Is Imran Khan peaking too soon?

Published: November 25, 2011

The kaptaan's followers are largely drawn from Pakistan’s social-media-exploiting, English-speaking, urban upper and middle classes. PHOTO: AFP / FILE

If there is one word that best describes Imran Khan, it is ‘gravitas’.

Several years ago, I sat in on a meeting he had with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s president. As the Kaptaan thundered on about American drone strikes, one of the meeting’s female participants – who had earlier disclosed to me that she had long harbored a crush on Khan – suddenly spoke up.

“I can’t believe I’m in the same room as Imran Khan!” she gushed.

Khan’s towering frame stiffened. He paused, briefly regarded his admirer with a look of mild irritation, and then promptly returned to his anti-drone jeremiad without cracking a smile.

This intensity and seriousness of purpose have helped endear him to Pakistanis fed up with a government widely perceived as feeble and feckless. So has his ability to tap into the national zeitgeist and seize on grievances about corruption, injustice, and America – all while embodying the clean, honest, and non-dynastic qualities that have long eluded most Pakistani politicians.

Yet, who are these smitten ones? They are largely drawn from Pakistan’s social-media-exploiting, English-speaking, urban upper and middle classes. It is a demographic that, at least for now, remains a minority in Pakistan. For all the talk about rising urbanization, the nation’s population is still mostly rural, located in the bastions of political parties not named PTI.

Because of the lack of a census since 1998, it is impossible to provide exactitudes about Pakistan’s urban population. Yet by most indications, it is far from overwhelming. According to the most recent United Nations Population Division estimates, 36 percent of Pakistan’s population is urban – and less than 50 percent will be so in 2025. (The numbers rise somewhat when including the peri-urban areas adjoining Pakistan’s major cities.)

Significantly, poverty is widespread in rural areas, particularly among the landless (70 percent of Pakistan’s rural poor are landless). According to the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, poverty levels exceed 60 percent in Balochistan’s horticultural zones, and reach nearly 70 percent in the desert areas of Punjab. In some swaths of Sindh, farmers spend nearly 90 percent of their incomes on food.

These impoverished Pakistanis are presumably more partial to promises of roti (bread) than revolution. For them, talk about drone strikes and sovereignty violations amount to mere abstractions, and have little bearing on their daily struggle for survival. Hence their inclination to vote for the PPP or PML – or to vote for no party at all.

Then there is Khan’s impressive, yet deceptive, social-media-driven popularity. Internet connectivity rates are low in Pakistan, yet the small minority who use social media and support Khan are vocal and enterprising – and may exaggerate the extent of Khan’s support base. When every op-ed penned about Khan in the English-language press generates scores of online comments from his partisans, who in turn disseminate these articles via Twitter and Facebook, spawning another flurry of comments, eyebrows are raised- until we remember that relatively few Pakistanis use social media or read English-language newspapers.

This is not to say that Imran Khan’s popularity and significance are overstated. On the contrary; minor political figures do not mobilize 100,000 people in the strongholds of formidable rivals. Nor do they win over prominent figures from other political parties. Come the next elections, the PTI will certainly snare more than a few seats. One cannot rule out a possible partnership with the PML-N. And Pakistani youth have finally found a leader to whom they can relate. Ultimately, for young Pakistanis, the Khan phenomenon proves that there is hope in politics after all.

Still, Khan’s constituency represents a small subset of the population. The story could be different several decades down the road, when, if current projections hold true, a majority of Pakistanis live in cities, with outward migration from the hinterland having toppled the rural landholding structures that have sustained feudalism and served as the power centres of vested interests and dynastic politicians.

If Khan can maintain his appeal until then, he may one day become prime minister. But for now, the Kaptaan’s supporters will have to hope he hasn’t peaked too soon.


Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He tweets @MichaelKugelman (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • umm yeah!


  • Majid Urrehman

    Here come the Americans to help his friend.
    My friend you are wrong on many fronts. Majority of urban middle class is not with Imran khan and whatever is, they will soon left their support for Imran Khan as Imran Khan persona is getting demystified day by day. And in rural areas, you are again wrong that they are supporting PMLN. Rural areas do not support PMLN. They have been supporting PPP and only a small educated class in rural areas support PMLN. Recommend

  • The Reader

    That’s right! You and we have all the righty-right reasons to be skeptical about his political prospect but please halt; there is no need to dim our hopes of the man we have found after such a long and hopeless national (yet nation-less) journey. While we like and adore him, we hope and pray that he win. This is his time and not after 25 years.Recommend

