Imran Khan had one ingrained virtue. He was breathtakingly sincere. But good intentions do not constitute good governance. Like an amateur, he overestimated his abilities when he needed wile or guile as strategy. On his day of judgment, Imran compared his predicament to that of Imam Hussain. The messiah may be faltering, but the messiah complex is alive and well
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
Politics, for Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi, was the day job of a messiah.
His logic followed a course through Pakistan’s history. Muhammad Ali Jinnah delivered the ‘promised land’ in 1947, but his death in 1948 denied the country its ‘promised leader’. For seven decades the country had been ravaged by civilian carpetbaggers and military swashbucklers, who kept the country trapped in turmoil and penury even as they fleeced the people, loaded their pockets, and eventually fled to post-office sanctuaries abroad. Imran Khan began his autobiography, published in 2011, with a fiery tirade against dictators and family fiefdoms who had turned politics into a “game of plunder and loot”. The cover design of his autobiography Pakistan: A Personal History, is more interesting than the title. Two lines in equal font size dominate the space at the top: Pakistan, and Imran Khan. In graphic terms, the two are synonymous. The perfunctory and bland subtitle ‘A Personal History’ is tucked away in much smaller type at the bottom.
The saviour kept his appointment with destiny with the induction of Imran Khan as prime minister in August 2018 after a quarter century of electoral humiliation, peer indifference and media cackling. It did not matter to Imran Khan that no one else had believed in him. He was empowered by self-belief.
Homage to a messiah should begin with a hosanna. Imran Khan had one ingrained virtue, complemented by an in-built advantage. He was breathtakingly sincere. This translated, for the conventional political class of Pakistan, into terrifyingly sincere. Imran Khan oozed goodwill for the impoverished from every pore, and reserved his quota of ill-will for the parasites in the military-bureaucratic-political complex who, in his reckoning, had stolen the wealth of the nation with the complicity of guardians in Washington.
The advantage was birth into privilege and affluence. That meant private English-medium schools, cousins like Javed Burki and Majid Khan who had captained the country’s cricket team, smooth passage to England, A-levels and Oxford University, all the essentials required to become a glamour boy of London, the maestro of sport and darling of hostesses who could swing on both the cricket pitch and the party scene of the 1970s and 1980s. Imran Khan was not a mere cricketer: he was the king of swoon who could set Kerry Packer’s historic breakaway professional tournament on fire in 1978 by wearing a T-shirt with the legend “Big Boys Play at Night”. A rambunctious Javed Miandad might have been more talented as a cricketer, but Miandad never went to the Royal Grammar School in Worcester or Aitchison College in Lahore or to Keble at Oxford for a degree in PPE, the preferred course for those who desired a comparatively easy academic ride to graduation.
Mistakes, or missteps, that might have felled another career in Islamic Pakistan gilded his international reputation. He was the errant achiever who irritated the mullahs when he rubbed the red cricket ball on his white trousers near the groin, but raised a cheer from the young and an indulgent blush from aunties. Great looks, good diction, and a friends’ list that included Princess Diana: What more could a generation ask for? Even the British tabloids could not wear him down. Pakistan had never had a superstar like Imran Khan, loved by Lahore and London.
From the fissures of a cracking polity, General Bajwa has laid down his markers. First, that the army has nothing to do with the present septic mess. Second, that Pakistan’s relations with the US are too valuable to be frittered away on internecine electoral battles
If London’s high society is as high as it gets in the world, then Lahore’s is as caustic as it comes. A famous satirical weekly column appeared in a Lahore newspaper labelled ‘Im the Dim’. No prizes for recognising the identity of “Im”. Look at it from a different angle: Which celebrity has ever been the subject of a weekly newspaper column?
Imran Khan remained totally unfazed. A Man of Destiny can only follow his star, and that means keeping your eyes fixed upwards towards the sky, not looking below at impertinent scribes. Imran’s ears hung above the decibel levels of nasty sniggers. To the utter chagrin of Lahore’s chatterati, Imran Khan had the last laugh. It took a bit of time, paced by a few miracles along the way. The swivel moment came in 1992.
Imran Khan began his Test career in 1971, although he became a regular in the side only in 1976. It was a phenomenal start, with 90 wickets in 13 Tests. He was so full of confidence that he was convinced he could become the highest wicket-taker in history. Tragedy struck at the peak of his ability, when a stress fracture of the shinbone put him out of the game. For two-and-a-half years, he could not bowl. He was written off by a legion of detractors. Heroes, however, do not succumb to stress fracture. He returned to top form and was a national hero by the time he retired from the game in 1987. Just three months later, only to be summoned back at the ‘request’ of the steely military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. In 1992, he led Pakistan to a miraculous victory in the World Cup after the team was nearly eliminated in the early rounds. He scored a match-winning 72 runs and took the last English wicket to achieve the impossible.
