The roller-coaster species that is Imran Khan is unabashedly a contradiction in terms as the more he errs the more he prospers. The only brother of four sisters, all described as ‘educated, strong women with lives of their own’ by his former spouse Jemima, the partially anglicized Imran Khan is a curious amalgam of conservative and progressive ideals that get mixed up topsy-turvy in his mercurial thought process.
Inspired by his famous cricketing cousins, he took to cricket like a duck to water and surpassed them. His tall and lanky frame supported by a sturdy physique enabled him to withstand the angularly rigorous requirements of cricket much longer than most of his colleagues and in the process he picked up his life-long habit of regular exercise, an addiction he gave in to even during the crowded and tense 126 days of his dharna.
In his privileged alma mater Aitchison College he rubbed shoulders with the scions of political families such as Sardar Akhtar Mengal and Nawab Zulfiqar Magsi and become friendly with prospective politicians, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Pervez Khattak and Sardar Ayaz Sadiq. He must have been bitten by the political bug in such company but the bug remained latent as his youth was overtaken by his cricketing ambition. Supported by his influential cousins, he effortlessly joined high cricketing ranks and went to England where he developed into an accomplished cricketer earning the Oxford Blue and ultimately captaining the team. His academic pursuits were not as bright as he graduated from Keble College, Oxford with a second in Politics and a third in Economics.
He was shy but charismatic and his high-profile sporting image enabled him to live a gilded life. His sinewy build and mop of black hair transformed him into a thinking woman’s crumpet and his regular visits to London’s nightclubs ‘linked’ him to the rages of their time, Stephanie Beacham, Goldie Hawn, Lady Liza Campbell, Caroline Kellett, Sarah Giles and Susannah Constantine. His crowning glory as a sportsman was captaining Pakistan team in winning the Cricket World Cup in 1992. This was also the first time he tasted politics, nicely presented in an elixir of ‘national interest’, when General Zia-ul-Haq literally bounced him out of retirement, insisting he return to the game for the sake of, well, you guessed it right!
Quite early in his career he showed a marked tendency to raise and thrive on controversy, mostly self-created (dangerous psychological quirk) followed by self-righteous agitation. In 1977 he was one of the five Pakistani test cricketers to join Kerry Packer’s ODI series, then an anathema to cricket boards. In 1994 he admitted to have “occasionally scratched the side of the ball and lifted the seam” provoking a storm of protests all over the cricketing world. He also had to fight a libel case for calling English cricketers Ian Botham and Allan Lamb “racist, ill-educated and lacking in class.” Although he claimed credit for getting neutral umpires it was a requirement the game was conscious of much earlier and was already working on.
His lusty wanderings in England—famous for suffering from ‘charity’ disease—fostered an understanding in him that philanthropy was a natural corollary to durable celebrity and he nimbly entwined welfare with prospects of acquiring a pedestal for pursuing higher goals. Wasn’t it a befitting tribute to a mother succumbing to cancer from a doting son who built a cancer treatment facility to prevent the suffering she experienced? During the process his persona developed a cool calmness indicative of an inner centredness. His single-minded approach to the project in hand showed that he preferred the ends to the means, often ignoring protestations of his teammates and dragging them to fund-raising events and never hesitating to auction anything of value.
Incongruent it may appear yet he was appointed Chancellor of Bradford University but it was certainly not unusual as British universities appoint celebrities (first black ITN newsreader Sir Trevor McDonald, famous talk show host Sir Michael Parkinson) to this gratis and ceremonial position, expecting that they can open doors for their institution. The position entailed promoting the university internationally and included conferring students with degrees at two annual congregations spread over five days. With a reputation as a top sportsman and philanthropist Imran Khan’s appointment was considered a coup for the West Yorkshire University, raising its profile among the city’s large Pakistani community. He was the fifth chancellor of Bradford University and his predecessors included Prime Minister Harold Wilson who conferred 21,000 degrees during his 19 years as chancellor and rarely missed a ceremony. But true to his misplaced priorities, Imran Khan failed to turn up to graduation ceremonies for four consecutive years, constraining the institution to ask him to step down!
