Imran Khan is taking over the reins of power in Pakistan at a very critical moment. Election results have clearly illustrated that the country wants a change — a transformation of its social, political and economic institutions that could pull it out of the vicious cycle of corruption, violence and misgovernance.
From the very beginning of his political career, Imran Khan has engaged with the sentiment of ‘change’ and made it the raison d’etre of his political struggle. The slogan of ‘Naya Pakistan’ (a new Pakistan) has caught the imagination of the youth in Pakistan who overwhelmingly, along with a higher number of women voters, endorsed Imran’s agenda.
In the cricket-crazy country, Imran has remained the undisputed hero who brought World Cup cricket glory to Pakistan in 1992. No other sportsperson has achieved the popularity and respect in Pakistan that Imran has. But once he declared his intention of entering politics after doing remarkable charity work — he set up a world-class cancer hospital and several educational institutions in the country — the political elite started weaving conspiracy theories to keep him out of the mainstream, which remained dominated by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) along with a host of religious, regional and linguistic groups. Most political groups, fearing his growing popularity, opposed him.
Imran was a rank outsider in Pakistani politics, but the fan-base he created, comprising mostly young people, supported and stayed with him. He broadcast a consistent message of the need to transform the political system in order to transform the country. This idealism emanated from his student days at the prestigious Oxford University where he studied and captained the cricket team. He also played county cricket for Worcestershire and Sussex in England.
His strong ties with the United Kingdom have continued, and his biggest constituency outside Pakistan is among the Pakistani diaspora living in the UK. It was in the UK where I met Imran in 1996 when he was garnering support for the newly-launched Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). I used to be an intern at the London bureau of the News International. Shahid Sadullah, a bureaucrat-turned-journalist, was Imran’s big fan who sent me to interview him. I managed to meet Imran at a mutual friend’s house in Nottingham. Besides his charisma, I was struck by his idealism to change Pakistan. Most of the things he said in that interview still remain part of his political narrative.
Imran’s resolve to fight for the disadvantaged and disempowered had its first success in 2002 when he was elected member of the National Assembly. After a love-hate relationship with the military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, Imran boycotted the elections in 2008, but remained steadfast despite many personal debacles and a near-death accident in Lahore during an election rally in 2013. During all these political triumphs and tribulations, Imran continued his philanthropic work in the health and education sectors. His efforts to bring qualitative changes to the lives of the ordinary people of Pakistan were recognised worldwide.
He served as the chancellor of Bradford University in the UK between 2005 and 2014 and also received an honorary fellowship from the Royal College of Physicians in 2012, besides earning several national and international accolades. The charity work he did in Pakistan made him realise that Pakistan needs strong institutions to transform its society. His journey of philanthropy and political activism continued.
Coming into his own as a statesman
A 22-year journey is not that long in politics, but in a country like Pakistan where it can get vicious, volatile and virulent, two decades is a fairly decent time to understand the nuances of politics. Though Imran still exhibits the raw passion he demonstrated while leading Pakistan to its most coveted win in international cricket, he is showing the maturity of a statesman that Pakistan needs in order to confront the colossal challenges it faces — both on the domestic and international fronts.
In his victory speech, he eloquently raised the curtain on his internal and external priorities. The strengthening of the institutions, making the powerful accountable, fighting poverty, unemployment, inequality and developing a model welfare state are his cherished domestic priorities, but he can only achieve them in a peaceful environment. That is why Imran has been very lucid on his foreign policy priorities.
The geopolitics of South Asia makes Pakistan extremely important not only to its immediate neighbours — including India, China, Afghanistan and Iran — but to the other powers that have the strategic interest in the region. Imran seems well aware of the challenges he faces in regional and international diplomacy. As the prime minister-in-waiting, he showed maturity when he addressed these challenges through a conciliatory approach.
While the world in general and Pakistan’s neighbouring countries in particular are nervously trying to interpret how the emergence of Imran will impact the geopolitics in the region, he has calmed nerves by passionately calling for peace in South Asia, including a negotiated settlement of the Kashmir issue.
If any country needs peace right now it is Pakistan, he said emphatically in his victory speech. He touched upon the pain of Afghanistan, and urged the opening of borders with that country to normalise relations.
The eyes of the entire world, particularly those of people in South Asia, are watching Imran with great expectations. As he gets set to take the oath as the 19th prime minister of Pakistan, people are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping to see him deliver what he has been promising all along.
Dr Fazal Malik is dean of Humanities, Arts and Applied Sciences at Amity University Dubai.