When seen through the prism of history, 1996 would appear rather dramatic in Pakistan’s 70-year lifespan. The nation’s political makeover was brewing already by late 1995 when a Berlin-based corruption monitoring organisation, Transparency International, named Pakistan as the most corrupt country in Asia and the second-most corrupt in the world. At the same time, a report by Amnesty International accused the Benazir Bhutto-led national government as having one of the worst records of human rights abuses. Later, in November 1996, Bhutto’s government was prematurely dissolved for gross corruption.
It was during these months of political and economic crisis in Pakistan that a new political party took birth. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-insaaf (PTI), translated as Pakistan movement for justice, was launched by cricketing legend and national hero Imran Khan on the hopes that he would change the face of Pakistani politics by rooting out corruption from its ranks. At the time when Khan launched PTI, he had already retired from cricket. However, that hardly stopped him from being a favourite of the media and gossip networks. However, his post-cricket public life was also marked by a renewed personality, one that embraced a Pashtun identity and Islamic piety, both of which would go on to shape his political ideology in significant ways.
Imran Khan post-cricket
Perhaps the one big moment post-retirement from cricket that had a significant role to play in altering Khan’s image of flamboyance was when he raised funds to build a cancer hospital in Lahore in 1994, following his mother’s death from the disease. “The red-bricked state-of-the-art medical center which opened in December 1994, stands as an awe-inspiring testament to Khan’s dogged persistence and, in a country shattered by cruel class divides, thrilling evidence of the possibility that slumbers within liberal Pakistan,” writes Pakistani journalist Madiha R. Tahir in her article ‘I’ll be your mirror: The politics of Pakistan’s populism’.
It was also during this time that his personality had seen a major shift in the way it took up the cause of Islam. In the chapter profiling Khan in his book ‘Age of Kali’, historian William Dalrymple suggested that his religious awakening was “the product of a midlife crisis following his mother’s slow and painful death from cancer.” He goes on to explain that Khan subscribed to the Sufi tradition of Islam, took his religion very seriously and frequently dropped anecdotes and quotes from the Quran and Sufism. In his interview to Tahir he said that he now regarded Prophet Muhammad as his role model. “No man has achieved what he’s done. I mean, he created leaders. When he left this world, everyone around him became a leader. The civilisation he created was the greatest civilisation for 700 years,” he said.
Khan’s image of Islamic piety would come as a surprise to anyone who is aware of the fact that he is popularly believed to be the archetypal Anglicised Pakistani — one who has been educated in elite English medium institutions in Pakistan and then furthered his education with a degree from Oxford. His newfound embrace of his religious identity, however, is believed to be closely linked to his understanding of colonial history. In his memoir, ‘Pakistan: A personal history’, Khan wrote that the biggest damage done to the Indian subcontinent was the loss of self-esteem that resulted from colonisation. “The inferiority complex that is ingrained in a conquered nation results in its imitation of some of the worst aspects of the conquerors, while at the same time neglecting its own great traditions,” he wrote.
A free Pakistan, he believed, had to be rooted in the traditions of Islam. About the independence of Pakistan, he wrote that “we were a free people, free to rediscover an Islamic culture that had once towered over the subcontinent”. But it was not just Islam that he held on to steadfastly after his cricketing career. There was also his Pashtun tribal identity that he boasted of which much enthusiasm.
Khan is a Pathan of Afghan origins and his tribal sympathies were characteristic of him even in the late 1980s when he was a cricketing legend. “My family came to the subcontinent from Afghanistan about 500 years ago, but we kept our identity by refusing to marry outside the tribe. That pride of race is deeply ingrained in every Pathan child,” he said in an interview to Dalrymple in 1989. His reawakening to Islam and his tribal origins would, go on to impact his political ideology from 1996.
Imran Khan the crusader against corruption and sympathiser of the Taliban
Right in the beginning of his memoir, Khan made clear what his idea of an ideal Pakistani state should look like and what it had become. “Far from being the Islamic welfare state that was envisaged, Pakistan is a country where politics is a game of loot and plunder and any challenger to the status quo — even with my kind of public profile and popularity — can be suddenly arrested and threatened with violence,” wrote Khan in his book. “Khan has pressed on with his model of politics, a brand that draws connections between the religious and the political. Indeed that is how he explained his entry into politics,” writes Tahir.
Khan’s belief in the Sharia law to govern a state is noteworthy. “He believes that the Islamic Sharia law has much to recommend it, comparing the almost complete absence of petty crime in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where Sharia is in force, with the anarchy of New York at night,” writes Dalrymple.
