The man from the dustbowl district of Mianwali, Pakistan, who has feathered his illustrious hat as a former cricketer, commentator, philanthropist and politician, is now poised for the biggest “captaincy” of his 66 years as Prime Minister of Pakistan. The flamboyant Pathan of the Niazi-Burki stock has come a long way since forming his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or PTI (Pakistan Movement for Justice) in 1996, and then winning the solitary seat by himself in the 2002 general election with 0.8 per cent of the national vote to now emerging as the biggest party in the 2018 general election.
Reminiscent of his cricketing life accusations of “ball-tampering” to deliver his lethal reverse swings, the political road to the PMO was paved with eerily similar murmurs of “friendly rigging” to take his political fortunes to its nadir. The PTI has finally emerged as the third major political force as it has bettered its 2014 performance, where it came third with 35 seats, even though it had garnered the second highest numbers of the popular vote (16.92 per cent, to Pakistan People Party’s 15.32 per cent, with 42 seats). The second successive transition of democracy from the PPP to PML(N) in 2013, and now from the beleaguered PML(N) to PTI is potentially the longest run for participative democracy in Pakistani history, and for the portents of the oft-quoted “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan)!
New Delhi watched the political hustings silently and without preferences in the quiet knowledge that irrespective of the individual in the Prime Minister’s position, the shadow of the “establishment” (read Pakistani military) will always loom and prevail in the background. Mr Khan has been consistently accused of being the “ladla” (favoured one) of the Pakistani “establishment”, and both the outgoing PML(N) and reduced-to-provincial-role PPP have already started rejecting the verdict “due to manifest and massive irregularities”. Whispers of the “establishment’s” preference for Mr Khan over the others first came out during the crippling azadi march of 2014, when the followers of Mr Khan’s PTI and those of moderate Islamic cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri were said to have been given the silent nudge by the military to organise the “sit-in” against the ostensible electoral frauds by the PML(N). Since then, while the Sharif brothers and the Bhutto-Zardari clans have been mired under multiple cases of corruption — the essential narrative of “King Khan” as the proverbial messiah of Pakistan’s economic slide and ignominy of corruption has been allowed to form.
Since his cricketing days, Mr Khan has developed a personality that has been larger-than-life and replete with instances of self-confessed misdemeanours that have ironically added to his persona. These traits of successful appropriations, selective ambivalences and “economies-of-truths” have come handy to evolve and mature the quintessential politician. Basking under the popular perception as the discoverer of the famed art of “reverse swing”, the real credit actually goes to the lesser-known Sarfraz Nawaz or even earlier Mr Khan’s clansman Farrakh Khan. Neither a tearaway pacer like Shoaib Akhtar nor as talented as Wasim Akram — the relatively more disciplined (only on the cricket ground) Mr Khan still emerged as the greatest Pakistani cricketer and captain of all time. His off-field exploits have been legendary on both sides of the LoC, as also in the West, only to rediscover his Islamic moorings and contemplative identity after meeting his mentor Mian Bashir. The supposed transformation from the playboy-socialite Imran Khan to the serious politician has since overcome all subsequent accusations of moral dalliances and infidelities, as exposed recently in the autobiography by his former wife Reham Khan. The road to spirituality and prime ministership was coincidentally also marked by his third marriage to the scholarly-austere-mystic Bushra Maneka.
While welcoming his opening spell of “you take one step forward, we will take two”, India must guard against the political reverse swings that are inevitable. His political, moral and personal malleability has earned him contradictory monikers like “Taliban Khan” and “Teflon Khan” alike. While frequently invoking and alluding to Jinnah and Iqbal’s vision of Pakistan as his lodestar, he was also in the forefront of submitting adjournment notice against the ban on Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Sensing the popular mood he has dovetailed and postured his perceived angst against the US as a fierce critic of drone attacks, even though they target terrorists who have made Pakistan bleed. He carefully avoids the contentious root cause by saying incredulously: “In Pakistan, the main problem is not extremism”, and adds naively that it is one of “governance failure” — the implied context of which means different things to different people, yet offending none. His seesaw relationship with the military has also been opportunistic, with him either lambasting the generals or quietly acquiescing to their ways, like in recent times. The innate populism couched in his overtly political statement that he would not stay in the Prime Minister’s mansion as he would be “embarrassed” by its opulence militates against the reality of his own 40 acre hilltop mansion in Islamabad.
The political pitch awaiting his formal ascendancy will retest his temperamental skills as he will have to navigate the carefully defined contours of governance that could enfeeble, rile and rouse the proud Pathan in the “land of the pure” after the “establishment” has dumped the Sharif-Bhutto “props” who overstepped their mandate. Like all powerful and seemingly decisive Opposition leaders, who brave the streets against the ruling establishments, the change of role and responsibility to that of actual governance is a completely different ballgame. Charm offensives and glib talk have their limits and in countries like Pakistan the real challenge is managing the home turf and the “palace intrigues” within, as opposed to “external” threats (read India) that are strategically postulated as bogies to keep various institutions like the military, clergy and politicians relevant as diversionary tactics.
Historically, lionised individually and often accused of selfishness and lacking team spirit, for example his speech after the 1992 World Cup or by the likes of his contemporaries like Javed Miandad, the next innings has just started. India too therefore needs to take guard.