People & Society

Imran Khan: Making waves, if not a tsunami, in the political sphere

Published Aug 13, 2018 03:44am

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Photo by Tanveer Shehzad, White Star
Photo by Tanveer Shehzad, White Star

To say Imran Khan has had an eventful year would be like calling the Himalayas a bit large. He has ridden a tsunami, campaigned up and down the country, won Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the May election,survived a 20-foot fall from a forklift and recovered in time to take oath in the National Assembly for a second time. But then Khan has had an eventful life.

Coming from the Niazi tribe spread across Mianwali district, Khan is a Punjabi by birth, a Lahori by residence, a Pakhtun by ethnicity, a sporting hero by achievement, a [hyper]-nationalist by ideology and a man on a divine mission to serve people by his own reckoning. His family settled themselves into an upscale suburb in Lahore and the eponymous Zaman Park cricket team would provide Khan and his two famous cricketing cousins, Javed Burki and Majid Khan,their hopeful starts in the sport.

Khan went on to attend Aitchison College, a privileged prelude to his later schooling at the Royal Grammar School in Worcester, UK, and an eventual undergraduate degree from University of Oxford. As a cricketer, his proficiency in the English language and familiarity with British customs would give him a lot of media coverage around the world — a platform he often used to voice his often opinionated views, even before his political days.

In fact, it was at the start of the 1992 Cricket World Cup final that Khan gave his famous “cornered tigers” sound bite— referring to the Pakistani cricket team in that tournament with no option but to win — to a bemused Australian audience. After the final, in his victory monologue, he used the media again to root for his own cause to build a cancer hospital, ruffling a few feathers in the process by making it all about himself,neglecting to mention his teammates.

The drive for the hospital was in response to the personal tragedy of losing his mother to cancer. Unarguably a noble cause, but it had the same problem that plagues his political career to this day.

Often cited as pompous, stubborn and self-centred, Khan did not make it easy for people to support his causes. On the other hand,cashing in on his social capital is exactly how Khan managed to gather enough donations to complete the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, which stands as a leading [charitable] cancer treatment centre in the world.

Illustration by Sana Nasir
Illustration by Sana Nasir

This social capital is what he has also built his political career on. People didn’t rally to his slogan of ending corruption which, as far as slogans go, is decidedly generic and universally employed, they rallied to him. His force of personality, whether obstinate or selfish, driven or inspiring, is what drives his complex public image — an image that has never exactly been all-kosher, either.

From his failed marriage to billionaire heiress Jemima Goldsmith to his numerous alleged affairs, and one with an alleged issue, from the ball-tampering allegations to his own admission of gambling, you would be hard-pressed to reconcile this reckless playboy image from his cricketing days with the conservative political values he now espouses. Indeed, Khan has made his political bed with the Jamaat-e-Islami(JI) as easily as he once made his bed with foreign socialites.

But, perhaps, we live in an age of contradictions. There is certainly something in these liberal/conservative mood swings that resonates with the youth today. His popularity in a certain age group is astounding, considering most of them are not even old enough to being witness to his sporting glories.

It wouldn’t be amiss to suggest that ethnic voting has helped his cause this past election in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Neither have his philanthropic projects, which include Namal College in Mianwali and the Imran Khan Foundation for poverty alleviation, added any less merit to his political candidacy.

This is a political candidacy 16 years in the making. It was in 1997 when Khan started the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). There have been many about-turns and changes in alliances since then. Khan started off by supporting the military coup of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf,believing that an authoritarian despot would have the free hand to clean-up the corrupt, dynastic politics, which he thought were holding the democratic system back. He then refused an offer to become prime minister under the same despot, recognising, perhaps, the danger inherent in trying to bring about democracy by undemocratic means. Henceforth, there has also been much sitting on the fence and much viewing from the sidelines. But that is all in the past now.

In the run-up to last year’s election, Khan finally chartered out allegiances, party ideology and a clear plan of action to target the urban and youth vote, and for better or for worse, has finally thrust himself,with his signature pomp and vigour, into the political forefront of Pakistan.

Supporters welcome Imran Khan to Lahore in December 2014 | M Arif, White Star
Supporters welcome Imran Khan to Lahore in December 2014 | M Arif, White Star

While he may not have achieved his own lofty ambitions for the election, he has done a bit better than his detractors were predicting a year ago. He has a province, perhaps the most critical province to Pakistan’s continued well-being, under his party’s rule.He is in parliament with a certain amount of numbers behind him. His next few years in the National Assembly will also determine how the next ballot will look for him, and whether he will ever get the opportunity to sit in the prime minister’s seat and bring his lifelong personal goals to fruition.

As far as learning experiences go, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a trial by fire. In many ways, Khan is in an impossible situation. Sticking to his party rhetoric might be good for public image but won’t solve any of the province’s crippling issues. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) supplies and American drone strikes can be condemned button stopped through rhetoric. Negotiations with the Taliban are not going to go any smoother by pandering to their whims. The forceful rhetoric of ending corruption and his own personal charisma can only take him so far. Dealing with the actual problems while working inside the system, in which they are deeply entrenched, takes quite a bit more. Many people don’t think he is up to the task.

A lot of uncertainty over Khan’s merit as a politician simply comes from the fact that he is in unfamiliar territory. He is up against people who have wrestled with civil-military relations, international pressures and constituency demands for decades. He has a lot of maturing to do, as does his party, which is regularly accused of harassing people online or causing public nuisance on the streets.

The recent clash with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) at Bilawal House in Karachi is just one in a long line of examples where passions got the better of an otherwise reasonable line of argument. Politics of protest sit-ins is largely a tool for those who feel they have no access to the state machinery. Khan’s party now has access to all the avenues from which they can affect real,constitutional and legal change.

Of course, abandoning his belligerently anti-incumbent politics completely, even when the incumbents include his own party, may also just alienate the popular support that he has garnered. But a tempering of spirits is in order, as is a healthy dose of daily pragmatism from the party chief to his followers, who are always more than eager to take matters into their own hands — be it stopping Nato supply trucks or pulling down a security wall around Bilawal House.

Sometimes, it seems like Khan earnestly wants to change the fortunes of the country, but at the same time, he appears to desire to do so only in accordance with the grand vision he has set out in his own head. It is not just important that Pakistan changes, but that he be the man to do it.


This article was published in the Herald's January 2014 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.