sb. has once against threatened to do what he does best: protest. But this time round, it seems that Khan and his party has learnt a valuable lesson of Pakistani politics: they do not want to resolve the Panama Leaks issue; they just want to perpetuate it. If the TORs are confirmed, an transparent investigation takes place, people get convicted, maybe even the Prime Minister resigns, and the Panama Leaks issue gets resolved, there will be nothing to protest about. The issue will be lost. And that is not what Khan or the PTI wants. No one can campaign and protest on a dead issue.

Instead, as apparent from the sclerotic pace with which all parties are approaching the TORs for Panama Leaks, Khan Sb. wants the issue to be alive as we head into the next election cycle. He has learnt from the AJK elections that people do not really care much for whether Nawaz Sharif and his family syphoned off money illegally. That is not what causes a blimp in the electoral math. Far more important is the fact that PTI (and other political opposition parties) can campaign on it, come the election year. It is essential for PTI that the narrative of Panama Leaks remains relevant in the next elections. And through it, they paint Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N to be robber barons, who have looted our national wealth.

Does this mean that Khan has comprised on the Panama Leaks issue, in order to gain partisan mileage. Perhaps. But this lesson has been learnt by Khan, painstakingly, after loosing the plot at many an occasion.

For those, amongst the citizenry, who had hoped for a transparent resolution of the Panama crisis, this might be a long wait. Political expediency, it seems, has trumped all notions of urgency. For now, let us pray that this new strategy of Khan does not once again reveal that he had, in fact, missed the plot.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore.  He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.

saad@post.harvard.edu

@Ch_SaadRasool