Imran Khan had gone to buy some medicines when he saw an old man holding a prescription. He thought the man had the same look that he had, whenever he saw his mother, a cancer patient, in pain. The man handed over the slip to the pharmacist. But, when he heard the price, he just walked out. His brother was dying of cancer. The old man’s desperate face remained etched in Imran’s memory for years.
In his autobiography, All Round View, Imran wrote that corruption was institutionalised in Pakistan. “Because of inflation, salaries have fallen behind, and it is partly for this reason that corruption has become so much a part of our life…. A revolutionary change in our social structure—especially in economic terms—is needed if we are to rid ourselves of this menace.”
This was 1988. Imran had come out of retirement, at the behest of Pakistan president Zia-ul-Haq. He led Pakistan on a tour to the West Indies and drew the Test series 1-1. For the first time in a decade, the West Indies had lost a Test at home.
Back then, there was no political career in sight for Imran. Thirty years later, however, he is embarking upon a tougher, more ambitious, yet less glamorous career, as prime minister of Pakistan.
Things have changed for Imran. But, not for Pakistan. For young Pakistanis, Imran and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, represent hope. He has listed several things under his slogan of tabdeli (change), including corruption and the anguish over the lack of money for education and healthcare. There is even a mention of the British National Health Service, a model that he wants to implement in Pakistan. All those who are quick to describe him as a playboy forget that Imran spent more than two decades struggling to be a successful politician.
The journey has been long and gruelling. Imran was an outsider, a celebrity trying to make his way into politics. His efforts made news, but no one gave him a chance. He boycotted the 2008 elections. In 2013, he took to the streets protesting against rigging in the elections.
“He never lost hope,’’ said Imtiaz Awan, general secretary, PTI Canada. “He taught me that we should persevere.” Awan launched the PTI social media storm in 2013 and others were forced to play catch-up. His jalsas, with their choreographed theme songs, were hugely popular. No one from his family ever voted, till Imran came along. “People think of Imran as a cricketer,” he said. “But they don’t realise that he had left the cricketer behind long ago.”
In the post 9/11 era, terrorism has become the defining story of Pakistan. Imran has got the young voters on his side, and, in the times of hypernationalism, he fits the bill, like Donald Trump. He talks about ending Pakistani dependence on western aid, about corruption, jobs and dignity. For a country ravaged by terrorism—after having used it as a tool of statecraft—and going through a serious economic crisis, Imran, with his promise of change, represented the messiah.
“He has never been after personal gain,’’ said Awan. In 2007, when nobody gave Imran a chance, Awan and his band of brothers would go to the Karachi Press Club and talk about their agitation. “There were no followers,” he said. “Now people look at us and ask us what we saw that they didn’t.’’
Imran’s rise is as much about Pakistan, with a large youth population looking for hope, as it is about him. The building of the cancer hospital in memory of his mother, Shaukat Khanum, was a cause that he embraced with all his might, even before he retired from cricket in 1992. It helped him perfect the art of public speaking and gave him an insight about Pakistan. It changed him. “At some stage during his 1994 fundraising tour for the hospital, Imran became persuaded of the merits of a populist political ideology that came to dominate his life from then on,’’ wrote Christopher Sandford in his biography of Imran.
He learnt a lot from those trips. Moreover, the hospital that treats 70 per cent of its patients for free, has touched the lives of millions of Pakistanis. “I think people like stories that they can feel a part of. A lot of his voters were either too young or apathetic to vote before,’’ said Shahadana Minhas, a writer from Lahore. “If they are taking ownership of the idea of what it is to be Pakistani, instead of letting someone feed it to them, that is a positive thing.”
Imran’s popularity seems real, despite his ‘deal’ with the army. Each civilian government has had its own pact with the establishment. Imran’s rise to power—“rushed’’, as described by a journalist—has its own share of predictability, but it cannot be denied that he has a groundswell of support. One of the dirtiest bits about this election has been the clamp-down on media. With practically no foreign press allowed on the ground to report, the narrative of Imran’s win was easier to spin. His supporters, however, don’t mind the establishment hand. “There will always be a factor of the establishment’s alleged covert or blatant interference or influence,” said journalist Mehr Tarar, a firm Imran supporter. “If all key civilian institutions are strengthened, the solution to the question of civilian supremacy will be a phantom, and Imran, while respecting the role and significance of the armed forces and its affiliated institutions, can emerge as the civilian leader who simply stands as the primary ruling authority in a democratic set-up,’’ she said.
