The making of Imran Khan

February 2, 2020

If there is one thing on which Imran Khan has not yet taken a ‘U-turn’, it is his campaign against Sharifs and Asif Ali Zardari, whom he has called corrupt and held responsible for Pakistan’s present state of affairs. Both have faced prison in his government. Though they are out on bail, they still need a clean bill from the superior courts.

If there is one thing on which Imran Khan has not yet taken a ‘U-turn’, it is his campaign against Sharifs and Asif Ali Zardari, whom he has called corrupt and held responsible for Pakistan’s present state of affairs. Both have faced prison in his government. Though they are out on bail, they still need a clean bill from the superior courts.

Imran Khan’s government has completed 18 months in power with an unprecedented crisis of price hike. Let us have a look at the making of cricketing Khan into the prime minister of Pakistan.

He launched his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in 1996. He was asked to get an NoC for a fundraising programme on PTV. To his utter disappointment, the permission was denied as he refused to do it on behalf of the government.

“I never wanted to enter politics till 1995 as I was busy collecting donations for Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital for which I wanted to do a fundraising show on PTV. But, I was disappointed when denied permission on political grounds,” he once told me.

“I was then advised by my friends to form a political party if I wanted to challenge them. Finally, we launched a small party of people with little experience in politics, who wanted to change the system,” he stated in 2001. “In my initial years in politics, I used to discuss more cricket and less politics.”

The PTI was not even one-year old, when it decided to test its mettle in the 1997 elections. It was a surprise decision as neither its leaders nor most of its members knew the dynamics of elections, voters’ lists and how polling agents work etc. Yet, they went to the polls and Imran Khan himself contested from more than one seat, including Karachi.

It was a learning experience. His name also figured in a controversy, involving former ISI chief, late Lt General Hameed Gul, and late Abdus Sattar Edhi. It was for the first time that Edhi accused agencies of pressuring him to join politics. He was so upset that he wrote a ‘last will’ in London in which he named people who had threatened him.

Edhi’s close associate, Anwar Kazmi, later confirmed that Gul was disappointed with Benazir and Nawaz and was working on setting up a party of technocrats and social workers ‘with good reputation’ and had picked Edhi and khan beside others.

I once asked Imran about it. He said, “Initially, I was inspired by Gul’s thought but soon realised that his agenda was different and I didn’t want to be part of his narrative and distanced myself.” When General Pervez Musharraf staged a coup on October 12, 1999, and announced he would hold both Sharif and Benazir accountable for alleged corruption, Imran Khan thought he had found someone close to his narrative and supported the coup.

Between 1999 and 2002, Musharraf held a few meetings with Imran Khan and started looking at PTI as his ‘king’s party’. However, some of the ideological and political minds in the PTI cautioned Imran Khan about going too far in supporting a military dictator. There was also a division in the party over supporting Musharraf in the 2001 referendum.

The break with Musharraf came when he announced general elections in 2002 minus Nawaz and Benazir. At first, Imran Khan thought that Musharraf would back the PTI. But Imran Khan was disappointed when Musharraf gave Chaudhris of Gujrat preference over him. Late Meraj Mohammad Khan, in one of his interviews with me, narrated the story in these words: “One day, I got a call from Imran that Musharraf wanted to meet him and I should accompany him. As we were going towards Presidency, I told Imran to keep distance from Musharraf even if he wanted to support him. I found him very confident of getting the establishment’s support for his party.”

Meraj went on to say, “To his biggest disappointment, Musharraf asked Imran to back Chaudhris as they could counter the PML-N. He was offered a ministry in the future cabinet. We just walked out of the Presidency and I could see anger on his face. We decided to withdraw support for Musharraf as Imran Khan considered Chaudhris a part of the same corrupt system.”

What a turnaround. One of the alleged master planners of the 2002 elections who played a key role in the making of the PML and the PPP-Patriot, is Federal Interior Minister Brig (retd) Ejaz Shah and Chaudhris are the allies of the PTI. No wonder, politics is the game of possibilities and opportunities. Perhaps, Imran Khan still does not trust Chaudhris of Gujrat and does not want them to grab the Punjab.

In 2002, Imran Khan contested the election and publicly apologised for supporting Musharraf from 1999 to 2001. This was something rare. He got a lot of media attention, not only because he was the 1992 World Cup hero but also because of the absence of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. He believed his party would do well.

A few days before the elections, Imran Khan asked me at the house of Dr Arif Alvi, “Give your frank opinion about our chances in the election.”

“Pardon me for my frankness but I think your party will lose,” I said in the presence of his close aides including Naimul Haq, Imran Ismail, Nazim F Haji, Najeeb Haroon and Dr Alvi.

“Thousands of people participate in my rallies. I think your assessment is wrong,” a confident Khan said. “Yes, there are thousands of people in your rallies, but most of them come to have a glimpse of their cricketing hero and not a politician. I have interviewed people at your gatherings. But, if you work hard as you always do and other parties make mistakes, the PTI can emerge as a potent force,” I replied.

As a journalist working for a foreign news agency in 2002, I followed Khan’s rallies while two main political leaders, Nawaz Sharif and late Benazir Bhutto, were not allowed to contest. Sharif had gone to Saudi Arabia under an arrangement that he would not play any role in politics for 10 years nor would return to Pakistan while Benazir’s nomination papers were rejected in Larkana.

Khan has since then proved his detractors wrong about his political future. The PPP was perhaps the bigger loser as some of its vote bank shifted to the PTI in the 2013 elections.

Initially, the PPP leadership thought the rise of Imran Khan particularly in the Punjab would break the PML-N vote bank as he attacked Sharifs and their politics. The tag of ‘friendly opposition’ between the Sharifs and Zardari actually damaged the PPP more. When Imran Khan went all out against PML-N and Sharifs, the PPP voters found more attraction in Khan’s narrative. Secondly, in the absence of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated on December 27, 2007, the party lost the charm of a charismatic leader. Zardari, despite completing his full term, misread the PPP mindset in the Punjab.

Just before the 2013 general elections, Imran Khan went for party election and soon witnessed serious rifts in his party, particularly in the Punjab. It impacted the general elections and Imran Khan realised that it was a mistake to hold party elections just before polls.

Imran Khan staged an unprecedented dharna in 2014 on the pattern of Egypt’s Arab spring. The PTI also attracted a large number of new voters. In 2013, Imran Khan garnered advantage in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as Taliban attacked the PPP and ANP rallies, killing some of their leaders and hampering their election campaigns. In the 2018 elections, the PTI became the largest party in the assemblies and formed the government.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO

Imran Khan's Journey from Pakistan's cricket captain to prime minister