THE KHAN OF HOPE
Imran Khan was, without doubt, the most charismatic cricketer of his generation. Strikingly handsome, he was one of the fastest bowlers of his time who evolved into one of the game’s most outstanding all-rounders. He took over the reins of captaincy and moulded a team of talented, yet temperamental, cricketers into a side of world beaters, ultimately winning the ICC World Cup in 1992. He also demonstrated a sense of social commitment by building a state-of-the-art cancer hospital dedicated to the memory of his mother Shaukat Khanum. Schooled at Lahore’s elite Aitchison College before graduating from Oxford in 1975 with a Bachelor’s in philosophy, politics, and economics, Khan combined exceptional communication skills, sophistication, and bravura.
However, even at the peak of success there were murmurs about his methods. There were rumours that the Pakistani side had indulged in tampering with the ball to gain unfair advantage for their fast bowlers, who also developed the art of reverse swing. It was widely known that he used to shower the choicest of abuses on players who did not measure up to his expectations. There was also huge resentment against him from within the team for the manner in which he went about promoting himself, forgetting that cricket was a team sport. Thus, despite his multifarious achievements, Imran was never a popular person within the Pakistani dressing room.
Imran ventured into the badlands of Pakistani politics after his retirement from the game. He had earlier been invited by General Zia Ul Haq, the dictator who ruled Pakistan from 1979 till 1988, to become a member of the Union Cabinet, but had turned down the offer. In 1996, Khan formed a political party named Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), roughly meaning ‘Pakistan movement for justice’. In 2002, he contested the general elections to become a Member of the National Assembly. His innings in politics took off slowly, with his party faring poorly in the general elections of 2008 as well. However, PTI formed the government in the province of Khyber Pakhthunkwa following the 2013 elections, which also saw the party emerging as a serious contender in national politics.
The period between 2013 and 2018 saw Imran come to the forefront of national politics as the leading voice of political opposition to the government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He led demonstrations against the government alleging electoral malpractices and corruption. Along the way he also teamed up with the forces of Islamic fundamentalism, earning the sobriquet of “Taliban Khan”, on account of his friendly ties with religious clerics and their supporters. Meanwhile, the Pakistani army fell out with Nawaz Sharif, who wanted to script his own foreign policy, and the Generals adopted Imran as their chosen candidate in 2018 elections.
It was a forgone conclusion that Imran would win the elections once the Army and the Taliban threw their full weight behind him. Nawaz Sharif was removed from the post of Prime Minster after a quick trial over possession of assets outside the country. Sharif and his daughter were imprisoned and debarred from standing for elections.
The Pakistan Muslim League (PML), Nawaz Sharif’s party, and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the organisation led by the Bhuttos, who were both comprehensively beaten in the elections, have alleged widespread rigging. There were also reports about arrests of prominent supporters of PML in the run-up to the polls, sending a clear message to the electorate that this party was no longer the favoured one.
In fact, prior to the elections, there was a mass exodus to PTI of “electables”, of mostly moneyed land-owning gentry, who have been winning the polls regularly, irrespective of their party allegiances. All this sent out clear indications about the direction in which the wind was blowing. So, it came as no surprise when Khan’s party bagged the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, though they fell short of winning an absolute majority.
COURSE CORRECTION? NOT QUITE
Where would Khan go from here? It is an accepted fact that the political executive, despite being elected, has very little say in the running of government in Pakistan, especially in matters concerning Foreign affairs and Defence. The only Prime Minister, till date, who could govern for some stretch of time without having his powers curbed by the army and the religious establishment was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and that too because he had assumed office in the aftermath of 1971 war against India, where the Pakistani forces suffered a humiliating defeat. But history records that even Bhutto was thrown out of office in an army coup and, worse, sent to gallows by the same General he had installed in office. Nawaz Sharif started out as a favourite of the army but attempted to take them on twice, with disastrous consequences. Thus, it would not be prudent on Khan’s to take on the armed forces or attempt to chart his own course in matters relating to the military or relations with other countries.
When one studies the history of Pakistan and compare it with that of India, it can be seen that no two countries could be more dissimilar, despite being contiguous neighbours. While India established itself as a secular democracy with emphasis on the rule of law, Pakistan was subjected to prolonged periods of military rule right from the 1950s.
Pakistani civil society continues to be under the control of a powerful clique of clerics and feudal lords, who ensure that the forces of democracy do not develop strong roots. This triumvirate, which has wielded power right through the 70 years of the nation’s existence, continues to remain unchallenged. Khan too hails from the same social milieu, as do the Bhuttos and the Zardaris and the Sharifs. Therefore, it would not make economic or political sense to expect Khan, despite his undoubted social commitment, to attempt anything too radical to change the social order of the day.
THE INDO-PAK STATUS QUO
What would be the impact of Imran taking office on India-Pakistan relations? It is no secret that the “Taliban Khan” who won the 2018 elections is a far cry from the playboy fast bowler, who used to revel in the company of his friends in Bollywood. If his statement about attempting to resolve the Kashmir issue based on resolutions passed by United Nations more than half a century ago is any indication, the bilateral relations are set to travel southwards. His complete silence on acts of terror in Kashmir and other parts of India, sponsored by the fundamentalist groups based in Pakistan, would not make him popular with India’s Foreign Office. Thus, not surprisingly, the initial reaction from the Indian side to his accession to power has been hardly positive.
Khan faces a number of issues in the domestic sector as well. Pakistan’s economy is in a shambles and there is an urgent need to improve economic growth and create jobs within the country. The massive cuts in aid brought in by the Donald Trump administration of the U.S. has piled up domestic pressure even as there are growing concerns and protests about the financial implications of the mega infrastructure projects being implemented by China. The new Prime Minister would be required to pay full attention to these issues and learn the art of playing a balancing role between the two global super powers.
Khan is perceived to be different from other leaders of present-day Pakistan in that he does not hail from any political dynasty and has entered politics only out of his commitment to society and the nation. He has aroused high hopes amongst the ordinary Pakistanis as he is considered to possess the potential to change things for the better, given the successes he has achieved and the lack of baggage from the past, which together place him in a position of unique advantage.
However, it remains to be seen if he is blessed with the political dexterity to work himself into a position of eminence over the army and the clerics and come into his own as a leader.
History will judge Imran Khan cruelly if he squanders away the enormous goodwill he has generated and misses the opportunity he has been provided to take the country off the path it has travelled thus far.