He moved from star to legend. All that was left was to move from the society page of newspapers to Page 1. There was just one more job left for the man who had lifted the World Cup: to become prime minister of his country.
It proved to be a bit more difficult than cricket. Imran Khan formed the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 1996 but instead of the rapturous endorsement he expected, he got only 1 per cent of the vote in the general elections of 1997. He lost from his own constituency. 2002 was a bit better; at least he won although no one else from his party did. An incredulous Imran Khan blamed rigging. He boycotted the polls of 2008. It was only in 2013 that crowds intending to vote for him appeared at his rallies. But that was not sufficient to give his party a majority in the National Assembly. Two decades had elapsed. The frustration was palpable.
No one told him that a burning desire to feed multitudes on a resource base of five barley loaves and two small fishes did not amount to an economic policy. Or, a begging bowl in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi was equivalent to revenue. Or that a handshake in Moscow was tantamount to foreign policy
His unflinching determination to become prime minister affected his personal life. Paradoxically for a messiah, his marriages were not made in heaven. Imran Khan’s most stable relationship was with his first wife, Jemima Goldsmith, mother of his two sons, Sulaiman Isa Khan (Isa is the Arabic equivalent of Jesus) and Kasim Khan. But Jemima was Jewish; and there poison-pills began to mutter that this was unacceptable to the Pakistani electorate. The marriage ended amicably in 2004, and the great affection between them was evident when Jemima congratulated her former husband on social media when he became prime minister. Imran Khan’s brief second marriage in 2015, to the journalist Reham Khan, ended as abruptly as it began.
In 2018, the man who was once the flamboyant eye-flutter of countless consorts chose a burqa as his third wife because she promised him power.
Imran Khan first consulted an astrologer and clairvoyants after his shattering accident in 1982. Most of what these unnamed seers foresaw was wrong. But then came encounters with pirs or mystics who claimed to be in touch with God, and Imran Khan professes in his autobiography that he was amazed by their insight into his past and their predictions for his future.
THE GREATEST INFLUENCE in his life was his beloved mother Shaukat Khanum. When he was 10, his mother and aunt took him to a Sufi woman in Sahiwal, a district to the south of Lahore. That was his introduction to this realm. In 1966, at the age of 14, he met his mother’s spiritual guide, called “Pir Gi”. She sat on the floor with a few disciples, her face and head shrouded by a chador. After a few minutes of silence, she suddenly told Imran Khan that he had not finished reading the Quran. The young Imran was shocked; this was true, although he had told his mother otherwise. His mother’s relief was apparent when “Pir Gi” added that there was no need to worry. She predicted that Imran Khan would become very famous and make his mother a household name. We know the rest.
In 1987, after his retirement, Imran Khan was on a shooting trip about a hundred miles north of Lahore when his host suggested that they call on a pir living in a village on the way back home, called Baba Chala. Baba Chala had no knowledge of cricket or the country’s most famous cricketer. There was no television set in the village. When asked what the cricketer would do next, Baba Chala replied that Imran Khan had not left his profession. Then, for good measure, he told Imran the number and names of his sisters. Three months later, Imran Khan was at a dinner hosted by General Zia-ul-Haq for the cricket team when, as mentioned earlier, the general asked him to return as captain of the team “for the sake of the country”.
A year later, Imran Khan met a person called Mian Bashir at a lunch. After the meal, Mian Bashir repeated the exact Quranic verse which Imran’s mother would recite for her son’s protection. Then Mian Bashir narrated some incidents from the past which no one else could have known and, according to Imran Khan, were too personal to even repeat. Between Pir Gi, Baba Chala and Mian Bashir, Imran Khan became a convert to spirituality. He also became convinced that the spiritual guide could lift the veil that hid the future.
Imran oozed goodwill for the impoverished from every pore, and reserved his quota of ill-will for the parasites in the military-bureaucratic-political complex
In 2017, when rumours began to circulate that a self-proclaimed ‘mystic’, Bushra Bibi, then wife of Khawar Farid Maneka, had promised Imran Khan that he would become prime minister only if he performed certain idiosyncratic rituals and married her, they were easily believed. The common conjecture among the usually sceptical scribes was that in the wilderness of defeat the prince of instant gratification had fallen victim to the strange temptation of a shaman.
