You can quibble about his margin of victory, rain on Imran Khan’s parade by saying it’s a stolen election, a match fixed by Pakistan’s “Deep State”, declare it the “dirtiest elections in 30 years” as former chief minister of Punjab and PML(N) leader Shehbaz Sharif has done.
You can raise questions about his ability to take over the reins of a failing state as former Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has, doubt his credentials to pull it back from the abyss, and concur with the West and India’s growing fears that the “creeping coup” will bring militants in through the backdoor.
But if there’s one point that this cricketing icon turned politician has proven with the sheer scale of this sweeping election victory is that he is still a “tabdeeli”, a game-changer with an extraordinary ability to read the strengths and weaknesses of the Opposition; and as he has shown this week, tap the anger and the angst of the young and the restless into engineering an electoral landslide that has swept away politicians who have been entrenched into the political DNA of Pakistan for over 40 years.
The rejection by voters of a slew of leaders from former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqqan Abbasi and Shehbaz Sharif, the PML(N)’s party president who had led the campaign in the absence of jailed leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and has, embarrassingly, lost one of the two seats he was standing from, was as shocking as the defeat of Jamaat-e-Islami’s chief Sirajul Haq, stalwarts like the Awami National Party’s Asfandyar Wali and Aftab Sherpao, former PPP Premier Yousaf Raza Gilani, the PML(Q)’s Ejaz-ul Haq and the PPP’s Naheed Khan, close aide to former PM Benazir Bhutto. More electoral blood will flow.
Some 19 million young voters were first-time voters in this election, and it is their outright rejection of the Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League(N) and to a lesser extent, the Bhutto-Zardari-led Pakistan People’s Party, when offered an alternative in Imran Khan, that has been pivotal to this dramatic upset. The military-judicial joint operation in rendering Nawaz Sharif and his daughter and heir Maryam Safdar unelectable was merely clearing the once-level playing field.
Political workers who once worked closely with the Sharif camp have been saying to me for nearly a year now that the mood in Pakistan was shifting away from the politics of the old parties. That the anti-corruption crusade that Imran Khan had started in 2013 would come to fruition in 2018.
While the older generation of wealthy businessmen and landowners in Punjab who had tied their fortunes to the Sharifs were questioning the point of continuing with the confrontational policy of the three-time Prime Minister against the military, the young craved for a leader who was committed to tackling the multiplicity of challenges facing the country, the rank neglect of education and essential services like water and power and other infrastructure in the towns, cities and the interior, where million-dollar projects were in the clutches of an elitist coterie.
Imran’s own province of KhyberPakhtunkhwa (KPK) made the loudest statement of all, by breaking with decades of tradition in re-electing an incumbent government led by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. That provincial boost is due as much to Imran Khan’s cult status as a cricketing czar, as to his government’s track record on delivering on healthcare and poverty alleviation, as well as his commitment to charity.
The PPP, which finally pushed Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the fresh-faced son of iconic figure Benazir, as the party’s face over the much-reviled party president and Benazir’s widower Asif Ali Zardari in this election, was clearly alive to the mood of the nation that was turning against the politics of the old. But it wasn’t enough. The question mark over Mr Zardari and the rise to wealth of his branch of the family has been repeatedly raised by the PTI leader. It didn’t give the PTI enough traction to win Sindh, or for that matter Balochistan. And if the Sharifs hold on to Punjab province, Imran’s ability to pull Pakistan out of its economic free-fall may come up against an Islamabad versus Lahore trope that can only lead to a further confrontation between the two.
Imran’s other challenge will be tackling its powerful neighbour. India’s angst over the “selection” of Imran Khan, based on comments where he raises Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to Mr Sharif for his swearing-in and Mr Modi’s own Lahore visit as indicative of moves to line the Sharifs’ pockets and weaken the military’s hold which only benefits New Delhi, can be put down to campaign rhetoric. In an interview last week, Imran took a markedly less jingoistic line, saying that the relationship between India and Pakistan was all about “reciprocity”. If India offers to talk to Pakistan, he would have no objection to the talks, he reportedly told his interviewer. In his first press conference, he said the same thing — “you take one step, we’ll take two”, raising hopes that after years of cross-border rhetoric, a thaw could not be ruled out.
Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, was not the tag one would have used in 1992 when I first interviewed him in Dubai’s plush Hyatt Regency Hotel, where instead of cricket he wanted to focus on what seemed at the time to be a bizarre project for a sporting icon to embark on — raising funds for a cancer research hospital, named after his mother Shaukat Khanum, whom he had just lost to cancer.
Diehard sports journalists, eyebrows raised over his many peccadilloes and focused on the match against India in Sharjah the next day, refused to touch the story. So there I was, given a long briefing by the sports editor, sent off to put the man on the mat. Much to his distress, the copy I wrote then reflected all the doubts one had at that time — and which refuse to go away completely — about whether the dashing, Western-educated poster boy, however well-meaning, who once strode the cricket fields the world over, could live up to the huge expectations he raised then, as he has done again, with his all-encompassing electoral victory.
Will the gale force “tabdeeli” that he has unleashed be the change that the people of Pakistan have been looking for?