Imran Khan’s obsession with winning has disfigured him as a politician (2018)

I had written the following letter to the Financial Times in the summer of 2018 prior to the general elections in Pakistan. The FT didn’t publish it. I’m posting it here now. I think I got at least some things right. Some of my observations are still relevant today in light of recent developments, such as the build-up to the no-confidence motion and the motion’s aftermath which is still unfolding.

One of the many important lessons of Richard Sennett’s study of craftsmanship in The Craftsman has to do with the nature of obsession. In the practice of any craft, obsession left unmanaged and lacking self-awareness will disfigure both the person and the work. Imran Khan, a poor practitioner of the craft of politics who may be Pakistan’s next prime minister, is a case in point.

Khan’s anti-corruption stance (“Pakistan heads for dirtiest elections in years”), and hence his relentless opposition towards Nawaz Sharif, have been more than just that. The past five years have been marked by one statement after another filled with ill-feeling, ill-will and bitterness. For five years he has stayed on the offensive and there has been no sign of retreat. For many of his supporters this firm commitment to fairness in elections, to a supposedly principled politics and to bringing corrupt politicians to account is exactly what makes him worthy of support. However, Khan lacks a key skill for a politician – to be able to retreat and recover for the next political offensive. His offense has been obsessive and tiresome. It is not a surprise that he has lost part of his support base since the last elections, and it appears he has been happy to pay that price.

Far from being a political virtue, the obsessive single mindedness with which Khan is leading his party towards the hope of winning power in the upcoming elections has disfigured his own political identity. Observe the association of the party with the likes of Amir Liaquat, once unimaginable to Khan’s supporters. It has also disfigured his understanding of global politics. His recent suggestions that politics in Europe are somehow cleaner and less immune to the influence of money than in Pakistan make him look completely out of touch with significant developments such as Vote Leave’s violation of spending limits and the still-unfolding aftermath of the Brexit referendum. Whether or not Khan has won favor with the military, he certainly has blinders on, and having lost all sense of perspective he is now a poor fit for the public office which he now seeks with such open desperation. Regardless of the results of the election, it will be interesting to see what will happen to Khan and his party when the blinders finally come off.