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Opinion | ‘Kaptan Khan’ is a man of many parts who is willing to reinvent himself

In his turbulent journey towards this ‘naya’ Pakistan, he has made troubling compromises but never quite lost his combative spirit.

columns Updated: Aug 03, 2018 14:12 IST
Pakistan elections,Cricketer Imran Khan
Pakistan's cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan speaks to the media after casting his vote at a polling station during the general election in Islamabad on July 25. (AFP)

In December 2013, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan was in India for the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. The Delhi election results had just been announced and Arvind Kejriwal had emerged as the great new hope of Indian politics. “I would love to meet this Kejriwal fellow,” Imran told me. “He seems to be boldly taking on political corruption like me!”

Five years on, as Imran takes over as Pakistan’s prime minister, Kejriwal is struggling for relevance. The question is: has Imran Khan finally shown the way to other potential change agents that subcontinental dynasties can be conquered without relying on lineage or a durable party organisation? Well, yes and no. Yes, Imran offers hope to those who seek to challenge the traditional political elites but he is also in many ways a unique Pakistani phenomenon who has hugely benefitted from the country’s omnipotent army preparing the perfect pitch for him ahead of the 2018 elections.

Unlike a Kejriwal, Imran was not an instant hit in politics. But he battled on and kept tilting at the Bhutto-Zardaris and the Sharifs, earning himself political equity for sheer resilience. Indeed, intense self belief, bordering on self obsession, has been core of the Imran persona. It has been marked by a steadfast refusal to give up on his dreams, be it winning the World Cup in 1992, or becoming prime minister. I recall a conversation in his early years as a politician when his party had been routed in the elections. “I guess politics is not quite cricket,” I pointed out with barely disguised scepticism. “Don’t worry, it’s not a question of if but when I become prime minister. Let a new generation of Pakistanis grow up and I will be ready for them!” he said.

In his turbulent journey towards this ‘naya’ (new) Pakistan, he has made troubling compromises, but never quite lost his combative spirit. His alignment with the Pakistani Taliban, for example, earned him the title Taliban Khan, a criticism that angered but did not appear to faze him. Reaching out to religious extremists as a born-again follower of Islam with shrill anti-West rhetoric almost became a political necessity, driven by a fierce ambition to widen his appeal. The dichotomy between his personal life and political goals was apparent. Living in an opulent Islamabad mansion but professing an allegiance to the common man’s struggles may seem a bit odd. And yet, he is a committed philanthropist who built two cancer hospitals and a university in a country where most public figures would scarcely contribute to health and education.

Maybe, Imran has always been a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde personality, the suave and charismatic folk hero co-existing with the populist rhetoric of a rabble-rouser. On the cricket field, he was the intimidating fast bowler who once famously remarked that when starting his run-up against India’s batsmen, he had only Kashmir on his mind. But he was also the flamboyant posterboy of the global game who India’s beautiful people swooned over and who once even helpfully advised his great rival, Sunil Gavaskar, that he should wear a helmet to protect himself against the threat of a bouncer.

Decoding the Imran phenomenon is to view him as a man of many parts who is willing to re-invent himself even at the risk of being dubbed an opportunist or a hypocrite. Despite criticism of his individual foibles, the ultimate goal has always been unshaken: topple Pakistan’s discredited political elite at all costs. Like Kejriwal, he, too, was accused of using the dharna as a weapon of impending anarchy but he refused to back off. Which is why when even today he is targeted as the army’s chosen one, it is difficult to see how long someone like Imran will be dictated to by external agendas. After all, when he captained the Pakistani team, the players lived in constant fear of ‘Kaptan’ Khan.

Managing a sharply-polarised and violence-prone society like Pakistan where religio-terror machines and the army are formidable stakeholders would make leading a cricket dressing room seem easy. The temptation would be to write him off as an agitational demagogue who won’t make the transition to a more inclusive governance role. But then again, we’ve written off Imran so often in the past only to realise that the indefatigable spirit of the Oxonian Pathan is never to be discounted.

Post-script: In 2015, Imran was back in India, this time for an Aaj Tak media conclave. This time, a meeting was organised between him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Such a positive person, it was a really good conversation,” said Imran. Will there be a Modi-Imran summit meet in the near future, I wonder.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 03, 2018 12:48 IST