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A few years ago in a TV interview that he gave to the former England cricket captain Mike Atherton, Imran Khan kept insisting that he didn’t dwell much on the past and was more focused on the present and the future. Yet, he often loves talking about how under his captaincy the Pakistan cricket team won the 1992 World Cup in Australia. His many fans on social media continue to upload highlights of the final in which Pakistan defeated England to lift the cup. They are always quick to remind Khan’s detractors of this feat, even though, most probably, many of them were still in their shorts at the time or not even born.

This does not in any way take away their right to celebrate that famous win. After all, this is one memory Khan frequently talks about. But why this particular memory of a man who claims to never think much about the past? Simply put, because the constant celebration of this memory serves his political standing and appeal best, whereas many other bits of his past do not. Or so he believes.

When Atherton wanted him to comment on his youthful past as a ‘playboy’ and someone who loved to party, Khan kept insisting that all this was in the past, much of which he didn’t even remember. Yet, during the course of the interview, he did quite clearly remember many other bits of the same past. But these were the bits which did not reflect badly on the kind of wholesome image that he and his supporters have been trying to construct of him as a politician and possible future prime minister.

Imran Khan’s colourful celebrity past has pushed him to present a stark image of himself as a political icon

A young supporter of Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), began to regularly email me right after he had cast his first-ever vote during the 2013 election. He still writes to me. Whereas his emails up until late last year were mostly about why he thought Khan was the best candidate for the PM’s job, his last two emails (one sent in February of this year and the other in April) were rather critical of the leader he once so admired.

I seldom respond to his emails, but in April I did, asking him what Khan had done to anger such a passionate follower. His reply: “Khan has made fools out of thousands of passionate supporters like me by continuing to accept close-minded people in the party. I was wrong. He is anything but progressive and I am tired of proving that he is.”

When I shared this with a journalist colleague of mine, he said, “This email is about that long-held, million-dollar question: why is Khan so attracted to the most ‘reactionary’ breed of people?”

I have met Khan only once, when as a 15-year-old schoolboy I managed to shake his hand outside the dressing room of Karachi’s National Stadium in 1982, soon after he had destroyed the Indian batting with his vicious in-swingers. Khan was anything but “reactionary.” And I believe he isn’t one even now. I remember I was quite excited when he decided to join politics in the early 1990s. But in this act lies the answer to the ‘million-dollar question’ that my colleague is trying to crack.

The reality of him being a charismatic ladies’ man or playboy with awesome cricketing skills was perfect for his sporting career which attracted some of the first lucrative sponsorship deals offered to a Pakistani sports personality. But the moment he decided to take the plunge to join the volatile world of Pakistani politics, he became just too conscious of this image.

From sounding like a dynamic cricket captain with some sharp insights about the game, and a brooding icon of lifestyle liberalism, he suddenly began to sound like a middle-aged man who, for the first time in his life, had read the standard Pakistan Studies book. If that wasn’t enough (it wasn’t), he made it a point to publicly declare that he had rediscovered his faith. I’ve always wondered why most folks who go through spiritual transformations have to announce it publicly? Shouldn’t it be a matter between the Almighty and them? I think it should, unless, of course, like Khan, one has a colourful past which he thought would become a burdensome baggage to carry into politics.

Khan’s understanding of his own country’s society is rather simplistic. It’s black and white, based on that intellectually lazy cliché of this society being entirely conservative. Had that been the case, he would have never been such a star during his cricketing days. As a cricket star, he never tried to overtly defend his lifestyle or even hide it. He didn’t need to. This was Pakistan, not Iran or Saudi Arabia.

But once Khan decided to see the same country as a politician, to him it suddenly started to look like a place no better than Somalia — but one which had millions of pious men and women exploited by a corrupt elite and khooni (who allow bloodletting) liberals, awaiting an equally pious but slightly more dashing messiah.

What about his own well-documented khooni-liberal past? Reading Pakistan Studies books and hiring wise spiritual tutors wasn’t going to cut it. Thus began his attraction towards what my colleague believes are “reactionary characters.” It began with former ISI chief Gen Hamid Gul, who till his last breath was still romancing the 1980s Afghan jihad.

Gul imparted some wonderful tips on the art and science of politics to Khan. This inspired Khan to often declare that he was no ‘brown sahib’ but then, just as often travel to London in a tuxedo. One day he returned with a rich Caucasian lady as wife. Gul was livid. It didn’t matter to Gul that Khan had converted her to Islam. Her father was a Jew. And that was that.

But all said and done, Khan was still quite a ladies’ man. He was, however, distraught to discover that, like Gul, some of his pious countrymen weren’t amused. So off he went to now praise the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). In the early 2000s, he described it to be the most enlightened political party, even though there is every likelihood that he spent more time talking about it with then JI chief, late Qazi Hussain Ahmad, than reading any of the many books JI’s founder Abul Ala Maudidi wrote.

But Khan’s past continued to pop up. So even more was required to bury it for good for the benefit of the people of the pious banana republic he now wanted to save. So out came statements against US drone attacks, and against the Pakistan military’s operations against the extremists. These were coupled with very public exhibitions of the fact that Khan was now regularly saying his prayers like a true faithful.

Drone attacks, he said, were being prompted by dastardly liberals who were fake liberals and he was the more genuine liberal because he was against war, but one who enjoyed hunting in the rugged tribal areas with the rugged tribesmen who he proudly explained came from ‘a warrior race.’

And it went on. And it goes on like a vicious circle. The more conscious he becomes of a past he still so desperately wants to suppress, the more he ends up patronising ‘reactionary characters’ to the utter bemusement of his more urbane supporters. Radical clerics, populist motormouth TV personalities, rabid conspiracy theorists, hate-spouting bigots — he is willing to play footsie with them so he can finally prove that he has become the most pious, honest, God-fearing man to ever walk the scorched grounds of this banana republic.

Khan, I’m afraid, has become a parody of the Khan he once wanted to construct after he joined politics in 1995. Through whatever form of wisdom he crossed paths with during that period, it made him decide to loathe his past. And yet, ironically, it’s a past without which Khan would have even struggled to become a member of the country’s cricket selection committee, let alone become the chief of a major political party.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 10th, 2018

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