Unbridled emergence of Imran cult and threat of a dictatorship guided by personal whims and fancies in Pakistan
Imran’s speeches, like any cult leader, are filled with narcissism, grandeur and promises to change Pakistan into a Medina state
Maj Gen Harsha Kakar Last Updated:March 24, 2023 10:35:39 IST
Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. Reuters
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.’ Her other observations are 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.’
Hanan Parvez writing for ‘Psych-mechanics’ states that cult leaders are also authoritative, controlling, exploitive and persuasive. Hanan adds that dominance is another characteristic which is why ‘politicians, who share a lot of traits with cult leaders, demonize, belittle and defame their competitors.’ All cults are not necessarily based on religion, some are on belief and ideology.
Imran Khan, who avoided arrest by calling his supporters to defend him resulting in clashes with police and also the threat of riots across the nation projected himself as the leader of an ideological cult, whose supporters would sacrifice their lives for him. Speaking to his followers, inciting them, Imran Khan stated, ‘Don’t worry about being baton-charged/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.’
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Such messages flow from delusional cult leaders who desire victory at any cost, thereby increasing their flock while ignoring what happens to their supporters, who are anyway irrelevant in their long-term plans. Imran, as most cult leaders do, created a state within a state, at his residence in Zaman Park, Lahore, convincing his supporters that they should resist attempts to arrest him, including by use of force. It was an army of his people fighting pitched battles against the state to defend the honour and power of Imran.
He encouraged violence, refusing to surrender, aware that by arresting him the state could place him in isolation, limiting his influence in forthcoming elections, while tying him up in multiple legal cases, currently around ninety. Imran, the cricket captain of Pakistan’s world cup winning team, was a political novice, who had dabbled in politics but made no headway till circumstances opened doors for his emergence, after which he never looked back.
After the ouster of Nawaz Sharif and the refusal of Shehbaz to toe the army’s line in 2016, Imran remained the only choice as prime minister. Political rivals were pushed into oblivion, political parties broken and elections fixed to ensure his victory. He exploited his position as the PM to create a cult persona 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 by the army in a political coup with 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 and he denies claiming them 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 like no other politician in Pakistan. A true cult leader’s trait is ‘intolerance to criticism’ and this is what Imran continues to display. He generates conspiracy theories on his ouster, accuses politicians and the army of working against him, and warns of assassination attempts, all the while conveying that he alone can save and deliver Pak from its current mess, ignoring that it was his flawed policies which placed the country in its current predicament in the first place.
Imran’s speeches, like any cult leader, are filled with narcissism, grandeur and promises to change Pakistan into a Medina state. He also threatens to remove the overarching influence of the army on the state. He demands justice but refuses to submit to it, sending the message that he is above any human justice system and that the current judicial system is designed to arrest and eliminate him.
A true cult figure, Imran addressed followers from his residence inciting them to come to his defence, displaying fired tear gas shells, projecting his fortress to be an independent state which cannot be breached, all the while conveying that he, as a ‘cult leader,’ is above laws of the state.
When security forces pulled back to avoid casualties, Imran and his supporters celebrated victory over the defeat of the state. Imran spoke to global media networks during the siege mentioning 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 and thereby promoting Imran’s cult.
The current dispensation in Islamabad and Rawalpindi hesitated to cancel arrest warrants on demands from Imran. If they did so, it would have set precedence and conveyed that the law can be circumvented by those who have brainwashed supporters and backed violence. It would also propagate a belief that the state is afraid to challenge Imran Khan giving him a larger-than-life image. Finding a via media was essential.
The courts came to the rescue and gave Imran Khan an additional day to present himself. It was a meek message of surrender from the government which enhanced the power of Imran.
To ensure that acts of violence are not repeated, the police broke walls and the gate of Imran’s residence while conducting a search, similar to what has been done globally to curtail cults. All this while Imran was on his way to the court. The timing was perfect as Imran had no option of turning back and interrupting the action. 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 Rajneeshpuram, Acharya Rajneesh’s ashram in the US, which was finally overpowered by a large deployment of security forces.
The Imran Khan cult has taken root in Pakistan. It will be a challenge, if not 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. For the moment, political instability in Pakistan will remain.
The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.