For the liberals, who have frowned at Imran’s fervent embrace of Islam and his acceptance of blasphemy laws, this is difficult to stomach. They are also opposed to his dictatorial style of functioning. This time, however, Imran has largely chosen electability over his principles. “The storyteller in me thinks it’s a case of people wanting a Hercules to clean out Augean stables,’’ said Minhas. “Personally, I think he is closer to Dorian Gray.”
He won all seats he contested, from across the country. His numbers in Karachi stunned even PTI supporters. Bilawal Bhutto lost in Lyari, a seat that was thought to be safe. It clearly indicates the disenchantment with established politics. The PTI has also stormed the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) bastion in Punjab, winning 123 seats as against the PML(N)’s 129. “Earlier you said Sharif was from Punjab, and Benazir was from Sindh. Imran is the only politician who is from everywhere in Pakistan,’’ said Awan.
The challenges for Imran begin now. He needs to deliver on his rather ambitious demands. On the economic front, he has requested the non-resident Pakistanis to invest. The United States, one of the major sources of support for Pakistan, is reluctant to hand out money. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said America would watch the IMF closely if it offered aid to Pakistan, which could be used to pay off Chinese loans.
India figured right at the end of his victory speech, while China and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor came first. Imran expressed hope that China would help Pakistan get out of its economic mess. “Unlike my parents’ generation, I am not anti-Indian,’’ wrote Imran in his autobiography. “I may be naïve to hope that one day India and Pakistan will have the kind of relationship envisaged by Jinnah, but it is essential for the development of both countries.”
Things, have changed since then. Imran criticised India during the election campaign. Kashmir will be at the centre of his India policy and his views will be similar to that of the army. During his victory speech, he talked of Kashmir and the alleged human rights violations perpetrated by India. “Nothing will change for us,’’ said Rana Banerji, a security expert. “Imran will be more beholden to the army and will toe its line.”
By not listing India first, however, Imran demonstrated that India was not an obsession for him. The message to India was simple. There is a need to improve ties. “You take one step and we will take two,’’ he said in his speech. Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, former foreign minister and a member of the PTI, said peace was possible with the army. He said India needed to change its entrenched belief that the army would not let it happen.
Because of the historically unpredictable ties with India, Imran’s prime ministership is unlikely to change things on the ground in the short term. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s phone call to Imran, however, seems to have improved the atmosphere. Yet, most Indian experts are not expecting any substantial change. “I don’t think there will be much change,’’ said General (retd) Deepak Kapoor, former chief of Army staff. “There will possibly be more dominance of the army in the policy than in the past.’’
Lieutenant General (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain, who commanded the Srinagar-based XV Corps, said Imran would not be able to change in a hurry the deep animosity the Pakistan army has had for India and that he would turn to the army for guidance. “With India’s general elections due in nine months or so, the subcontinent isn’t really ready for peace initiatives; status quo might be better. It is after June 2019 that sights might be set a little higher,” he said.
Imran is charismatic, and is on the same page as the military, but he still has to deal with the baggage of the past to frame the future. “Political initiatives cannot be predicted in the context of India-Pakistan relations,” said T.C.A. Raghavan, former high commissioner to Pakistan. “Imran is also a political entity and not just someone put up by the establishment.”
Imran enjoys a cult status among his supporters, just like Modi does in India. For them, Imran isn’t just a politician, he is an inspiration, a role model. Any criticism of him, or even a hint of a taint, is enough to spark outrage. Having such leaders on both sides of the border leaves little room for delicate manoeuvring to craft a better relationship.
Sharif learnt that the hard way. He refused to toe the establishment line on India, refused to send troops to Yemen for a war waged by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, and paid the price. “The Saudi angle cannot be ignored,’’ said Munizae Jahangir, a Pakistani journalist. Imran needs to steer clear of all these.
In the case of Afghanistan, however, Imran’s policy of going easy on the Taliban, could be a game changer. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani was the first leader to congratulate Imran. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan, is a PTI stronghold, where the party made history by winning the provincial elections for the second time in a row with 66 seats. In concluding lasting peace in Afghanistan, Imran’s contribution could be crucial.
Despite the foreign policy challenges, Imran’s major concern will be on the home front. He has plans to reduce expenditure, to generate jobs, to partition Punjab, and to eliminate corruption and recreate the success he has had in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The burden of expectations is huge. “It will not be easy,’’ said Rabia Nizami, a newly-elected member to the Sindh provincial assembly. Nizami, who works with a tech company, turned to the PTI as she felt the party shared her vision for Pakistan. Unlike Awan, who remains starstruck, Nizami, is inspired by
Imran’s vision. “The results may not be 100 per cent, but you see the effort being put in,” she said. “Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is not completely transformed, but Imran has put us on the path for the journey.’’