  • Ali Tipu

    You have no idea how quickly and at what rate he is getting popular among the masses. Not just urban but also in the rural population. Khan’s popularity is not all about his own charismatic personality. It has got way more to do with the traditional filthy politics as people are fed up of Zardari, Nawaz and co. Besides, media is taking his words everywhere, in every nook and corner of the country. But for that you will have to visit Pakistan and talk to common Pakistanis and their perceptions. Otherwise your perceptions will turn out to be wrong too just like those analysts who were predicting that Khan has made a mistake by announcing a Jalsa at Minar-e-Pakistan.Recommend

  • The Reader

    Thank you for creating such a hopeless scenario, you can go back to -sleep now!Recommend

  • The Reader

    Err, that hopeless scenario and going back to sleep comment was for Majid Urrehman and not for Michael Kugelman, peace man!Recommend

  • McGillian

    Ha ha ha. I swear to God, why on earth is every single article published in ET anti-Imran??!!
    It seriously wont hurt to give some exposure to pro-Imran journalists as well. I live in Canada and everyone I know here, or am in contact with back home, is all up for the great Khan. I mean seriously people, I am actually laughing my ass off while even writing this, isn’t it GOD DAMN OBVIOUS to everyone that the same old tested politicians are of no good to our country. Would it not help if we let someone else have a go at it? And for god’s sake, this isn’t just any ordinary person-we are talking about one of the greatest ambassadors Pakistan has ever produced! I am sure majority of Pakistanis have gotten some sense hammered into them after this dismal performance by PPP led coalition government. IA I am reaching Karachi on the 24th and will attend Imran’s jalsa on the 25th! I humbly BEG every single one of you to please attend this gathering! One good show in Karachi and would silence dozens of people who feel Pakistani’s are still dumb enough to be fooled by politics based on ethnicity etc.
    Long live Imran Khan-Future Prime Minister period!!Recommend

  • sajid


  • You can’t convince me enough..Recommend

  • Tahir

    His peak has yet to come.Recommend

  • Icy_devil

    And here comes another article on Imran Khan. ET people seriously need a life! They are too busy publishing articles either on gays/lesbians or Imran Khan, these days.Recommend

  • http://Lahore ALi

    @Majid Urrehman: i think you are living in fools paradise. with every passing day hundreds of people are joining PTI. VOTE FOR CHANGE VOTE FOR PTI. Recommend

  • Idealist

    Dear Author,
    When was the last time you visited a rural area in Pakistan? Arm-chair analysis has become cliched and has no worth. Sorry ET, you’re ruining the little standard you had created with biased analysis. Recommend

  • Shiraz

    @all those who think that the by taking all the old politicians IK is doing wrong, here is an answer. just to let you know that if the father of the family is strict then whole family follow and work under him with great discipline and vice versa. So is the case with these political fiefdoms (parties. that these people were not stopped because their leaders or rather central leaders are corrupt themselves.Recommend

  • Ooops


    I guess you entered your email id in the wrong space :PRecommend

  • Ooops

    @ The Reader:

    Why have you inserted the link to your FB profile when you dont want to share it publicly. Huh!Recommend

  • Babar

    I bet the writer never visited Pakistan and was not present in any of the recent “Jalsa”. anyone doubting that the change has already arrived, plz visit any of the “Jalsa” and talk to the common man (whether he belongs to urban or rural). you would realize that the Pakistani voter is not so naive now. even rural population now realizes the importance of “Clean Leadership”Recommend

  • nasrullah

    @Majid Urrehman: How do you say that the rural class is not supporting pmlnRecommend

  • The Reader


    Whoops, blame Mark Zuckerberg for messing up the settings again.Recommend

  • Salman

    @Majid Urrehman – what stats do you have with you to support your baseless claims. You talk as if you have been travelling in Rural and Urban areas getting popularity statistice. Wake up and please think before you write anything down on public forums.Recommend

  • Moise

    Propaganda against Imran to continue.Recommend

  • Engr. Mohsin Raza

    I wonder now the foreigners, who have hardly visited Pakistan twice or thrice, are commenting on constituencies and rural politics of Pakistan. Mr. Kugelman, where did you get this data from? Where did you conduct your surveys and what was the sample size for your analysis? Give us a break. Imran Khan shall Insha Allah rise, and no anti Imran Propaganda would work. Recommend

  • Khan

    Michael, your blog was a good read…

    The only source of information that reaches, and is daily discussed in rural areas of Pakistan is the print media which is fortunately less influenced by the government than the state television.
    Almost every Pakistani, rural or urban, knew about the political explosion that was the Lahore Jalsa. Imran is widely filling the option of a new leader among the uneducated, unemployed and poverty-stricken masses of Pakistan.

