Published April 10, 2022
Composite illustration by Hafsa Ashfaque
Composite illustration by Hafsa Ashfaque

In the hugely controversial attempt at face-saving that triggered a constitutional crisis and the recent dizzying political developments, one man is at the centre of it all. How has Imran Khan, the face of promised tabdeeli, changed the game? And can we understand his enigma through his political journey?

Pakistan is full of traitors and only one leader stands tall amongst them like the Colossus of Rhodes. Only he can redeem us from conspiracies hatched in the capital of a superpower against the Colossus himself.

He may soon belong to the long list of Muslim martyrs, which includes the likes of Tipu Sultan and Siraj-ud-Daulah, who met a tragic end because of foreign conspirators and traitors within our ranks. Those who hailed him as a conquering hero — a mujahid — may soon cry for him as a tragic hero — a martyr — unless he stands up and defeats all conspirators. In that case, we must cheer for his invincibility.

This is how the nation’s master narrator, Imran Khan, has defined his premature exit from office. And millions of Pakistanis, constantly living in a mental state of siege, have agreed without any need for credible information. Narratives in the post-truth age don’t need much evidence anyway.

To define his premature exit on his own terms, Khan has kicked up a constitutional crisis, attracting blame for subverting democracy and the constitution.

As the conquering hero exits (at least for now), he is leaving behind nothing more than the debris of a ruthless battle. A battle fought by him against already vanquished enemies, only to ensure that they were unable to rise again. Yet, they came back with a vengeance and have been able to force him out of power.

Imran Khan is hardly leaving any legacy of reform in any sector, which he had vowed before coming into power. In fact, all three pillars of state — the legislature, the judiciary and the executive — have been diminished. What is worse, he is leaving behind multiple crises that his successors — and he may succeed himself — will have to grapple with for many years to come.

During his tenure, Pakistan has experienced tabdeeli (change) but not in the way it was promised or hoped. Massive inflation, a by-product of his government’s economic mismanagement, has driven millions of Pakistanis into grinding poverty, forcing them to reduce even their basic consumption.

Pakistan’s gross domestic product has fallen from 315 billion dollars in 2018 to 292 billion dollars in 2022. Rather than Pakistan becoming Norway or Denmark, as was promised, the country’s per capita GDP fell below Bangladesh’s during this period.

Since Khan portrayed himself as a crusader against corruption, the realisation of most of his promises hinged on transparent governance. But, unfortunately, Pakistan’s ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index fell constantly during his government. This year alone, Pakistan’s rank has fallen 16 places to 140 from 124, out of 180 countries.

How did Khan end up here? And how did he bring the nation to this juncture? Can his political journey provide some answers?


To understand Khan’s saga, let’s begin at the most glorious and eventful year of his life that, according to his own account, defines his life’s work. In 1992, Khan led Pakistan’s team to victory in the Cricket World Cup and turned 40 a few months later. By retiring from cricket in that year, he turned the page on his athletic life that had turned him into a cult god. At the same time, he opened a new chapter in life that would take him to the pinnacle of power in Pakistan.

Khan used his World Cup victory to fulfil his other dream — the construction of a cancer hospital in the name of his mother, who had succumbed to the disease in 1985. His fundraising campaign turned into a movement supported by millions of people. Ironically, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, then the chief minister of Punjab, was one of his most enthusiastic supporters and played a key role in construction of the hospital by allotting government land and donating generously. The hospital was inaugurated in 1994.

Around that time, some fans had erroneously started calling Khan “Budha Sher” — the ageing tiger — as he was quite old for a sportsman. Having retired from cricket, Khan also started showing signs of changes often associated with a midlife crisis. After decades of a lifestyle that had earned him a playboy image, he became a born-again Muslim.

Fired up with the zeal of a new convert, he wanted everyone — the whole country in fact — to embrace the new change. He also started dabbling in political theories and other subjects and soon started believing that he had mastered many of these disciplines.

Khan appeared to believe that his exposure to the West had taught him comparative politics and made him understand the secrets of development in modern countries. He had found the key to changing Pakistan, and he wanted to be heard. To articulate his views, he started writing newspaper articles and commenting on political issues. People saw it as a hint for his possible entry into politics, though he continued to deny any such ambitions.


A file photo shows Imran Khan at a lawyers rally in 2008 | M Arif/White Star
A file photo shows Imran Khan at a lawyers rally in 2008 | M Arif/White Star

In late 1994, millions of Khan’s followers were waiting with bated breath for their hero to launch a political party. During that time, I was working with the Herald, a monthly magazine of the Dawn Media Group. A source told me that Khan had made all arrangements to launch a ‘pressure group’, though not a full-fledged party. The Herald was promised a scoop if the magazine could put the story on the cover.

A tentative understanding was reached, and I was given a chance to interview Khan and his two comrades at that time — Gen Hamid Gul and Mohammad Ali Durrani.

