Home Global Village Imran Khan: From cricket to Prime Minister’s house

Imran Khan: From cricket to Prime Minister’s house


Dr. Saad Shafqat |

It took Imran Khan two decades, but Pakistan’s disillusionment with the same old politicians and the Army’s fondness for the ‘Kaptaan’ has finally handed him the top prize. It took two decades and towards the end he needed a tilted playing field, but Imran Khan finally did it. As in cricket where he became an all-time legend, and in philanthropy where he established a world-class cancer hospital, in politics too Imran has now grabbed the top prize. With his right-leaning Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) winning the largest cache of parliamentary seats in Wednesday’s general election, Imran’s ascent to Pakistan’s premiership is now a formality.

This is as outsized an achievement as it is possible to imagine. Only Sachin Tendulkar becoming prime minister of India would be bigger. Although his party fell just short of an outright majority, it won’t take much – a few independents and one or two of the small regional parties, at the most – for it to form Pakistan’s next central government. Most significantly, with substantial gains in all four provinces, PTI has emerged as a nationally representative party, handing Imran a mandate stretching across the length and breadth of the land.

Imran Khan’s life story can be summarised as the Lahore aristocrat who made good — in spectacular fashion. You can’t stitch together such laurels without some natural advantages, and Imran has certainly had more than his share. Prestigious family background, elite education, athletic talent, inexhaustible physical and mental stamina, and striking good looks have all come together to create in Imran Khan a perfect storm of a man. Of course inherent gifts alone are not enough; success ultimately depends on what you make of them. This is where Imran’s inexorable resolve pulls him away from the pack.

The other is how long before his clever straddling of the civil-military fault line becomes uncomfortable, even unbearable. The former is something that only time will tell. The latter is more complicated and depends on maintaining triangular equipoise between Imran, the electorate, and the army.

Even a perilous fall from a height of four meters, during the election of 2013 that resulted in skull and spine fractures, couldn’t dent his momentum. As a cricketer Imran wandered in and out of the team for a few years before finally hitting his stride with a memorable 12-wicket haul in Sydney. He became established as a strike bowler with genuine pace, really the first subcontinental player to be so recognised. Despite this success, he wasn’t seen as an automatic leader. In 1981, a team revolt against Javed Miandad left the captaincy a three-way race between Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbas and Imran.

Majid was considered too old and Zaheer was vetoed by Miandad, leaving Imran as the default choice. Captaincy transformed him and his team. He led from the front, marshalling his troops like a general in battle. He fought tooth and nail and never gave up. His leadership engineered inaugural Test series wins for Pakistan in England and India, but it was in the World Cup of 1992 that his tenacity and resolve reached their apex. At the mid-point of the tournament Pakistan had been virtually eliminated. Morale was rock-bottom. Imran urged his players to fight like cornered tigers. History was made.

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Anecdotes on Imran’s cricket leadership are aplenty, but a particularly resonant example comes from the eve of the 1992 World Cup semifinal, when Inzamamul Haq had come down with flu. He had performed creditably in the previous match and Imran was convinced he would be key to any Pakistan victory. Imran persuaded Inzamam to play, illness notwithstanding. The next day, Pakistan found themselves four wickets in the hole chasing a solid New Zealand total. Miandad was at one end and he signalled towards the pavilion for the hard-hitting lefthander Wasim Akram to be sent in next.

But Imran relied on his instincts and pushed Inzamam to step out. Batting through body malaise and fever, Inzamam played the tournament’s defining knock. Pakistan were through to the final and a great batting career was launched. In 1996, when Imran launched PTI, it got dismissed as an urban drawing-room phenomenon. Wherever he went, he faced withering reviews of his prospects. He was called naive, amateur, misguided and ignorant. Miandad notes in his autobiography that during their playing days Imran had always seemed an unlikely politician; he showed little interest in current events and would shy away from politics as a discussion topic. Even as recently as the early part of this decade, PTI remained a marginalised party, and Imran a footnote in Pakistan’s political narrative. Yet he kept soldiering on.

Imran Khan’s life story can be summarised as the Lahore aristocrat who made good — in spectacular fashion. You can’t stitch together such laurels without some natural advantages, and Imran has certainly had more than his share.

Then in the general election of 2013 — a watershed moment marking Pakistan’s first-ever uninterrupted democratic transition — PTI emerged as the third-largest outfit with 35 seats in the National Assembly, and enough of a majority in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to form the provincial government. Everyone sat up and took notice. Imran’s support had come from across ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries. This was an impressive display of political craftsmanship. Not since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the late 1960s and early 1970s — and to some extent Benazir in her final ill-fated innings — had a Pakistani politician inspired such cross-cutting appeal.

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From 2013 to now, Imran’s journey has been a tightrope walk along Pakistan’s treacherous civil-military fault line. What has helped him on the civilian side of things is an electorate sick of the same stale options and desperate for anything new. But it is the military side of this equation that has proved truly consequential, as Imran and the army became united in their enmity against Nawaz Sharif. It has been Imran’s incessant drumbeat of anti-Nawaz criticism, kicked off by massive sit-in protests in the center of Islamabad in August 2014, that not only dethroned Nawaz from the premiership but have now ultimately led to him being put behind bars for ill-gotten wealth.

Still, the army, although potent, is not omnipotent. Despite their approval, Imran eventually had to win this by himself. His most widely admired quality is his irreproachable honesty and his single-minded drive for clean government. In a country beset by the most outrageous and brazen corruption scandals, this has been a compelling pitch. Another celebrated feature is his sincerity towards the country; few doubt his commitment to the greater national good. Even his most trenchant detractors question only his methods, not his desire to serve Pakistan.

Pakistan were through to the final and a great batting career was launched. In 1996, when Imran launched PTI, it got dismissed as an urban drawing-room phenomenon. Wherever he went, he faced withering reviews of his prospects.

In what is almost a political sleight of hand, Imran has brought disparate segments of the ideological and social spectrum under the same banner. His supporters include the liberal elite and civil society notables, as much as social and religious conservatives. Unsurprisingly, this has triggered some anxiety and afterthoughts. His recent marriage to a purdah-concealed spiritualist has progressives concerned about his misogyny or worse, while his reluctance to call out extremists and terrorists makes people wonder if he has a soft corner for fundamentalism.

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There is also murmured disappointment about nominating crafty career politicians to a number of races; Imran’s rationale is their electability, but many PTI supporters have felt alienated. Yesterday’s vote showed, however, that at least for now a great chunk of the Pakistani public has opted to put these misgivings aside. The question on everybody’s lips is, what now? Imran’s leadership style, in international cricket as well as in PTI, has been authoritarian. Doubts being raised are twofold. One is whether Imran can smoothly jump from the bellicose rhetoric and argumentative advocacy of campaigning, to the decision-making and statecraft demanded by governance.

The other is how long before his clever straddling of the civil-military fault line becomes uncomfortable, even unbearable. The former is something that only time will tell. The latter is more complicated and depends on maintaining triangular equipoise between Imran, the electorate, and the army. There is no question that Imran will have better relations with the military than his democratically-elected predecessors, but it is an exaggeration to say that he is an army puppet. From what we know of his life and his personality, Imran Khan is nobody’s puppet. If you look at his lifelong record, only a fool would bet against Imran Khan. The one thing all cricket buffs of a certain vintage know is that you could never write Imran off. And cricket, after all, has an uncanny resemblance to real life.

Dr. Saad Shafqat is a cricket writer and novelist. His upcoming novel “Rivals”, a medical thriller, will be published by Bloomsbury later this year. The article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror and has been republished with author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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