Acquiring legendary status as a cricketer and winning praise as a committed charity worker, Imran Khan did not enjoy the same degree of stardom as a politician until recently. He had effectively been relegated to obscurity in the Pakistani political field, but succeeded in making a comeback. And the ‘tsunami’ wave Khan is currently riding indicates he is determined not to be written off as a footnote in the country’s political history. He has a loudly proclaimed agenda and a public perception which is mostly in his favour, and his party, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI), has turned out to be a formidable opponent for old political faces.
The road to politics
Born in 1952, the same year that international cricket took off in Pakistan, Khan made his debut in the sport in 1969 at the tender age of 16. A spectacular career was rounded off as he led Pakistan’s cricket team to World Cup glory in 1992.
He spearheaded the initiative to build the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital – a state-of-the-art medical facility in Lahore that provides treatment and care to cancer patients. The institution does not charge patients who cannot afford treatment.
With the hospital, Khan established himself as a man with an untarnished reputation, buoying his popularity.
The change in Khan was neither overnight not sudden. Known for his sporting skills as well as his ‘playboy’ lifestyle, Khan underwent a spiritual awakening under his mentor, a man named Mian Bashir. His autobiography also mentions Bashir as "the single most powerful spiritual influence" on the cricketer-turned-politician. The reformation that followed Khan’s association with Bashir led to a shift in his priorities.
Now 59, Khan’s popularity derives from both sexes and the national heart-throb has been admired by both men and women alike.
The PTI chief, an Oxford graduate, was married to British socialite Jemima Khan until their divorce in 2004. Khan’s ties with Jemima, the mother of his two sons, remain cordial, and in fact, she is said to be one of the sources keeping him alive in the western press.
Slow start, late impact
In 1996, the former cricketer launched PTI. However, the party failed in making an impact, leaving it with zero seats in the 1997 general election and one in the 2002 election which was won by Khan himself.
Failing to make a first strong political impression, many wrote Khan off, saying he may have been an iconic athlete but had little political prowess.
He has been called and is still often criticised as being ‘politically naïve’, stubborn and ‘pro-Taliban’ amongst other things. However, regardless of what his detractors may say, there is no doubt that Khan’s political career has seen an upsurge since 2011.
In the wake of the 1999 coup led by Pervez Musharraf, Khan supported him. However, he changed his mind after the “blatantly rigged” 2002 referendum even though, in the PTI chief’s own words, Musharraf had offered him the prime minister’s position.
As he vocally opposed the 2007 emergency, Khan was arrested by the police in November of that year. He was handed over to local authorities by members of Islami Jamiat Talaba but was released days later.
The PTI chief decided to boycott the 2008 general election saying they were not being held in a neutral manner, leaving him and his party on the sidelines once again.
Enter October 2011 and the game-changing rally in Lahore brought hundreds of thousands flocking to the party, stunning Khan’s political opponents and other naysayers. Of course, there is no doubt that Khan’s celebrity status has contributed heavily to PTI’s popularity. And until the entry of big political names into the party, such as Javed Hashmi and Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Khan has been the only well-known politician in PTI.
He has maintained a vocal stance on many issues throughout his political career. He opposes US drone strikes, military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), foreign aid and corruption. He also favours reforming the country’s tax system and abolishing the feudal system.
Khan’s party is now seen as a serious contender in the 2013 election, just behind the well-established Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). What also contributes to PTI’s chances in the election is the adoring support base for its chief, mostly ranging from the upper-middle class to the lower-middle class as well as a visible section of the youth. Several of his supporters, especially among the youth, identify with Khan’s call for challenging the country’s traditional political dynamics.
Khan has also steered clear of alliances with well-established parties so far, saying most of them remain tainted by corruption. Instead, he has been seeking to ally with groups that have not seen power before.
Regardless of whether one supports Khan or not – there is no doubt that he has injected fresh blood into what many consider has come to be Pakistan’s stale political landscape.
— Research and text by Heba Islam