But it was his crusade against corruption that elevated him to the centerstage of Pakistani politics. At a press conference held at the launch of his party, he said that the aim of his party was to “end all kinds of exploitation and ensure a society based on honesty, merit and integrity.” “For 50 years the politicians have been exploiting the people of Pakistan. They have been looting and plundering the country! We want to bring the plunderers to justice! We want to hang the corrupt,” he is reported to have declared roaringly at a rally soon after launching his party.
There was much fanfare when he announced the formation of his new party. Crowds spilled on to the streets in support of the legendary sportsman who was also the heartthrob of Pakistani women. However, not many would applaud him for his style of politics. “In the political lobbies of Islamabad and the establishment drawing rooms of Lahore, it was extremely difficult to find anyone who really rated his chances at the election,” writes Dalrymple. “If you put any of our big movie stars up on a podium they’d probably pull the crowds, but it doesn’t mean any anyone with any sense will vote for them,” said Pakistani politician and member of Pakistan Muslim League (PML) Abida Hussain in an interview to Dalrymple. True to the word of the political pundits, he lost out in the upcoming elections miserably. In the ensuing years though he attracted far more criticism for his staunch Islamic leanings as also his unmasked sympathy towards the Taliban.
In Pakistan’s circuit of secularists, Khan is often referred to as ‘Taliban Khan’. “For Imran, the situation in Pakistan’s tribal areas essentially resembles a rebellion against colonial occupation,” writes Tahir. His sympathies towards the Taliban was made evident on several occasions in his twenty-year old political career. In June 2002, he addressed a workers’ convention in Pakistan stating that he was inspired by the Taliban system of justice and that he would establish the same system in the country after assuming power. More recently, in 2013 he stirred up controversy when he described a top Taliban leader, Wali ur-Rehman as ‘pro-peace’. Later in the same year, he suggested that the Taliban should be allowed to open an office in Pakistan.
Khan’s controversial political and religious statement earned him the ire of many. “He has been called ‘dangerous’ and ‘naive’ and described as a man whose supporters feed his delusion of being the messiah that Pakistanis await,” writes Tahir. In 2012, when Khan pulled out of the India Today Conclave on account of it being attended by writer Salman Rushdie, he was severely criticised by the latter who compared him to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. “Here he is trying to placate Mullah and placate Army while presenting himself as the acceptable face of Pakistan,” said Rushdie.
Imran Khan the challenger
Despite Imran Khan’s party losing out in the 1996 elections, it did succeed in making its presence felt as a formidable challenge. In those brief three months he managed to put corruption as top priority in the national agenda. “It was research by Imran’s workers that had led to the revelation of Benazir Bhutto owning a £ 2.5 million manor house in Surrey, a £ 3.5 million Chelsea townhouse, two luxury apartments in Belgravia and a Normandy chateau,” writes Dalrymple. The charges contributed significantly in the president bringing down Bhutto’s government.
In the general elections of 2002 the PTI contested the elections and Khan declared that he would be willing to form a coalition government if his party did not win the majority. However, that was not to be. But he did get elected in Mianwali.
It was in the 2013 elections though that Khan’s PTI came out in its full form. During the election campaign, his wrath was clearly directed towards the American war on terror. He promised to pull Pakistan out of it and bring stability to the Pashtun tribal belt. Though the elections resulted in a sweeping victory by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML), Khan’s PTI emerged as the second largest popularly voted party.
When Khan launched his party in 1996, few would have predicted that 20 years down the line, his party would be neck-to-neck in battle with PML-led by Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shahbaz Sharif. There is enough speculation though, that Khan’s rise to political popularity this time, has been largely chalked out by the support he is receiving from the Pakistan’s military. The support can hardly be surprising though. Khan’s association with the army has been a long affair and well-documented. “Certainly Imran Khan has been uncomfortably close to various military figures,” writes Tahir. She goes on to list the multiple times when Khan and the military aided each other. “General Zia called him out of his retirement from cricket. It was General Hamid Gul, the former ISI chief often dubbed the ‘father of the Taliban’ and Muhammad Ali Durrani, the then head of Jamaat-e-Islami youth wing, who encouraged Khan to enter politics and assisted him,” she writes. Further, when General Pervez Musharraf came to power in a coup, Khan supported him and when the US launched a raid to assassinate Osama Bin Laden, he rebuked the civilian government, all the while avoiding the question on how Laden managed to take refuge in an army garrison town.
Khan, of course, has denied all allegations of being backed by the military. Yet, regardless of the army’s influence in this year’s elections, what is worth reflecting upon is the remarkable journey of the playboy cricketer of Pakistan who is well positioned to take on the prime ministerial role of the country.