Gen Gul, a former head of the ISI, had retired in 1992 and claimed to represent the ‘ideology’ of the establishment. Durrani, on the other hand, headed Pasban, a youth wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami that he had run away with after staging a rebellion. Pasban was now an independent youth group. Both Gul and Durrani enjoyed strong mutual bonds because of their association with the Afghan ‘Jihad’.

At this stage, Khan was enamoured of Gen Gul and his ideas. He said: “I developed a great liking for him… he [has] played a great role in Afghanistan — I called him a mujahid.”

Khan had found the roots of Pakistan’s problems in the psychology of its people, and he wanted to rid the country of its inferiority complexes and save it from ravages of the ‘brown sahib’ mentality. He appeared to have developed a disdain against the social elite (to which he himself belonged) as they were — as he said to me — “secular atheists with imported ideas” and “if they [the West] call Hekmatyar a fundamentalist tomorrow, they too will call him a fundamentalist.”

All three appeared to have immense hatred against the ruling elite — and by the ruling elite they meant only politicians. They wanted the middle class to get politicised and take charge of the nation’s affairs.

The group, however, did not materialise. Gen Gul blamed the failure upon the Herald story. In his typically jovial manner, he told me that, because of the magazine story, he had ‘lost all his pigeons’.

Perhaps, Khan had also realised the cost of the political alliance with Gen Gul. He had told me in the interview: “After forming a link with Hamid Gul, everyone thinks that I am some sort of puppet ... being led by a string, and I am doing what Hamid Gul asks me to do.”

His links with the establishment would continue to haunt his political career decades later, as his opponents would term him a ‘selected’ and ‘puppet’ prime minister in the future.

Khan married Jemima Goldsmith, the 22-year-old daughter of a British billionaire, in May 1995. And next year, he founded the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), finally becoming a politician himself.


A file photo shows then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaking with Imran Khan and Farooq Sattar at the National Assembly| White Star Archives
A file photo shows then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaking with Imran Khan and Farooq Sattar at the National Assembly| White Star Archives

Only a year after formation, the PTI entered the electoral arena with much fanfare. Expectations for the success of the new party were so high that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) offered to support PTI candidates in 30 constituencies, in exchange for forming an electoral alliance.

Khan rejected the offer and the party could not win a single seat. The PTI barely bagged 1.7 percent votes, compared to 46 percent votes for the PML-N and 22 percent for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

In September 1999, Khan joined the Pakistan Awami Ittehad, an alliance of 19 opposition parties, including the PPP, headed by Allama Tahirul Qadri. But soon after Gen Musharraf’s coup, Qadri received a basharat — a sacred tiding in a dream — that he would soon be the prime minister of Pakistan and he left the alliance to support Gen Musharraf and his rigged referendum. Khan also left the alliance and supported the referendum. According to the military strongman, he also wanted the prime ministerial slot in his military government.

Musharraf’s government held elections in 2002. The arena was now empty of the two politicians who had dominated the nation’s politics for two decades, as both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had been forced into exile.

Like other military strongmen, Gen Musharraf was trying to prop up reconcilable politicians through a king’s party. He has claimed in interviews that Khan negotiated with him, but the deal could not materialise because Khan’s assessment of his own strength was out of touch with reality. He said his intelligence operatives had estimated that PTI would win no more than 10 seats, and had still offered him 30, but that Khan wanted to be given almost 100 seats in the National Assembly.

Even Musharraf’s estimation of the PTI’s chances was optimistic. This time the PTI performed even worse; with 0.7 percent votes, it stood at 10th position, while the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) and the PPP bagged 25.7 and 25.8 percent votes respectively. Even the PML-N was able to get 9.4 percent votes.

Khan, however, was able to win a seat for himself in the National Assembly from his ancestral city, Mianwali. This was not based on his political message but mainly due to his personal appeal and clan affiliations. The newly formed king’s party, the PML-Q, was able to form a government with no small support from Musharraf’s accountability apparatus, particularly the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).


Princess Diana is accompanied by Jemima Goldsmith during an address by Imran Khan | White Star Archives
Princess Diana is accompanied by Jemima Goldsmith during an address by Imran Khan | White Star Archives

Things started changing for the PTI after the 2008 elections were boycotted by the party. The PPP was able to form a government at the centre with 30.7 percent votes while the PML-N, which was seen as dead and buried, made a comeback securing 19.6 percent votes and formed a coalition government in Punjab.

Polls after polls started hinting at the rise in popularity of Khan and the PTI. They also showed a proportional drop in the popularity of the PPP. It was a time when people were sizzling with anger due to rising inflation, the media was weaving conspiracy theories and stoking fires, and the judiciary, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, had chosen to make the government dysfunctional by keeping it in the dock perpetually.

With Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the PPP had lost a charismatic leader. It still appears enigmatic that loyal voters of a left-of-centre party, whose leader had been assassinated by the Taliban, abruptly abandoned their favourite political platform to join a right-of-centre party, whose leader was often labelled a Taliban apologist.

Those opposed to the PTI often cite support by the establishment and the Taliban veto on electoral campaigning as two major reasons for its success. Though exaggerated, these accusations are not without any substance. It is now well known that a nudge to ‘the electables’ at the right time created a stampede that filled up the PTI stables, turning it into a viable candidate for power.

The Taliban also made it impossible for the Awami National Party (ANP) and the PPP to carry out their election campaign in KP, while the PTI was allowed to hold rallies in the most unsafe of districts. This created an impression in the bleeding province of KP that the PTI could guarantee peace through reconciliation with the Taliban.

Perhaps a better answer lies in the demographic shift in Punjab and KP that tilted scales in favour of the PTI. In the 2013 elections, both the number of registered voters and turn-out increased substantially.

Not only were there more than five million new voters, but the voter turnout also increased from 44 percent in 2008 to 55 percent in 2013. It appears that the PTI’s real success lay in mobilising the middle class, which had remained uninterested in politics till then, and winning over young voters.

The PTI, much like the PPP, is a child of social change. According to Philip E Jones, author of The Pakistan People’s Party: Rise to Power, the “rise of the PPP should be seen contextually in the emergence of ‘participant society’ in Punjab. The growth of cities, rural to urban migration, rural population growth and economic stress in traditional villages, the spread of literacy, the growing complexity of society and the economy, the emergence of new social and economic interest groups, the impact of the September War with India in 1965, were all forces that affected political and social identities, undermined parochial ties, and forged new loyalties to a political party, namely PPP.”

While the PPP has its roots in the age of socialism, the PTI was born in the lap of the new liberal capitalism; while ideologies ruled the 1960s and the 1970s, identity politics is the fuel of politics in the 2000s. The growth in the economy has created new wealth and widened the base of the well-off urban middle class. These sections of society want to assert themselves in the power arena and want a better deal for themselves.

The PTI also became the most powerful front for the inter-elite struggle that started with the founding of the country. Pakistan’s power salariat, whose members belong to the middle class at least till they retire, has always sought to upstage the traditional political elite.

Many of Khan’s colleagues, like Khan himself, are children of government servants who, through their hard work, dedication and ambition, made it possible for their children to become businessmen and politicians. The growth in the middle class and the power of ultra-rich crony capitalists had made it possible to finally challenge the political elite to the duel as envisaged by Gen Gul.


Imran Khan meets and greets supporters during early PTI days | White Star Archives
Imran Khan meets and greets supporters during early PTI days | White Star Archives

While external factors might be important for electoral victories, Khan’s charisma played a pivotal role in the PTI’s rise in politics. His charisma is based on his physical appeal and his sports achievements, tied to his physical attraction. Other factors, such as his contribution to philanthropy in the form of the Shaukat Khanum Hospital, and his reputation as an honest and upright person, also help.

Interestingly, the generation that hailed Khan as a cricketing hero did not vote for him. It was the generation that was born after his World Cup win who found a great political messiah in him.

Political parties everywhere are formed by charismatic individuals and over time they turn into enduring institutions. The PTI is no exception. Much like the PPP under Z A Bhutto, the PTI relies on the charisma of an individual leader.

The whole party is centred around the personality cult of Khan. Khan is the PTI and the PTI is Khan. For his young followers, he is an infallible deity who alone can deliver Pakistan from its problems.

While no major political party can be formed without such a charismatic founder, what a nation really needs is political institutions, not gods and goddesses. After some attempts that were meant more for political mobilisation, Khan gave up on the attempt to bring internal democracy into the party and turn it into an institution, as he had promised for years.

The PTI admits that the first intra-party elections held in 2013 were staggeringly flawed. Perhaps, these elections were far more flawed than the national elections against which the party staged a prolonged dharna in Islamabad. The most serious allegations, borne out by the investigations carried out by then-PTI member Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed, related to the use of money to influence the outcome of these elections.

Both traditional politicians and crony capitalists started joining the PTI in large numbers in 2011. This was justified by Khan by saying that crony capitalists made huge investments in the party, while traditional politicians, aka the ‘electables’, were necessary to ensure seats in the elections.

The PTI, as a result, arrived at a new definition of the corrupt political elite. Now only those politicians were considered part of the ‘corrupt elite’ who had not joined the PTI, or the political opposition in the present context.


After the 2013 elections, Khan’s politics went on high octane. His narrative became a rage with the media, and he enjoyed the full support of powerful sections of the state. Like a demagogue, he reduced all of Pakistan’s problems to a single issue — corruption — and presented himself as the solution. In the form of ‘Naya Pakistan’ he promised a utopia that was both moral — the state of Madina — and material — Scandinavian countries.

