These aren’t the best of times for cricketers turned netas in the sub-continent. In Pakistan, Imran Khan has been forced out of the prime ministerial chair after losing a parliamentary majority. In India, Navjot Sidhu has resigned as Punjab Congress chief after the party’s electoral debacle in the recent assembly elections. While the political context of Pakistan and Punjab are vastly different, there are striking similarities in the rise and fall of the two leaders that hold important lessons for those who seek to make a mark in public life beyond the boundary.
Take Imran Khan first. He came to power in Pakistan in 2018 as the charismatic and inspirational hero who was promising to break the dominance of his country’s dynastical and corrupted elites and build a ‘Naya Pakistan’. For a citizenry disenchanted with the traditional politicians, Khan aroused high expectations as a potential game-changer. That he was also widely perceived to be the all powerful Pakistan army’s ‘chosen one’ was seen to have made his task just that much easier: the puppeteers in uniform could ride on Khan’s popular appeal to control the power apparatus without threatening his chair. Khan it appeared had the goodwill of the people and the support of the army, a surefire success formula in Pakistan’s game of thrones.
Sidhu too was made Punjab Congress president with the assured backing of the Congress’s First Family. Sidhu’s access to the Gandhis meant that he was guaranteed pre-eminent status within the deeply factionalised state unit that had just ousted its long serving chief minister: Sidhu’s picture with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was widely circulated to legitimize his elevation. Like Imran, Sidhu too could claim to be an anti-establishment hero who was taking on the ancien regime of Punjab’s family-centric, big money politics. A crowd-puller who was being pitched as a face of the future, the dramatic rise of Sidhu appeared unstoppable just a few months ago.
So why did the star value and anti-corruption crusader credentials that the Khan-Sidhu duo brought to their politics not translate into something more substantive? The short answer would be to suggest that politics is played on a very different pitch to cricket, one where there are no set rules of engagement. In cricket, a captain or star player can lead from the front and use the sheer force of personal achievement to make a crucial difference. Politics is vastly more complicated and requires individuals to wear multiple hats, become bridge-builders, nurture collective energies and strengthen institutional capacities and not just satiate personal ego and vaulting ambition.
In a sense, both Khan and Sidhu are alumni of the Donald Trump school of disruptionist politics, larger than life figures whose commitment to the self is often greater than their loyalty to an organization. In Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Insaaf that was founded by Khan in 1996 was a party solely identified with the personality cult of the Supreme Leader, a sporting legend who had quite remarkably led his cricket-crazy country to its first and only World Cup success. With his post-retirement philantrophic work in setting up a state of the art cancer hospital, Khan saw himself as a man of destiny, someone who would be unchained by the baggage of Pakistan’s turbulent politics.
Sidhu is not quite in the Imran category either as a cricketer or a politician – Khan, after all, did struggle to build his party for years unlike Sidhu who had a soft landing as he moved from the BJP to the Congress — but the motormouth Sardar’s self-image is of a similar superhuman figure who, as he kept reiterating in speeches and interviews, was given the God-given task of guiding a chaotic Punjab to a better future. For Sidhu, the Congress party organization was incidental: he could override internal structures and even the chief minister’s office to establish himself as Punjab’s ultimate savior. Having successfully led the revolt against the party’s ageing satrap, Captain Amarinder Singh, Sidhu seemed even more convinced that his time had come.
The mistake that both Khan and Sidhu made – as did Trump in Washington – is in failing to recognize that there are limits to fierce individualism replacing institutional cohesion in a democratic set-up. In the United States, Trump was inciting people to disrespect an electoral verdict, almost creating a recipe for anarchy with the violence last January at Capitol Hill. Khan too now appears to be urging citizens to revolt against his rivals by making bizarre claims of a ‘foreign conspiracy’ and call for street protests. A sulking Sidhu too in the run up to the elections repeatedly threatened to resign from his post if his demands were not met.
In the process, all of them overreached themselves to the point of no return. Trump may have won a US presidential election as a rank outsider but he couldn’t sustain his rise without the Republican party organisation by his side. Khan may have been a cult figure in Pakistan but forgot that his survival was eventually dependent on not crossing the red lines set by the army, Pakistan’s ultimate political arbiter. And Sidhu should have realized that his own future was inextricably entwined with that of his party: repeatedly attacking his own chief minister on public platforms was always going to be a recipe for a disaster.
Which is why it is important to recognize the limits of unbridled personality-driven politics that attempts to bypass democratic checks and balances by focusing solely on personal appeal. The rise of populist leaders in the sub-continent and beyond might bring new actors and a certain freshness into the political system but if those individuals fail to provide effective governance and deliver on their tall promises, then they risk pushing democracy into further recession because of a loss of public faith in the political class in general. Writing off any politician at any stage is hazardous but Khan and Sidhu by getting bowled out because of their missteps have perhaps made it even more difficult for any future sporting hero to make the leap into politics. Which is a pity at a time when politics in both countries desperately needs new faces and ideas.
Post-script: Of the many Imran stories, my favorite is when he tried to stamp out match-fixing as captain. In the late 80s, with rumors swirling of several Pakistani players having taken money to ‘fix’ a final in Sharjah, Khan called an urgent meeting in the dressing room and said he was betting all the Pakistan team prize money earned so far on winning the match. Sure enough, the team won the game. If only political powerplay was as straightforward as a cricket match!