In December 2013, cricketer turned politician Imran Khan was in India for the Hindustan Times leadership summit. The Delhi election results had just been announced and Arvind Kejriwal had emerged as the great new hope of Indian politics. ‘I would love to meet this Kejriwal fellow,’ Imran told me excitedly, ‘He seems to be boldly taking on political corruption like me!’ The meeting couldn’t happen because Kejriwal was busy then in government formation, but it was apparent that Imran saw an instant affinity with the AAP leader as two political ‘outsiders’ challenging a corrupt and entrenched establishment (the duo did meet in 2016 when Imran was in India for the T-20 World cup).
Five years later, as Imran takes over as Pakistan’s prime minister, the question is: has Imran Khan finally shown the way to other potential change agents that it is possible to conquer sub-continental political dynasties without relying on lineage or a durable party organisation? Well, yes and no. Yes, Imran offers hope to those who seek to challenge traditional political elites but he is also in many ways a unique Pakistani phenomenon who has been propelled forward by a heady mix of star power and staying power, with the country’s omnipotent army preparing the perfect pitch for him ahead of the 2018 elections (In India, unlike our neighbours, the troops stay in the barracks even as the generals prefer their chota or a game of golf to political machinations!)
Unlike a Kejriwal, Imran was not an instant hit in politics. In fact, the first decade and a half of his political career that started in the late 1990s is dotted with a series of humbling defeats. Imran could have easily given up and gone back to his opulent lifestyle in the west. That he stayed on in Pakistan, refused to give up, kept tilting at the Bhutto-Zardaris and the Sharifs, gave him political equity for sheer resilience. Imran the cricketer had learnt never to take a back step, pushing his mercurial team to finally win a World Cup in 1992; Imran, as leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaaf, also chose to punch above his newbie party’s weight, eventually forcing his critics to take him seriously.
Indeed, intense self-belief bordering on self-obsession has been core to the Imran persona, marked by a steadfast refusal to give up on his dreams. I recall a conversation in his early years as a politician when his party had been routed in the elections. ‘I guess politics is not quite cricket,’ I pointed out with barely disguised scepticism. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ I become prime minister. Let a new generation of Pakistanis grow up and I will be ready for them!” he said with typical immodesty.
In his journey towards this ‘naya’ Pakistan, he has made troubling compromises but somehow never quite lost his combative urges. His alignment with the Pakistani Taliban, for example, earned him the title ‘Taliban Khan’. The criticism hurt him but didn’t seem to faze him: ‘I am against the US drone attacks and war on terror killing innocents, if that makes me Talibani, then it reveals the ideological bankruptcy of those who know no better!’ was his sharp response.
More worryingly, he was seen to even support the archaic Talibani justice courts and even endorse the utterly retrograde and dangerous blasphemy laws in an attempt to cultivate an image as a born again Islamist. Like many sub-continental politicians, he was a neta in search of a vote bank: the metropolitan youth who had first gravitated towards him were never going to make him a ‘national’ leader. Reaching out to the more conservative forces in Pakistan with shrill anti-west rhetoric almost became a political necessity, driven by a fierce ambition to be seen as more than just a fringe figure.
The dichotomy between his personal life and political goals was apparent: living in an opulent mansion overlooking Islamabad but professing an allegiance to the common man’s struggles may seem a bit of an oddity. And yet, he is a committed philanthropist who built two cancer hospitals and a university in a country where most public figures would scarcely contribute to health and education.
In a sense, one could argue that Imran has always been a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde personality: the suave and charismatic folk hero co-existing with the populist rhetoric of a rabble-rouser. On the cricket field, he was the intimidating fast bowler who once famously remarked that when starting his run-up against India’s batsmen, he had Kashmir and its azaadi in mind. But he was also the flamboyant posterboy of the global game who was welcomed with open arms into the homes of India’s bold and beautiful and who once even helpfully advised his great rival, Sunil Gavaskar that he should wear a helmet to protect himself against the threat of a bouncer.
Decoding the Imran phenomenon is to view him then as a man of many parts who is willing to re-invent himself even at the risk of being dubbed an opportunist or hypocritical figure. And yet, despite the criticism of his individual foibles, the ultimate goal was always unshaken: over-turn Pakistan’s discredited political elite at all costs. Like Kejriwal, he too was accused of using the dharna as a weapon of impending anarchy but it didn’t stop him from keeping the heat on his rivals. Which is why when even today he is targeted as the army’s ‘chosen one’ , it is difficult to see how long someone like Imran will be dictated to by external agendas. After all, when he captained the Pakistani team, it was often said that the team lived in constant fear of ‘Kaptan’ Khan.
Managing a sharply polarised and violence prone society like Pakistan where religio-terror machines and the army are formidable stakeholders would make leading a cricket dressing room seem like a walk in the park. For someone who has shown remarkable tenacity all his life, Imran now faces his biggest challenge yet in living upto heightened public expectations. The temptation would be to write him off as an ‘made for opposition’ agitationist who won’t make the transition to a more inclusive governance role. But then again, we’ve written off Imran so often in the past only to realise that the indefatigable spirit of the Oxonian Pathan is never to be discounted.
Post-script: In 2015, Imran was back in India, this time for an Aaj Tak media conclave. This time, a meeting was organised between him and prime minister Narendra Modi. “Such a positive person, it was a really good meeting,” enthused Imran. Will there be a Modi-Imran summit meet in the near future I wonder. And if there is, will this be a case where Mr Modi for once is decisively shaded in the photo-op stakes?!