    I might have agreed with your analysis a year ago, but times have changed.Recommend

  • youth lahore

    Imran Khan is a future …change is happen.,.. neat and clean politicianRecommend

  • Zoaib

    Respect your analysis, but you’re under-estimating the power of collective will of the people. When the time for an idea comes, then nothing can stop it. There is WAVE of change, which spreads from urban to rural areas. We need not go so far into history, except to recount the 1970 elections. At that time, feudal structures and rural proportion was stronger than it is now. But still the common man decided that Bhutto represented CHANGE and despite old style of politics (giving bribes etc.) voted in the right person. Why can’t a similar movement result in similar results now, when we also have free media that has spread awareness all around, including many of the rural areas? And all other parties have been thoroughly discredited?

    Another point that we’re not realizing is that for a long time now, the people of Pakistan haven’t been given any choice in the elections. It has been mostly been a fight between equally corrupt parties the PPP and the PML-N. Now they will have a viable third choice, who is not corrupt. This has already started attracting the neutral voters (those who stayed away from elections) which was evident at the Lahore Jalsa. Why will these people NOT vote for PTI when the time comes, when they can attend a jalsa on their own?Recommend

  • Poo Bono Publico

    Express Tribune, operated in collaboration with New York Times’ subsidiary International Herald Tribune. Therefore, it should be no surprise that ET should carry tonnes of anti-Imran Khan material.Recommend

  • Ali

    Stupidity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.

    Nawaz Sharif had two terms in powere what did he achieve. He built one motorway and bank rupted the country in the process. Law and order, health, education/literacy, GDP per head. None of these key indicators budged.

    The PPP governments are even worse. They are composed of feudals, prone to corruption and nepotism. Nothing to do with socialism.

    Imran Khan is a change. He has a good policies. Let’s see if he can deliver.
    In the future perhaps more parties will arise that speak for the middle classes and lower classes. If they do we will ditch Imran Khan and support them. As long as it makes the lives of the common man better, I am in favour of it.

    PPP and PML-N are gifted only in telling lies.Recommend

  • ghulam mustafa

    PMLN & PPP in particular and other politicians of Pakistan in general have not only disappointed the Pakistani nation but have also disgraced the same because of thier many failures like bad governance, poor performance, corruption and bringing the country at the brink of destruction, bankruptcy and civil war etc. In such an extremely dark situation, people has generally been looking towards Pak-army for rescue & relief from the corrupt politicians. But now the nation has eyed a new ray of light in the shape of Imran Khan, who whatsoever is deserving to be PM of Pakistan instead of re-testing the already tested politician.Recommend

  • Nadeem

    Al IK fans, take a breath and listen. Politics in rural areas won’t change overnight. And please do care to explain the reason you believe exists to change the loyalties if rural population against their tested candidates. I belong to a village near faisalabad and todate, haven’t seen any change of hearts there. Recommend

  • http://NewYork Falcon

    Good analysis Michael. Kudos to you for at least trying to understand our social and political structure. I have liked your writings before on Dawn. I agree for the most part with your analysis but I would also suggest looking at the impact across political sub-systems. The reason Khan phenomenon is healthy for Pakistan is that even if he doesn’t win, he can create enough noise to keep the incumbents on their toes. So whether he wins or loses, he will have a considerable impact on Pakistan’s politics!Recommend

  • imran sahil

    no only diplomatic people are with mr khan,i think of that mr khan’s saying and doing are different,mr khan is talking mostly about curption of govt but in his annual income report submited to EC in 2007,he declerd that his 530 kunal land in khaniwal is worth only 50 thousands,flat worth is 11 lakhs in islamabd,he has two vechles etc.
    can u imagen?his statement is right or wrong???? how is possible that 530 kunal land is worth only 50 thousands( where one kunal ???? flat in islamabad is worth only 11 lakhs.Recommend

  • Parvez

    For some odd reason you fail to give due respect to the political awareness that the common man urban or rural possesses. He understands that that the Zardari and Nawaz lots are miserable failures because the lot of the common man has only got worse under them. So logically, Imran as of today, not tomorrow, is a very visible, viable alternative. Recommend

  • Mustafa Moiz

    Living in rural areas doesn’t mean the people have no information of anything that’s going on. You definitely have misconception about Pakistan and Pakistani politics.Recommend

