Full disclosure. I was briefly associated with the PTI. I have not announced my dissociation for three reasons. One, it would have been presumptuous to do so. (I am aware of the contradiction in publicly saying so!) Two, I regard Imran Khan as a thoroughly decent, honest and well-intentioned person. Three, I find the available alternatives to him worthless and dangerous to the future of the country. I might add I am not cut out for political party membership.

The fact that Imran may be shy, distant and allegedly lacking in personal warmth and social protocol is irrelevant if he is a nation builder. It is only relevant for run-of-the-mill political leaders who are generally dishonest, hypocritical and, of course, ‘successful’ by the standards of our politics today.

Such ‘leaders’ need to have photographs in the media of themselves at prayer, in the midst of victims of their own political irresponsibility, and chairing meetings called to do nothing to address the root causes of calamities that make up the daily lives of most of our people. They also need to ‘press the flesh’ and attend weddings and funerals to burnish their image as leaders with ‘the common touch’.

But the fact that Imran is the best of the current lot is not enough to realise the promise he once held out – a promise which has faded but which is still not beyond fulfilment, provided he develops a capacity for introspection. I am not an expert on the state of affairs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But I do know that while the PTI record may not be inspiring it has made valiant efforts in the right direction. As a result, most of the youth and the poor are still with Imran despite some disappointment with his party’s performance.

The greatest danger for a political leader like Imran is a lowering of expectations. His rivals are proven political and moral failures, and deep down their ‘followers’ do not expect them to change. Nor do they entertain any hope their leaders will bring about any increase in the welfare of the people. They just hope to personally benefit from a real or assumed proximity to them and their party sidekicks. Such leaders, accordingly, do not pay a significant political price for repeated failure.

Imran, however, created a milieu of real expectation among his supporters that demanded he perform, whatever the difficulties, at a level far above his rivals in order for him to be the leader they voted for. He may well have been cheated out of a much better electoral result in Punjab. He may have been handed the KP as a poisoned chalice. Poison because Fata was beyond his party’s remit even though it impacted directly on KP, and because he was forced into an alliance with people and parties who could be influenced by the government at the centre precisely because they did not share his assumed political commitments. This was complicated by the fact that prior to the elections certain strategic errors were committed by the PTI that cost Imran dear in the elections and, when the KP government was formed, circumscribed his room for actions that would make clear what he stood for.

I have always maintained that in Pakistan either one seeks high office within an existing political system that is structured not to deliver public goods and basic services to the people, or one leads a movement to change the system so that it can begin to deliver. It is difficult if not impossible to do both together. Bhutto paid the price for trying to. At a crucial point Imran made a dubious choice. This was all the sadder because he was the only current leader who had a choice to make.

Personal charisma, integrity and an admirable record of achievements in diverse fields can create enough national excitement to assure a degree of political success, especially in a crisis-ridden national situation. A corrupt power structure, however, will always try to co-opt an honest and popular leader it can neither isolate nor intimidate. It thereby seeks to progressively reduce his ability to do anything but tinker with the system. The expectation of fundamental structural reform is, accordingly, disappointed. Moreover, the system progressively infiltrates his party, and further reduces his room for manoeuvre.

Imran has to break his shackles. A call on August 14 to reject national elections held more than a year ago the results of which were reluctantly acknowledged, albeit with serious reservations and demands for investigations which were not met, is not likely to spark sustained national agitation for a change of government or mid-term elections. On the contrary, it enables critics to say that a leader whose party controls a provincial government and is represented in the national and provincial assemblies cannot properly resort to street power for what he cannot obtain in parliament.

More importantly, it does nothing to promote a national movement for thorough going political reform and socio-economic structural change. That will require developing an informed, organised and participating mass base in the face of comprehensive hostility from the establishment. It is not an easy option. Nor is it guaranteed success in any time frame. However, it is the only option if the country is to survive and thrive. Given the necessary political will and informed vision, it is also a viable option.

But such an option may no longer appeal to Imran, if it ever did. August 14 should be an opportunity for him to make his choice clear. Either agitation ie status quo politics that may or may not bring his party gains, including the seductive promise of high office at the centre. Or the renewed launch of a movement to recapture the lost élan that once made him appear a harbinger of real change.

What should he say? No one can or should try to write his script. But broadly there are the major domestic security, economic, social and political issues that are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. They have had enormous costs for the nation and the people which are beyond dollar estimates. There are also issues in our major external relationships, including our craven external dependence. These have added enormously to the costs.

Given the further enormous costs of the criminal neglect of good governance including dealing with all forms of corruption; the threatening environmental, population, education, energy, unemployment, inflation and law and order nightmares – and the evil of extremism even if it is a response to these circumstances – there is no time to lose. The people must be assured their children will not have to live their lives in an even worse hell while their false leaders live the way they do. A proper vision of Islam is critical for the success of Pakistan in the 21st century.

A few specific programmes should be elaborated in some detail to give substance to an integrated and practical vision. Time-lined and measurable implementation of specific commitments should be included. Imran will need to come across to the most sceptical – often because they are the most victimised – as one who is really with them even if they are not priority electoral constituencies. Can he? Does he care to? It will be difficult and will entail personal and political costs. But if he passes up the opportunity – and too many insist he will – there will have to be others if the country is to survive in worthwhile shape.

The writer is a former envoy to the US and India.