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Different fates

Notwithstanding similarities in narratives and rhetoric that emanate from Trump and Imran Khan, there are many differences, both in their political biographies as also in their contexts

T.C.A. Raghavan Published 23.06.23, 07:47 AM

News stories and analyses from two countries we are very familiar with but often do not fully understand have shown in the past weeks an unusual convergence. This is over the fates of the former president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, and the former prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan.

Since his defeat in the 2020 US presidential election, Trump has never been far from the headlines. The attack by his supporters on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 was seen by many, and not just his critics and opponents, as a kind of putative coup to undo the election’s verdict. If this united those opposed to him, it also cemented his support base. Despite a number of criminal law suits — the charges range from bribery to suppress a scandal involving a porn star to his role in the January 6 events — he remains a political force in the Republican Party and is also a likely nominee for the presidential election next year. The latest criminal indictment is that he kept with him, after he demitted office, highly-classified documents having a bearing on US national security.


This is the first time that a former president of the US has been proceeded against on a criminal charge — this is similar to being chargesheeted and tried in India. Trump himself has remained defiant. What stands out to his critics is his narcissism and vainglory. But for his support base, Trump remains Teflon-coated. His rhetoric that he is the victim of a witch-hunt falls on receptive ears; in hisnarratives, those ranged against him include “Marxists”, the “deep State” and so on. Following the court proceedings, where the latest criminal charge of compromising national security by retaining sensitive documents was made, he said that this was “One of the saddest days in the history of our country. We are a nation in decline.” He also described the occasion as “a day that will go down in infamy”, echoing the words used by the former president, F.D. Roosevelt, to describe the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1942.

This is standard Trump rhetoric but it has stood him in good stead since his defeat in 2020. His stand that this election was “stolen” has never faltered and his supporters remain convinced about whatever he says regardless of the evidence. His is a messianic position “to take our country back from the corrupt Washington establishment”, “return power to the American people”, and “Make America Great Again”. The MAGA rhetoric is at the heart of Trump’s politics.Views for and against it havedominated public discourse for almost a decade now since his emergence as a serious presidential candidate for the 2016 election which he then won.

Much of the same time span has been Imran Khan’s decade in Pakistan. Ever since the premature closure of his tenure as prime minister last year, he and his supporters, too, have employed a stronger millenarian tone with conspiracy theories, anti-corruption rants, and religious devotion all present in good measure. But Imran Khan’s transformation into a kind of messianic figure with his supporters, exhibiting signs of being a spiritual cult striving to create a new utopia, has run into heavy weather.

A US comparison has had a powerful playback in Pakistan: the violent protests on May 9 by Imran Khan’s supporters following his arrest were termed by the government and by the Pakistan army as constituting Pakistan’s “9/11” moment. These protests had seen mobs targeting government and military installations. It was the latter that attracted most attention — not just the sacking of the residence of the Lahore Corps Commander but also a number of memorials put up over the decades commemorating military heroes from different India-Pakistan wars or those who fell in action against terrorist groups. The desecration of these memorials was the perfect ignition point to orchestrate action against the former prime minister and his party. If there are many who relish such action, it is also a fact that this kind of action has been effective because it is largely led by the Pakistan army itself.

For the May 9 events in Pakistan, perhaps a more appropriate point of reference would have been the January 6 mob attack on the US Capitol by Trump’s supporters. It certainly consolidated opinion against him in much the same way as has happened now with Imran Khan.

Notwithstanding the similarities in the narratives and the rhetoric that emanate from Trump and Imran Khan, there are obviously many differences, both in their political biographies as also in their contexts. The Trump phenomena in the US has been much analysed and studied. That his 2020 defeat and the different criminal proceedings he faces are not his final epitaph is also clear. Whether he has a future again as a presidential candidate or even as president cannot be predicted since that election is a little under a year and a half away. What is clear is that he has significant amounts of support and there are many who buy into his narratives of the US’s decline and his ways of addressing it. Clearly, there is something in the heart of American society that has powered and fuelled the Trump phenomenon and may well sustain it into a future resurgence.

Over the past decade, Pakistan has witnessed the conception and successful construction of an Imran Khan project largely to disable other political parties and forces. It is now witnessing its equally single-minded dismantling. The Pakistan military has been the engine behind both processes — the project’s creation and, now, its dismantling. After the May 9 events, a sustained crackdown on his supporters and the near dissolution of his party have been accomplished without too much protest. Yet Pakistan remains divided over Imran Khan’s past, present and future.

Trump is a real political factor notwithstanding the fact that he may represent what appears to be the dark underbelly of the US. Whether Imran Khan represented anything at all outside that of being the military’s past protégé now cut down to size remains to be seen.

T.C.A. Raghavan is a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan

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