The Imran Khan Error: A Cricket Star, Heartthrob and an Unconsciously Biased Nation


Us humans have an intrinsic nature to follow leaders with big ideas, who rumble and assert more emotionally charged than pragmatic ideas. Such leaders usually dream big and invite catastrophes. 

The Recent Political Crisis in Pakistan

Recently, a political crisis unfolded in Pakistan prompted by then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan. He barred ‘the vote of no confidence motion’ from happening against him by dissolving the parliament. 

Later, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled in favour of opposition parties, declaring Imran Khan’s move unconstitutional. Consequently, he was outed as Prime Minister of Pakistan. Imran Khan alleged a US-led foreign conspiracy as the reason he was unseated because his policy stance with China and Russia diverged from Washington’s interests. The Supreme court of Pakistan intervened at midnight to save Pakistan from the constitutional disaster initiated by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), headed by Imran Khan.

“Why We Fall For Tall, Dark and Handsome Men”

A few months ago, I read the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell, where he dedicated one whole chapter titled “The Warren Harding error: why we fall for tall, dark and handsome men”. Harding’s biographer Francis Russell writes, “his lusty black eyebrows contrasted with his steel-grey hair to give the effect of force, his massive shoulders and bronzed complexion gave the effect of health.” Warren Harding is reputed to be one of the worst US presidents. He was great looking but lacked the intelligence of a president. He was often equivocal and vague on many policy matters, and his speeches were devoid of any concrete and clear ideas. Most importantly, as a senator, he was oblivious to the debates on two of the critical political issues of that time: women’s suffrage and prohibition.

Nevertheless, people still voted for him because he looked like a president. Malcolm’s main takeaway from this chapter was that humans do create positive unconscious associations with tall and handsome men. Most of us unconsciously link leadership with imposing physical stature, i.e., we have an inbuilt sense of what a leader is supposed to look like. That stereotype is so strong that when someone falls into that preconceived idea, we become blind to other considerations.

The Imran Khan Error

This led me to draw an analogy with the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan Niazi, who was once a cricket star and a heartthrob for many Asian women. To put things into context, I recalled all the engaging conversations I had with PTI supporters over time. They said he looked like a leader, unlike his competitors, because he was tall, handsome and (above all) an Oxford graduate. Women would openly admit that they support Imran Khan because he is handsome and has the charismatic personality of a leader. 

The only substantial evidence by PTI supporters, which is why I supported PTI too back in the 2013 elections, is that we needed fresh politics devoid of dynastic politics and that Imran Khan is not corrupt compared to his predecessors. However, this led to a vague hypothesis; mostly Pakistanis and mainly women couldn’t let go of Imran Khan’s charismatic personality. PTI supporters will never admit this unconscious bias toward Imran Khan due to his physical stature.

This political logic of some PTI supporters can also be quite linear and falls under strict binaries. So, for example, if you’re critical of PTI policies, you support the Pakistan Muslim League PML(N). And these PTI supporters (from a mostly educated, white-collar job demographic) would often call PML(N) supporters low IQ and illiterate, like their political party. 

The last and most restrictive argument is: if not Imran Khan, then who? The most concerning part of this trend amongst PTI supporters is that it is still consistent and thriving as it was back in 2013.

Imran Khan’s Misogynistic Comments

A few days ago, Imran Khan made some really disturbing sexualized comments about his female political opponent, Maryam Nawaz, in front of hundreds of his supporters in a political rally. Earlier this year, in an interview by the Axios journalist Jonathan Swan, Imran khan said, “If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the man unless they are robots. It’s common sense.” If, by any means, he is focusing on Islamic ruling about women’s clothing, why complete and deliberate amnesia about the male gaze and the responsibility men have as per the Islamic ruling? His distorted political values aside, he has consciously and willingly passed misogynistic comments throughout his political career – dismissive of women and non-binary people’s rights. One could then argue, why would he do that? Maybe to appease the larger audience (of men) whose ideas are mostly regressive towards women’s rights, and Imran Khan says what his supporters want to hear. 

Tall, handsome, Oxford graduate, good English speaking skills – are these factors enough to be a president? Although I am not suggesting that these characteristics alone played a role in making Imran Khan a leader, such considerations by PTI supporters did make a constructive critique of Imran Khan’s policies so easily disappear into clouds of abstractions, a taboo zone where no one is allowed to question Imran Khan’s policies because, if not Imran Khan, then who? 

Transcending Emotional Attachments and Binary Political Thinking

As a starting point, PTI supporters should at least hold political debates that transcend the unconscious bias toward Imran Khan and hold him accountable for his comments on women and other policy fronts that his government failed to deliver. Imran Khan’s vision to come out of US dependency has importance, and Pakistan should work towards it in the longer run. However, it is also a fact that Pakistan’s economy cannot function without International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans due to a lack of domestic economic reforms that can work as a conducting environment to make Pakistan’s economy IMF independent. PTI supporters should ask these hard questions from their party leaders. Sure, we are ready to declare the US our enemy, but does the PTI have an alternative economic plan to function without the IMF?

In between honest/corrupt, truth/evil, US/China binaries and dialogues, constructive political debate is lost. PTI supporters should try to create a culture of intellectual politics based on logic rather than blindly following their emotional attachment to Imran Khan, which does fall under the cult following. This is the Warren Harding Error: “when we make unconscious assumptions about a person or people and hang on to them even when presented with evidence to the contrary”.

Sonia Gulzeb Abbasi is an MA Social Anthropology student at SOAS, University of London. Their research interests include: revisiting the work of colonial-era anthropologists in British India and post-liberal and post-colonial studies.

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