The political ascendency of Imran Khan: From ladies' man to the PM

4 Sep 2018

A lot of media buzz has been present surrounding the recent inauguration of Imran Khan as prime minister of Pakistan. It was vociferously covered in local Pakistani, Indian and western media.


The landmark July 25th elections marked the third consecutive democratic transition of power since the reign of military dictator General Musharraf, who ruled the country for nine years and was forced to resign in 2008 following his throttling of the independent media and judiciary.


Imran Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek i Insaf (PTI), took 149 seats in the national assembly, but needed 172 seats to form a government. He managed to achieve this by attracting independent members and forming a coalition with smaller, religious political parties. His Party’s most formidable political rival, the Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN), seized 84 seats and the third-largest political party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) managed to win 54 seats, retaining control of the Sindh province.


This election has culminated in a full circle in the personal trajectory of Imran Khan, a man best remembered in Britain as a handsome sportsman, world-class cricketer and all-rounder, Oxford graduate in PPE, as well as a socialite who relished in hobnobbing with the upper-class British aristocracy. He is also infamously regarded as a London playboy who had a string of high society girlfriends, mostly western and Bollywood stars.


Indeed, the life of Imran Khan reflects the conflicted nature of Pakistan as a country: urbane, anglophile, devout Muslim and, in many ways, it also illustrates Pakistan’s history.


Having been born only five years after the creation of the Muslim majority homeland out of the ashes of the British Raj, Khan was born in Lahore in 1952 to a family of Punjabi-speaking Pathans and was educated at Atchison College – known as the Eton of Pakistan.


The Pathans are distinguished from the entire subcontinent in that they never embraced colonial British rule and have historically been regarded as a warrior nation. They resisted Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Mongols, the Mughals, the Russians, the British and now, the Americans. Incidentally, they also largely comprise of the Taliban, with whom the Americans have been engaged in a grueling 17-year war.


Khan joined the Pakistan cricket team in 1971 and played county cricket, first for Worcester and later for Sussex. He became captain in 1982 and after an illustrious 21-year cricket career, his team won the World Cup for Pakistan in 1992.


Following retirement from cricket, Khan dedicated his life to philanthropy and established a cancer hospital in honour of his mother, who passed due to the disease. He married and then divorced Jemima Goldsmith, after which he began to distance himself from his past, where his romantic liaisons ignited as much attention as his sporting prowess.


After that, the now prime minister sought to rededicate himself to Islam and projected a more devout, pious persona to appeal to the conservative Islamic country. Of course, this has been dismissed as political opportunism by his detractors.


He then entered the grubby world of politics, forming his PTI party in 1996. He didn’t win a single seat in the 1997 election, boycotted the 2002 election and was even placed under house arrest by Musharraf in 2007.

Imran Khan was a political outsider for decades and was often ridiculed for his contradictory and often, inconsistent views. On the one hand, he does not want to undermine his charismatic charisma in the West, and on the other, takes up hawkish positions regarding relations with the US, is perceived to have a soft corner for the Afghan Taliban and has also rejected Western feminism, dismissing it as a menace and a disease.


Yet labelling him anti-Western seems somewhat problematic for a man who studied and spent much of his life in Britain, who married an English woman and is seen, more than any other Pakistani, to symbolise Pakistan’s relationship with Britain.


His political breakthrough occurred in 2013 when he won 35 seats, managing to form government in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, bordering Afghanistan. Khan’s pan-Islamic views have held widespread appeal in this area as the local population are extremely committed to religion.


He claimed that these elections were rigged, which is exactly what his detractors claim about his subsequent election victory this year, that it was somehow staged by the army. Indeed, the former -prime minister Nawaz Sharif was often at loggerheads with the Pakistani military, the most powerful institution in the country which has consistently rejected democratic government attempts to interfere with what it regards as its own remit.


Khan’s achievement is remarkable in the sense that he has successfully parlayed his cricket star appeal and privilege of being Pakistan’s only celebrity-to-politics story and has managed to torpedo a two-party political system.


In British terms, the parallel would be David Beckham launching a political party and managing to galvanise more support than Labour and the Tories. Khan cannot afford to be complacent in a country where no previous Prime Minister has ever fully completed their five-year term, whether due to military coups, assassinations or dismissal from the judiciary.


He has inherited a precarious and unenviable position with a host of intractable problems. His most pressing concern should be the economy, which only has enough foreign reserves for about two months’ worth of imports. Khan will need to seek a bailout – either from the IMF, erstwhile allies China or Saudi Arabia.


Politically, he has pledged to mend ties with archrival India, stabilise Afghanistan and seek to facilitate the reconciliation of the bitter enmity of Saudi Arabia and Iran. These promises require Pakistan to balance a very delicate tightrope regarding its own Sunni and Shia populations, bringing us to a rather pertinent quote by Shakespeare: “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”.


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