Always comfortable with his celebratory status, Imran Khan’s slide towards politics was painstakingly slow as political circles would not acknowledge that his sports standing in anyway qualified him for a leading political role. His frustration propelled him to denigrate politics and pooh-pooh prospects of him landing into this ‘dirty’ game as is evident from his statement in April 1995: “This assumption that I want to be Prime Minister is complete nonsense. I don’t want to get mixed up with politics.” But there was a lurking hope clearly discernible when he added, “Right now, Pakistanis are looking for a saviour. Just because I’ve built a hospital and led Pakistan to a World Cup win, they think I’m the one. It shows how desperate people are.” And then, hinting at a future course of action, he said in May 1995: “Politicians are corrupt to the core. They have devoured the wealth of this nation and are thirsting for more.” And to cap it all: “I don’t believe in a parliamentary democracy. Nobody can speak the truth in a party-based system.” The only credible part of his enunciations was that many Pakistanis, fed up with the pervasive corruption and vengeful brawling of politicos, in sheer desperation, turned to a cricket star as their only hope, something quite unthinkable in the case of Sachin Tendulkar in an equally unsavoury India.
Right after castigating politics, he formed the PTI In 1996, fought the election in 1997 from two constituencies—NA-53 (Mianwali) and NA- 94 (Lahore)—but lost both to PML-N candidates, one being Sardar Ayaz Sadiq. Not very hopeful about his political prospects, he adopted the tried-and-tested method of inexperienced celebrities by supporting Gen Pervez Musharraf who gradually became his covert benefactor and through him Imran Khan was introduced to a coterie of Musharraf supporters, particularly Jahangir Tareen, who would play an important role in his subsequent political journey. In the 2002 elections he won only his own seat from Mianwali and in the NA he resorted to another tried-and-tested method for garnering popular support; he played up the story broken byNewsweek about the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran in Guantanamo Bay. He began relying on the right-wing Pasban and was also linked to the strongly pan-Islamist Lt Gen Hameed Gul. But he learnt to his chagrin that rightist activists abhorred his western background as he was manhandled in 2007 by members of the IJT at Punjab University. Since then, he shifted his focus from Lahore to Islamabad, an uncharted political territory he planned to conquer and did.
However long he dabbled in politics, his actual political age is six years beginning from the large rally he organised in Lahore in 2011 and he has not looked back since. His party emerged the third largest in the NA in the 2013 elections, formed the government in KP, secured sizeable seats in the Punjab Assembly, succeeded in showing a presence in Sindh but failed completely in Balochistan. His tendency to agitate became menacingly potent when his inflated self-belief deflated by the election outcome made him fly off the handle and go down an agitational and counter-agitational spiral that shows no signs of abating.
Now, here we are with Mr. Imran Khan gleefully witnessing the demolition of his political rivals and waiting to be anointed king. Nothing can put a chink in his armour as it is plated with special kind of Teflon. His politicking is a senselessly puerile merry-go-round with no end in sight, reflecting his strongly held belief that the Establishment can only be cowed by a virile demonstration of street power. He possesses an apparently inexhaustible financial resource, coming from heaven knows where. His below-the-belt public stance is now the order of the day. His ascent has proven that the Pakistani thinking woman’s crumpet is immune to considerations of age as he has been abnormally successful in enticing females constituting more than fifty percent of the country’s populace to rush to him whenever summoned. Unfortunately, the womenfolk crowding his rallies convey the impression of being there for fun’s sake rather than being motivated by the chance to usher in genuine change with a few trying to enter the inner party sanctum only to be repulsed by the sexism there. He belatedly understood the advantages of staying single as it keeps the myth of availability intact.
As an augury, it must be noted that he is the only Caesar publicly debunking his minions; his school chum Pervez Khattak—preferred over party head Asad Qaiser—for running a wayward government in politically advanced KP and the manner in which he demeaned his party’s government indicates that he treats hindsight with incredulous frivolity. It is a frightening spectre to hand over the running of the country to a horde of novices led by a knight in shining armour whose only qualification is that he hurled a cricket ball hard at his opponents and occasionally hit them out of the ground.
It is often said that Pakistanis deserve the current leadership as it is reflective of their cumulative national characteristics. But does this mean that they are condemned to endure it for all time to come with no chance of redemption ever in sight?
Ali Siddiqi is a former bureaucrat and runs an academic training outfit in Karachi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org