  • Abbas from the US


    Imran khan’s election campaign may still generate enough voter interest to bag 40 parliamentary seats or more at the expense of PML-N, and the election results could still tilt towards the PML-N led coalition that could form a government. However the civil military balance has to be resolved for the elected representatives whether PML-N or PPP to make a difference. If this is not resolved civilian governments without real power will continue to disappoint voters while the real benificiaries of this status quo will continue to take away much needed resources from where they actually need to be addressed to such as education, health and population control. Recommend

  • Ch Allah Daad

    There is no seat for Imran in rural Punjab, whole Sind and Baluchistan. He can win few seats in urban Punjab and Mianwali. He could have won couple of seats in KP, but the problem is that our brave soldiers are wiping out his supporters and by the time of elections, no one will be left to vote for him. In reality he cannot win more than five seats.Recommend

  • MarkH

    ” “I can’t believe I’m in the same room as Imran Khan!” she gushed.

    Khan’s towering frame stiffened. He paused, briefly regarded his admirer with a look of mild irritation, and then promptly returned to his anti-drone jeremiad without cracking a smile.”

    For some reason that reaction makes me like him a little more regardless of what he was speaking about. Probably because I could see myself reacting the same way and it’s not all that common to see when it comes to that kind of thing.Recommend

  • http://Lahore ALi

    @Ch Allah Daad: Why PMLN is so scared if IK is able to win just four or five seats. Recommend

  • zalim singh

    premature peaking, yes,Recommend

  • http://arshadkhan arshad khan

    i love pakistan and i love p t i partyRecommend

  • Akbar

    While replying teh cross question that he would revolutionize the country with the people coming from the same corrupt parties, Imran Khan said, “Then, where should I get the people from? from Switzerland?” My questions is, weren`t there even 1000 educated and middle class people gathered at Minar-e-Pakistan who could be selected as electibles for the elections?
    Isnt he making the same mistake that other big parites did? Recommend

  • ghulam mustafa

    Whatsoever, Pakistani nation has to get rid of the present failed leadership in PPP, PMLN, who have already been tested. We need to find out new ways and new leadership in the form of Imran Khan.Recommend

  • A Khan


    err any correlationRecommend

  • khan

    clinging to hopeRecommend

  • zalim singh
  • Akbar

    The thing is when he does not give the due importance to the general people, but to the “heavy weights” from the old parties, how will he be in a position to do somehing better for the people even if he has fair intention? In this way, will his party PTI not become an other addition to the fleet of same failed parties?? Recommend

  • Mateen Salahuddin

    Tsnami of ‘change’ advances!!!


    He was traitor musharraf’s MINISTER of state for interior for 5 years.
    Zafar Warraich ratified, supervised the massacre and carnage in LAL MASJID :'(
    He was the head of Islamabad administration and police which dragged the CHIEF JUSTICE on the constitution avenue
    It was under his watch that the 60 judges were house arrested…

  • reason has voice

    Mr Kugelman, You seem to have missed this PEW research. This report samples both urban and rural (excluding few tribal areas) and Imran khan has a 68% favorable rate.

  • Akbar

    I do not know why Imran Khan is repeating the same mistakes. He has alos said, “In the couple of days, some HEAVY WEIGHTS are goining to join PTI”. Do the people from the same old big parties deserve to be called “Heavy Weighs”? Were the people who had gathered at Minar-e-Pkistan the “Light Weight” people for Imran Khan? This attitude indicates that perhaos he is focusing on winning as many seats as possible in the elections even with the same failedpeople.In my opinion, if he does not change his attitude, he may fail in the long rurn. Recommend

  • Ali Wazir

    Michael you missed out one couple of thing in your analysis. To start of TV.The current affairs shows have the highest rating. An their are over 27 shows in competition. Around 80% Urban population watches TV every day.71% have Cable.37% in rural areas watch TV.(Gallup) These are industry figures. Around 10 -11 % have internet connectivity, a youtube search will show you a political Firestorm is going on right now. Its like nothing in the west. The media is free and is pushing the envelope constantly. Not much objectivity but alot of mud raking and drama. Exactly the sort of thing that can swing election. Another thing you missed out is Pakistan healthy Lota culture. As PTI sweeps urban areas many many local rural politicians will simply switch parties. In Pakistan politics has alot to do with perception. The third thing you missed was the very strong anti incumbency sentiment. As all major parties are a part of the government in one way or the other (PML N, PPP, ANP, MQM , JUI F) the only one to benefit from the anti incumbency sentiment is PTI or JI and smaller nationalist parties.Recommend

  • Zoha Irfan

    I am truly surprised and wonder why people are NOT believing in KHANs policies? even though they involve logic and benefit for us, the middle class people who have always been deprived from equality and justice…..please people give a chance to a leader who is educated and have respect for the youth of this nation.Recommend