Artwork by Abdul Sattar Abbasi

Imran Khan — out of sight but not out of mind

Despite not contesting the elections and despite his party being rendered all but banned, PTI founder is still expected to play a major role in Feb 8 polls.
Published January 23, 2024

Once dubbed the establishment’s “blue-eyed boy”, former prime minister Imran Khan finds himself on the sidelines, with his nomination papers for 2024 elections rejected, and his party in tatters.

Born in Lahore in 1952, Imran first rose to fame as a cricketer, leading the national side to its only ODI World Cup victory in 1992. Following his retirement from the sport, in addition to ramping up his philanthropic activities, he founded the PTI in 1996 but only saw limited political success till 2011, when he started gaining the attention of youth disillusioned by massive corruption and an unemployment crisis.

Following the 2013 elections, Imran alleged widespread rigging, leading a months-long sit-in in Islamabad in protest, but called it off after the deadly attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar.

Imran’s popularity continued to rise ahead of the 2018 elections, so much so that he was dubbed the “prime minister in waiting” albeit with some help from powerful quarters. Following a controversial victory in the general elections, he formed a coalition government and took oath as the country’s 22nd prime minister on August 18, 2018.

Historic ouster and the blame game

Elected on promises to ensure accountability and create a social welfare state, Imran soon found himself beset by serious challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic, unprecedented inflation, rising deficits as well as differences with his own allies.

His relations with the establishment, which his rivals claimed had brought him into power, also soured, with a standoff between the government and the military leadership over the appointment of the new spymaster in October 2021.

To oust him from power, opposition parties joined forces and launched the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) which soon tabled a no-confidence bill. After some of his party members dissented during the crucial vote against him, Imran’s premiership came to an end shortly after the clock struck midnight on April 10, 2022.

Subsequently, Imran directed his party members to resign from their seats in the National Assembly and announced the dissolution of the provincial assemblies of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in a bid to force the ruling PDM coalition to hold early elections — a tactic that did not bear any fruit.

Increasingly frustrated, Imran lashed out at the US and former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, accusing them to conspire against him. In the months following his removal from office, the former PTI chief managed to evade arrest several times in a slew of cases, including the Toshakhana case, in which he was accused of illegally selling state gifts.

In October 2022, Imran launched a long march to Islamabad for Haqeeqi Azadi (true freedom), heavily criticising Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum and calling for the resignation of two other intelligence officials.

On November 3 of that year, as the PTI’s convoy reached Wazirabad, an assassination attempt was made on the party chief, who suffered multiple bullet injuries in his leg. The then-PTI chief called off the march later, claiming he did so to avoid “imminent bloodshed”.

Imran continued to up his ante in 2023, doubling down on his claims that a serving intelligence official was behind the attempt on his life and Bajwa, who he dubbed “super king”, was solely responsible for his ouster.

Arrests, conviction and disqualification

On May 9, 2022, Imran was arrested from the premises of the Islamabad judicial complex in the Al-Qadir Trust case, with violent protests erupting immediately afterwards.

The violence — which was called a “black chapter” by the military — lasted for two days as enraged PTI supporters came out on the streets and also attacked various military installations, including the Lahore Corps Commander’s residence.

The state’s reaction was swift, with several PTI leaders arrested in the following days, some of whom remain in jail. While Imran was subsequently released on bail on the Supreme Court’s order, the party’s downfall had begun.

He was arrested again on August 5 in the Toshakhana case, in which he was convicted and sentenced to three years. He was also disqualified by the Election Commission of Pakistan for five years and stripped of party chairmanship.

The Islamabad High Court later suspended his sentence, but Imran remains in jail while facing other cases, including the cipher case, in which he and party vice president Shah Mehmood Qureshi are accused of violating the Official Secrets Act.

Imran filed nomination papers for two National Assembly seats for the upcoming elections — NA-89 (Mianwali) and NA-122 (Lahore). However, his papers were rejected due to his conviction in the Toshakhana case.

After seeing his appeals turned down by the Lahore High Court, Imran is expected to approach the apex court. But if he finds no relief there as well, it would signal an end to the former premier’s hopes — at least for the 2024 elections.

Key stances

• Imran has repeatedly stated his desire to turn Pakistan into an Islamic welfare state based on the model of Riyasat-i-Madina. During his tenure, the PTI launched several Ehsaas programmes and expanded the Sehat Insaf Card scheme.

• He has been a vocal critic of Pakistan’s role in the US war on terror in Afghanistan, terming it a “self-inflicted wound”. He also infamously said Pakistan would “absolutely not” allow US bases or use of its territory for any sort of action in Afghanistan.

• The former PTI chairman has also revealed that his government had planned to settle former Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) fighters in the country’s tribal areas.

• He has also been accused of sexist remarks and blaming rape victims. He allegedly stated that journalist Gharida Farooqi was asking to be harassed online as she was “invading male-dominated spaces”. In separate interviews, he blamed social media and “vulgarity” to increasing rape cases.

• Following his ouster from power, Imran blamed the US for “conspiring” against him, though he later walked back on his claim.

• Imran has also vociferously criticised the military and intelligence leadership for his ouster and the assassination attempt.

• Imran has repeatedly termed overseas Pakistanis the country’s “biggest assets”, and went as far as moving the Supreme Court to grant them the right to vote.

• After coming into power, Imran promised “ruthless accountability”, with the government forming a ‘Recovery Unit’ to bring back looted wealth from abroad. However, the opposition claimed the accountability drive was a “blatantly one-sided, politically motivated witch-hunt”.

Header artwork by Abdul Sattar Abbasi