If you are old enough to remember his cricketing prowess, you would trust the man to deliver you joyous wins, even wins from the precipice of defeat and against mighty opponents. You would be sure that his leadership would bring out the best among all around him and that they would give more than what was expected. You would be convinced that if he could not deliver a win, his men would fight to the end and his individual performance would be satisfying. You would recall a heart-throb who made girls (and batsmen) weak at the knees, a vociferous advocate for neutral umpires in Tests or a relentless campaigner for a free-for-poor, world class cancer hospital and research centre — who entered politics but failed abysmally, 16 years ago.
But for over a year he has been in the limelight for his achievement in politics as global media queue to interview him. Many think of him as the saviour, and he thinks he is going to sweep the election. He has an aura of confidence, and he is a crowdpuller. Since those big rallies in Lahore and Karachi in late 2011 he has been campaigning across the country and large crowds come to hear him. He has also been fundraising around the globe, doing it Obama style with social media to support his ever growing campaign.
Once shy, he recalls in interviews and biographies, the idea of being a leader has been an evolving experience — a role at which he has proved to be a natural, though initially was forced to adopt it. He has responded spectacularly, as evidenced by his achievement so far, but will he get the ultimate prize?
He thinks “yes”. When he played he led from the front, producing match-winning performances and holding his players together in the face of the vicious in-fighting, intrigue and interference which are synonymous with the country’s cricket team. He frequently uses cricketing analogy.
But cricket, in spite of its uncanny similarity in portraying the ebbs and flows of life, is hardly politics. He also faces a particularly challenging brand of politics, and in a nation in a delusional state following years of misfortune and misery.
So what does he offer? He pledges organisational change, bottom-up approaches in leadership, a corruption-free nation, avoidance of aid dependency, self-reliance, transfer of power to the people. His model countries are Switzerland and Scandinavian countries, but he is prepared to settle for something like Mahathir’s Malaysia as he claims, with his staunch supporters, that positive change will only start if the top is clean, honest and sincere. Good and sensible, but sentiments that voters have heard from politicians for eons.
However earnestly he has tried to distance himself from power to make his appeal more attractive, he has ultimately been compromised by including the very politicians in his team that he wishes to get rid of. This is a tough problem. The young city middleclass can be persuaded through vibrant media, but electoral success depends on getting votes in rural and regional areas where he has to rely on wily local politicians with influence and organisations.
And that is not his only problem. He often has to fend off a widespread suspicion that he is backed by the ‘establishment’ which intends to use him to keep the two major (civilian) parties at bay. Even before he has won office, he has to flip his positions on a number of murky but key issues. The most recent damage occurred during a peace march organised to push his flagship-claim that mediation rather than drones is the answer to Taliban terrorism, when Malala, a 14-year-old girl, was attacked by the Taliban for speaking up against them.
Adding to the irony is a genuine doubt about his autocratic leadership and his strong oratory especially utilising Islam, which inspires his adorers; to his critics this comes out of the wrong mouth, considered hypocritical from someone once a womaniser. Such is the controversy and debate surrounding the man, obviously a man who only believes and is focused on what he can do, never what cannot be achieved. He certainly never knew what ‘no’ means.
Naturally he heads off such criticism: his is the only party where all candidates, including himself, have declared their income and assets and their availability on the web, where others are not represented. His is the only party in which leadership is selected democratically and based on merit, through open nominations and internal voting, which traditional parties can never do because of their reliance on businessmen and wealthy patrons for running the party. His long frolic in the West has never interfered with his faith, if anything, along with research and education, strengthening his belief.
Yet, in the ever-intriguing political scene of a nation yet to allow a democratically elected government to finish its term and to conduct scheduled elections for new terms, there can be no shortage of schemes and manipulations.
The country is currently transfixed by another rather surprising player, Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Canadian-Pakistani returned home suddenly after about six years, demanding a new election commission, a caretaker government set up through consultation with the military and the judiciary, and strict implementation of eligibility criteria for election candidates. Widely suspected as a stooge of the military, he is reported to have mobilised thousands of people in Lahore on December 23 and led a march to Islamabad on 14 January. He has been persuaded by the government to end his protest, finally last week. Still this is deemed as a big success; rallies are banned in Islamabad. Analysts are suspicious of his motives and also of the source of huge funds needed to conduct such rallies and agitation.
With this sudden stunt (coupled with a Judiciary that is regarded as independent but perhaps in cahoots with the army) it now seems that a natural transition from one democratically elected government to another is really in question. Indeed, the timing of this interference raises significant doubts that there will be an election on time (due in March-May) or that the current government will be allowed to finish its term or that the election, if takes place, will be free and fair.
Despite its pledge that it won’t meddle with the natural course of democracy, the military will certainly have a say. So will the established and bigger parties. Ignoring trickery and complications, as well as varying speculations who would win the majority, Imran Khan continues his campaign with supreme confidence.
He has been most discussed perhaps for his vision to end the dynastic politics that prevails in South Asia or for his ability to involve youth, otherwise a politically apathetic generation. Feeds on his party’s social media pages and video footage of his rallies confirm that, if nothing else, he has fired up youth. While critics are still wary, especially those who disapprove of him, about the possible ‘tsunami’, it is needless to point out that, for his followers, it is not only imminent and real but also a super-phenomenon, much akin to Khomeini’s revolution.
Yet he may find his vision un-established, similar to the status of his cricket team as now we find it, following his departure. Leading news sources already conclude that it is not Imran’s Movement for Justice party but Nawas Sharif’s PML-N has the real chance to win the election.
Even so with his unique and mystifying blend of charm, charisma, courage and newly formed righteous principles, Imran Khan draws an awestruck crowd, displaying the portrait of one just man.
Will his efforts for change become a reality? Only time can tell; like cricket anything and everything is possible until the (last ball is bowled) scheduled election is held.
Irfan Chowdhury writes from Canberra, Australia.