In his cricketing prime, batsmen would tremble at the sight of Imran Khan, charging down the pitch to level their stumps and crush their toes with vicious inswingers that seemed to defy the laws of physics. In his political prime, he may have finally met his match, in Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Sharif, who as a young man dreamed of becoming a Test batsman himself, has proven to be adept at patting down the fireballs Khan has flung at him since his Movement for Justice party sprang from the political wilderness during the 2013 general election to become the second largest party in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, and formed a coalition administration in a northwestern province. After numerous failures of his attempts to topple Sharif, Khan’s greatest challenge now is to prevent his party (known as the PTI, after the acronym of its Urdu-language name) from fading into insignificance.
“He is bound to squander away the trust, the love, the passion, the hopes of millions of young Pakistanis who came running to politics only to realise it is not for them – only to realise that Imran, one of the most loved men in Pakistan’s history, is in fact a mere political pied piper,” said Aamir Ghauri, a Pakistan affairs commentator based in London.
Khan’s latest attempt to unseat Sharif was launched in April, when leaked details of Panamanian offshore companies established that the prime minister’s three children had held controlling stakes in firms suspected of being vehicles for the proceeds of corruption.
It came to naught this month when the Supreme Court decided to refer Khan’s petition for a judicial commission to a fresh panel of judges, rather than deliver the verdict he was seeking. As soon it became clear that the proceedings would drag on, bringing the scheduled 2018 general election ever closer, Khan announced his legal team would boycott the proceedings he himself initiated in November. Instead, Khan decided to lead his party members back into the parliament they had boycotted on the pretext that it was led by an illegitimate prime minister.
To many, behaviour such as this is proof that Khan is yet to make the mental transition from a sportstar to a statesman even though he has successfully created space for himself in Pakistani politics despite not being a career politician. Nonetheless, his rallying cry of “change” still resonates among the many millions who are disgusted by the 40-year-long dominance of Pakistani politics by the Sharif and the Bhutto clans. Between them, and two lengthy periods of martial law, they have produced three prime ministers who have served a total of six terms, generating more corruption allegations than most Pakistanis can count.
“Imran Khan lacks practical political acumen but he is the only real opposition to the corrupt elite. I have no doubt in my mind that were free and fair elections to take place in this country, his party would be the winner,” said Amna Khan, a young businesswoman in Islamabad.
Khan, meanwhile, continues to refuse to play by the book. And cricketers who served under his leadership say it would be folly to expect him to compromise and adapt to the character of Pakistani politics, as an increasing number of politicians within his PTI are urging him to.
“They think they can mould Khan into a politician like themselves. They are sadly mistaken. He’ll do precisely what he thinks is right, whether they like it or not,” said Zahid Fazal, the 12th man of the side that Khan led to victory in the final of the 1992 cricket World Cup.
During the preliminary phase of that tournament, Pakistan was on the verge of being knocked out and was saved from an inglorious exit when a match they were losing to England was rained off. To the amazement of his team, Khan insisted Pakistan would go on to win the championship, prompting Wasim Akram to joke to colleagues that their captain, then about to turn 40, was going “senile”. When ultimately proven right, “the team were in awe of Khan”, said Fazal. “We just looked at each other and said Imran must be a sorcerer or something.”
It is that unwavering belief in himself and his cause that continues to fuel Khan’s unrelenting campaign against the prime minister. He now plans to join hands with other parties to hold Sharif accountable for misrepresenting his personal finances to parliament, after the prime minister’s lawyers submitted a contradictory explanation to the Supreme Court.
With Sharif having successfully played out the opposition’s fiercest attacks, politics in Pakistan is witnessing a lull of sorts as both sides plot their next move. He is holding fire at the moment but the Great Khan may only be returning to his run-up, before turning around and starting his next charge. ■