The gossip stopped when, six months after he married Bushra Bibi, Imran Khan became prime minister.
Power came at a price. On the day Imran Khan lost office, Farah Jamil Khan, a close friend of Bushra, fled to Dubai. Her husband, Ahsan Jamil Gujjar, had preceded her. According to Maryam Nawaz, daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Farah had accumulated at least Rs 6 billion in bribes, according to a report published in Dawn on April 5. She called it the “mother of all scandals”. For the people, the sudden departure was evidence of guilt. Whatever else happens, the Imran halo has lost a bit of its lustre.
At every stage of his life so far, the magnetic Imran Khan has fallen upwards. We shall know if he has exhausted his divinely ordained quota of miracles when the results of the next elections are announced.
Some of the divine help began to desert Imran Khan when he achieved his ambition. Like an amateur, he overestimated his abilities when he needed wile or guile as strategy. He had certainly persuaded the army generals before the elections of 2018 that he was their man for the summit. They helped their protégé on polling day and built up the numbers in parliament when Imran Khan fell short of a majority. But the new prime minister did not realise that the generals could also play him on a string, as they had played others, and when the circumstances warranted, they cut him off without a moment’s hesitation.
Neither was Imran Khan very impressive as head of government. Good intentions do not constitute good governance. For over two decades Imran Khan had campaigned on eliminating poverty, and when he came to power the voter discovered that the Man of Destiny had no understanding of the radical reforms and the fiscal management needed. He was a maverick in his choice of advisors. No one told him that a burning desire to feed teeming multitudes on a resource base of five barley loaves and two small fishes did not amount to an economic policy. Or, for that matter, a begging bowl in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi was equivalent to revenue. Or that a handshake in Moscow was tantamount to foreign policy. Neither was describing Osama bin Laden as a martyr (shaheed) going to win any friends.
When his former benefactors in the army gauged that the Khan had got lost in a sea of troubles of his own making, they cut him adrift. A thoroughbred in Pakistani politics would never have risked a confrontation with the Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, as Imran Khan did in 2021, without understanding that this was not a battle which could pause without an outcome. If Imran Khan thought he would get the men in uniform to row his international conspiracy lifeboat in the service of patriotism after he had visibly lost his majority in the National Assembly, he was quickly disillusioned. General Bajwa was never going to sacrifice the army’s institutional interests to bail out a sinking prime minister. He told Imran Khan publicly to lay off Washington. As alibis go, the conspiracy theory smelt of the 20th century. Even airport thrillers have moved on.
Imran Khan was not a mere cricketer: he was the king of swoon who could set Kerry Packer’s historic breakaway professional tournament on fire in 1978 by wearing a t-shirt with the legend ‘big boys play at night’
It is quite possible that Imran Khan is the only person to sincerely believe that there was an international conspiracy financed by bags stuffed with Rs 25 crore being handed around by men in masks. After all, in his book, defection is tantamount to treachery. Loyalty and perfidy are demarcated by a heavy line. The exclamation marks crowding his mind were deeply etched on his face when he addressed the public rally in Islamabad on the eve of his departure from office. His rage was incandescent. Imran Khan does not do nuance.
On Sunday, April 3, his day of judgment, Imran Khan compared his predicament to that of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet of Islam, at the battle of Karbala. Imran Khan’s mirror tells him that he is not just an ordinary victim; he is among the martyr of martyrs, a votary of haq (truth) in the eternal battle against baatil (falsehood). The messiah might be faltering, but the messiah complex is alive and well.
There is an old Sufi saying. Ten men of God can sleep under one blanket, but no kingdom is large enough for two kings. Since Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan’s coup in October 1958, there has been only one effective king in Pakistan.
From the fissures of a cracking polity, General Bajwa has laid down his markers. First, that the army has nothing to do with the present septic mess, which may or may not be correct. Second, that Pakistan’s relations with the US are too valuable to be frittered away on internecine electoral battles.
It is the third statement which startles and makes one wonder. Pakistan, said General Bajwa, should be open to a dialogue with India, even on Jammu and Kashmir. Has Imran Khan, artist of the reverse swing, just been sent a googly? Is the army chief’s unusual deflection from the usual criticism of India a hint of further drama ahead, a preview of how he would develop his regional and external policies? What happens in Pakistan when the whole caboodle of politicians has managed to plunge the nation into yet another domestic crisis? In 1958, Ayub Khan answered that question in a two-step operation. General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977 and General Pervez Musharraf in 1999 needed only one step from cantonment to dictatorship. Does the future lie in the past? The question has been revived.
(MJ Akbar is the author of Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan)