This piece was originally published on May 8 but has since been updated to reflect overnight developments.
Imran Khan sustained head and back injuries due to a fall as he was preparing to address a rally in the posh suburb of Gulberg in Lahore on May 7.
With his fall the Pakistani election campaign assumed a more humane dimension, with all and sundry sending messages to Imran Khan and suspending any recriminations against him in campaign rallies. But the question has arisen as to whether Khan’s accident will significantly impact on the outcome of the elections on May 11.
The debates and discourse on Pakistan’s foreign policy in the election campaign provide some answers to this question.
Sitting at a strategic crossroads, with a long border with and history of involvement in Afghanistan, the international context plays a particularly important role in Pakistani politics.
The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party led by the well known cricketer-turned-politician (Khan), the Pakistani Muslim League led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam led by Fazal-ur-Rehman (JUI-F) are the main players in the current campaign.
The relationship with the United States is on top of the agenda: since 2002, Pakistan has received estimated US$25.9 billion in aid from Washington as part of its participation in the war against terrorism.
Meanwhile, it has suffered from US drone attacks that, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalists, have resulted in more than 3000 deaths since 2004 in the tribal regions of Pakistan (including civilians and militants). As evident from the Pew survey in 2012, approximately 74% of Pakistan respondents consider the US to be an enemy of Pakistan.
Nawaz Sharif, who has twice served as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in the 1990s, has taken this unfavourable view of the US into account but has cautiously talked of a relationship based on respect and negotiated end to drone attacks.
Reminding the electorate of his determination to test nuclear weapons in 1998 despite US pressure, he has indicated his interest in building a relationship with the US on trade instead of aid. In an era of growing US-Indian strategic cooperation, he has also avoided raising the Kashmir dispute and, when asked, has mentioned the need for a negotiated settlement.
He has drawn attention to the Lahore Declaration signed with the former Indian Prime Minister, Atal Vajpayee, in February 1999 that reaffirmed norms to ensure nuclear stability between India and Pakistan after their nuclear tests in May 1998.
Imran Khan on the other hand, with a cricket bat as his electoral symbol, has adopted a more adventurous and critical attitude towards the United States. Linking Pakistan’s high incidence of poverty with an attitude of reliance on external donors, he promises a policy of self-reliance and delivering Pakistani people from a relationship of dependence on the United States.
Pakistan, he declares, would cease to receive aid from outsiders, would oppose drone attacks and would even shoot them down. Though the opposition to drone attacks is not new, his references to these attacks in recent rallies held in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — Pakistan’s north western province— are marked by a combative approach.
The apparently tough language used repeatedly in rallies is aimed at garnering support among the Pakistani masses who have been critical of the United States for not “standing by” their country, and “using it for American interests”.
However another discourse has emerged focusing on his “Jewish connections” aimed at undermining Imran Khan’s efforts to become the first cricket playing Prime Minister of Pakistan. The discourse draws upon the ever-present concerns in Pakistan of a concerted Christian-Jewish-Hindu conspiracy to weaken or even dismember Pakistan.
These concerns have been heightened in the post 9/11 years with ordinary citizens often referring to the “Jewish lobby” in the United States as being responsible for their plight. Militant organisations operating in Pakistan have extended this discourse to include the element of “local collaborators of the external enemies”.
The literature published by these organisations refers to the presence of these collaborators in the Pakistan government with suggestions of either educating or eliminating them. Islamist political parties have been more nuanced in their use of this discourse: they have employed it to garner support for their political agenda by presenting themselves as the warriors against the external conspiracies supported by local elements.
Imran Khan’s failed marriage to Jemima Khan has provided a fertile ground in which political parties are trying to sow the seeds of doubts about his links with “the Jewish lobby” and hence his reliability as a Pakistani leader.
The process predates the election campaign with allegations that Imran Khan was working for, and supporting, Jewish interests. Cyberspace and particularly Youtube were used to counter Imran Khan’s arguments that Jemima Goldsmith had converted to Islam, and that she belonged to Christian and not the Jewish faith.
The link between the Goldsmith family and the Rothschild dynasty, Imran’s willingness to support Jemima’s brother — Frank Zacharias Goldsmith, a British Conservative Party politician— during the British election campaign in 2010 after his divorce, and his meetings with Daphne Barak (an Israel-American journalist erroneously identified as related to Ehud Barak) were used to claim that he was not a true Pakistani leader.
In the charged environment of an election campaign, these accusations have been revived with greater gusto. The leaders of the PML-N, that is vying for power with PTI in the largest province of Pakistan, have used innuendos about the source of funding for the PTI’s election campaign.
Shahbaz Sharif, the former Chief Minister of Punjab, for example, referred to the treasures of Qarun (Korah in the Torah) that were possibly funding Imran Khan’s campaign, thus implying that Imran Khan was receiving money from the Goldsmith family.
However, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman who leads the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, has openly accused Imran Khan of supporting Jews. This could be motivated by his concern that the opposition to drone attacks may earn Imran Khan greater support Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which has been the mainstay of his own political power base.
Instead of directly disputing these portrayals, Imran Khan is focusing on the abysmal record of the PPP regime and presenting Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman —courtesy of WikiLeaks—as someone keen to serve the US interest if promised the position of Pakistan’s Prime Minister.
He wonders who needs Jewish enemies when Pakistan is ruled by failed political leaders like Zardari and Fazal ur Rehman. He also reminds the public and the leaders that he has read the Holy Quran, is familiar with the religious injunctions, is a good Muslim who respects Prophet Mohammad, and is keen to create a “New Pakistan” along the lines of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. He claims all the credentials needed for leading Pakistan for the next five years.
These innuendos carried the possibility of shifting views of at least some who supported Imran Khan. But his accidental fall and the sympathy expressed by his ardent contenders like Nawaz Sharif and would reduce their impact.
Imran Khan has been reported to recite shahdah (declaration of faith for Muslims) as he was being taken to the hospital, and his message from the hospital bed urging Pakistanis to take the fight for equality and justice to the end is likely to reinforce the image among voters that he is a committed Pakistani leader, who is also a committed Muslim, and therefore is worthy of public’s support.
While it may not guarantee his success, the sympathy factor would definitely ensure more support for the PTI than was the case even last night. Barring any major shift, however, Pakistan is still heading for the outcome predicted by a number of analysts: a hung Parliament in which all political parties would look for coalition partners.