His narrative contained a theory of change and a logical explanation of how Pakistan would change under his command. According to this theory, a bunch of politicians are responsible for the rot in Pakistani state and society, and it is their greed and corruption that is pulling us backwards.

In order to clean the Augean stables, we need an incorruptible leader at the top. Once such a leader is elected, a cascade effect will follow, cleaning up the system downwards. As soon as the system is cleared of corruption, Pakistan will start making tremendous progress.

But under Khan’s rule, the promised change did not happen. The very first ingredient of the promised change, end of corruption, failed to materialise as Pakistan’s position on the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index constantly declined during the PTI’s government. Pakistan’s economy that was in a boom-bust cycle for decades, also turned bust-bust as no stabilisation happened after turning to the IMF.

Failing to deliver on his earlier promises, Khan started looking for a new narrative. He tried to work with the truncated version of his earlier narrative, focusing only on corruption of other politicians, without referring to the blessings that were to shower on Pakistan due to his honesty.

Since the time a no-confidence motion was launched against him, Khan has come up with a yet another narrative that links the democratic opposition against him with a conspiracy hatched by the US government to overthrow him. In his new narrative, only those who support him are patriotic citizens while everyone who opposes him is a traitor.

His party has used this narrative to allegedly subvert the constitution by killing the no-confidence motion in the parliament, using a flimsy constitutional fig leaf. Khan resigned after the parliamentary coup and dissolved the parliament.

Whatever direction the current crisis takes, Khan’s tenure defined by his populist authoritarian tendencies has come to an end. However, he will remain one of the key political players in the country for many years to come. Indeed, he may even stage a comeback at some point in future — Khan and his party already appear to be in campaign mode.


A July 2019 photo shows Imran Khan and the Pakistani delegation with President Donald Trump at the White House | APP
A July 2019 photo shows Imran Khan and the Pakistani delegation with President Donald Trump at the White House | APP

Khan is once again being compared to President Donald Trump, whose supporters had stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC on January 6, 2021, the day Congress was meeting to confirm Joe Biden’s election victory.

British-French journalist and author Ben Judah, in an interview published in The Sunday Times had compared Khan with Trump on a number of issues. Similar observations have been made by many Pakistani analysts and political scientists as well. What puts the two in the same league is a modern brand of populism, termed “authoritarian populism” by Canadian intellectual and politician Professor Michael Ignatieff.

Authoritarian populism is often associated with a strongman ruling a country. Authoritarian politics is essentially old reactionary politics shaped by the conservatives’ desire to take society back to simple old ways. At the same time, authoritarian populism is modern and politically innovative. It uses social media to crowdsource anger, hate and resentment.

The virtual political space where this Trumpism has thrived has two important characteristics that can be related to this brand of populism. The first element is virtual disinhibition — the sheer shamelessness and subversion of all norms of civility that have defined public space from time immemorial.

In the virtual space, there is no way to sift the real from the imagined, right from wrong and the genuine from the fake. It is a perfect place for our internal personal devils to thrive and take charge of affairs. This disinhibition provides the jet fuel to authoritarian populism. This is a world of naïve but dangerous narratives — a world where leaders such as Trump and Khan can hold sway.

The second important characteristic of the virtual space is the bubble that imprisons a social media user in a make-believe world. This bubble is created through algorithms used by social media technology.

Like his European counterparts, Khan has attacked democracy from the inside. And he has also found resonance, and allegedly support, from authoritarian forces within the system. He has been able to subvert the democratic development that happened during 2008-2018 and turn it into democratic decay, without delivering anything in return.

So what does Imran Khan’s political journey tell us?

With his indomitable will, charisma and determination, Khan is a larger-than-life figure who made great achievements in the world of sports and philanthropy. In the political realm, however, many of the same qualities that served him well in sports turned into liabilities and he failed to leave a positive legacy in the country’s highest political office.

For his failure he may blame his hubris, his opportunism wrapped in moral garb, his narcissism, his single-minded pursuit of personal ambitions, his burning desire for vendetta, his flaws of intellect and his lack of experience.

Khan’s success in the forthcoming elections depends on the success of his new narrative. Like his earlier narratives, he has borrowed it from past military dictators and civilianised it. Will his new narrative succeed, while he bids adieu to the old one that became such a rage with a section of society and won him millions of followers?

In the narrow sense of narratology, the new narrative may be considered to be winning, as he has sucked both the media and the opposition into the discourse. A narrative wins not only through affirmation but also by denial, just by turning into a central political discourse. This may at least help him keep his core followers loyal to him, despite a lack of corroborating facts.

The writer holds a degree in social anthropology from the University of London and works in the field of social development. He tweets @zaighamkhan

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 10th, 2022



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