Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 01, 2018
A new innings begins for former cricket captain and now PM designate Imran Khan, but this time on an uncertain wicket!
Imran’s new challenge: Captaining a new, complicated team

Imran Khan had brought glory to Pakistan before. The rather young nation at 45 years did not have too many accolades circa 1992. It had lost its eastern wing of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) 20 years before and was on the verge of being declared a terrorist state.

A charismatic Imran Khan was pushing 40 then, well over his due date. But the Pakistani cricket fans didn’t think so. As evinced from the chant in Pakistan, which went, “Who can save Pakistan? It’s Imran Khan, It’s Imran Khan”. There was this belief, the hope and then came the euphoria as captain charismatic, who wore his passion on his sleeve, now lifted aloft Pakistan’s maiden cricket World Cup.

The new world champions had much to celebrate, as Imran Khan and his team were national heroes. Ironically, Nawaz Sharif who was the Prime Minister then and was also his biggest cheerleader, as he serenaded the victors in Islamabad. The irony didn’t end there. It only snowballed further. Nawaz Sharif can be seen to be facetiously courting Imran Khan to join politics, saying he would be a great asset to his team (party).

However, if there is one thing cricket connoisseurs and historians know is that the pendulum can swing many times during the ‘course of play’. Fast forward to 2018, and Imran Khan, a master of ‘seam bowling’, has sent his opponents back to the ‘pavilion’. Akin to the fearsome speedster that he was on the cricket pitch, even in the political arena, he ‘bounced out’ his opponents with many such ‘reverse swinging strikes’; each one had more ‘pace, guile and ferocity’. 

Nawaz Sharif, and his daughter Maryam Nawaz of the PML-N have been ‘caught behind’ amid corruption allegations and declared ‘not fit’ to contest. Shehbaz Sharif, has had a robust ‘domestic innings’ as the former Chief Minister of Punjab, but has struggled to project himself on the national stage as a strong contender. The fledgling Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), hasn’t put up a ‘sturdy defense’ outside of his ‘home turf’ of Sindh.

So, now the same chant has resonated through the streets of Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar – “Who can save Pakistan? It’s Imran Khan, It’s Imran Khan”? 

 

The 65- year older has successfully presented himself as the only viable alternative to the kleptocratic dynastic scion politics of the PML-N and the PPP.  And many Pakistanis see Khan as an individual who has walked the walk (given his cricketing exploits) and the only messiah who can bring domestic change amidst the economic morass.

While captain charismatic had a relatively clean cricket career, he isn’t without controversy in this political ‘match’.  The mil-establishment, a sobriquet for the wider military establishment, seems to have ‘prepared a pitch’ and ‘created conditions’ to favour the Pakistani strongman. Various reports of the military intervention did the rounds, as human rights activists, journalists, other politicians spoke of coercion and voter intimidation during the elections.

Pakistani cricket is no stranger to ‘match fixing’ (rigging the game). In the 1990s, shortly after Imran Khan’s retirement, several cricketers from the sub-continent were accused of accepting bribes from bookies to feign a weak performance and hence doctor the result. It would be cruelly ironic to see Khan, someone who epitomised sportsmanship, to have won a game thanks to the involvement of the ‘bookies’ (mil-establishment).

The military has ruled Pakistan for most of its 70-year existence. And when the military hasn’t been at the helm, they have operated as the shadow government, arm-twisting civilian governments with regards to foreign policy and defense, and even toppling civilian governments when they don’t oblige.

 

This election has largely been seen as the military punishing Nawaz Sharif for his brazenness in challenging their invisible scepter.

Imran Khan, who has so often been the punter’s favourite on the cricket pitch, now finds himself as the political bookies’ (mil-establishment) pick. Only time will tell if the ‘umpire’ (election commission) has given the ‘right decision’.

So, a 22-year-long ‘political innings has finally seen Khan hit the ‘winning runs’.  While he can play on ‘domestic pitches’, he has been untested in ‘overseas conditions’.  His views on foreign policy belie the western Oxford educated individual who was once married to someone of the Jewish faith, in a conservative Islamic society.  His amicability towards the Taliban earned him the moniker of ‘Taliban Khan’.  He once spoke in favour of the former General Pervez Musharraf’s military coup; has spoken out against US involvement in Afghanistan; and raked up the Kashmir issue along with hawkish anti-India rhetoric.

But of course, what worries several international ‘commentators’ is how Khan’s party, the PTI, has mollycoddled several puritanical parties of the far-right Islamic society. As one notable political watcher described, “it’s almost as if Khan is a born-again Muslim”. Far different from his dashing debonair playboy days in British nightclubs. The once 42-year-old bachelor has now been married thrice in 23 years. It’s no wonder this, Time Magazine Op-Ed likened him to Pakistan’s Donald Trump.

Imran Khan is said to be his own man, trusting his instinct and relying on his pragmatic knowledge. He isn’t known to take dictation from anyone. However, in a political system mired with military interference, Khan may find he has a more powerful backroom coach’ that he can’t avoid.

 

The military has bowled many a ‘googly’ in the past and has ‘clean bowled’ all those who stand in its way.  As an exceptional cricketer, Khan knows how to read the ‘weather conditions’, and his reading would tell him that this political climate can be very turbid.

Khan will have to ‘bat’ to a ‘different format’ now that he is the ‘political captain’ of the country. But Khan also knows too well that leading a team of 11 players is very different from leading a country of 200 million, especially the one as complicated as Pakistan.

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Author

Akshobh Giridharadas

Akshobh Giridharadas

Akshobh Giridharadas is a Visiting Fellow based out of Washington DC. A journalist by profession Akshobh Giridharadas was based out of Singapore as a reporter ...

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