If a young person in Pakistan is asked to name one present-day national hero who continues to inspire the country towards greatness, you will certainly hear the name of Imran Khan recurrently. From sports to politics to social work, Imran has emerged as the beloved hero of the Pakistani youth who see him as a messiah challenging the political status quo and believing in a “new and prosperous Pakistan”.
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In his straightforward and passionate speeches, his selfless devotion to humanity, and his relentless struggle to make Pakistan a welfare state, the youth of the country have identified a hero. At present, Pakistan’s favourite cricket hero-turned-politician is praised by many for spearheading the anti-corruption campaign against Pakistan’s ruling party, which has ultimately led to the dismissal of three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court. Imran openly lauded the “courage and role” of the judges and members of the Joint Investigation Team who discovered “dozens of undeclared companies” run by Sharif’s family members in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
Most political commentators call the court verdict on Sharif’s family and Ishaq Dar, the former finance minister, as a “big psychological victory” for Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. But whether this can be translated into an election victory is yet to be seen.
Ever since he entered politics, Imran came under severe criticism from his political opponents, initially due to his now-broken marriage (1995-2004) with Jemima Goldsmith (daughter of a British billionaire Sir James Goldsmith) and her “Jewish connection” (because Jemima belongs to a Jewish family). More recently, his political opponents accused him of becoming a part of an “international conspiracy against developing Pakistan”. In 2015, Imran married British-Pakistani journalist Reham Khan, but they parted ways the same year.
The latest setback for Imran is an allegation of sexual harassment by one his own party members and a member of parliament — Ayesha Gulalai, who has not only quit PTI, but has also accused Imran of making a “marriage proposal” and sending “indecent messages”. Imran has denied the charges and has alleged that rival politicians have used Gulalai against him.
Political observers are warning that an over-exposure of the Gulalai issue can open a new Pandora’s box in Pakistani politics, resulting in the likely implication of dozens of politicians (from the government as well as the opposition). A senior analyst, Haroon Rasheed, believes that if charges against Imran are proven he could face difficult days. There is a famous saying in Pakistan: “Everyone is involved in some immoral behaviour, but only those who are not in the good books of government would be tried and punished.”
Imran’s political rivals also accused him of taking “dictations” from the establishment, a charge that he has vehemently denied.
The fact remains that people of Pakistan, in general, are fed up with the traditional politicians. Imran is seen as an alternative to Pakistan’s dynastic and game of thrones-style political system that has for long been dominated by the Sharif family (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) and the Bhutto family (Pakistan People’s Party). Imran’s campaign and Sharif’s ouster have sparked hope among the youth and the masses that are against corruption. Even staunch rivals of Imran admit that politicians have failed the nation over the last 70 years.
The older generation feels that former president and prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (of Pakistan People’s Party) was the last most popular leader — after founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who had awakened the people of Pakistan. The new generation is now dreaming of Pakistan as a social welfare state with full implementation of rule of law and justice, exactly what Imran’s political model promises.
Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi, now 64, was born in a traditional Pashtun family in Lahore. After completing his early school and college education from Lahore in 1972, he went to Oxford University for his post-graduation. Imran made his international debut in 1971. The young hero turned to social work in 1994 when he established the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre in Lahore, named after his mother. This earned him the sympathies of the middle and lower middle-class who lacked access to proper health-care services in the country.
Imran launched his political career in 1996 by forming his own political party, PTI (Movement for Justice), insisting that “we must change the judicial system in the country before we could enforce rule of law”. He repeatedly quoted former British prime minister Winston Churchill, who had once famously said: “Thank God. If the courts are working, nothing can go wrong.”
In the 2002 general elections, he won a single seat but boycotted the 2008 elections as he was disappointed with the electoral system. In the 2013 elections, his party emerged as the second-largest political force in Pakistan, as his party PTI came to power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. PTI is parimarily seen as a Centrist party with an objective to create a welfare state with equal opportunities for education, health and employment.
Pakistan’s next general election is due in mid-2018, in which Imran hopes to secure a majority — primarily banking on youth voters who may change the fate of the country.
In 1995, when Imran took the plunge into politics, few Pakistanis were optimistic about his success. Now, Imran has emerged as a powerful “second option” for Pakistan voters, many of whom wish to see him as the country’s next prime minister”.
According to political analysts, Imran is neither a good orator nor a traditional politician. But his vision for a welfare state, his criticism to American policy, his protests against American drone attacks and his advocacy of a policy of peaceful coexistence have made him popular among youths, as well as human rights activists in Pakistan.
Imran strongly believes: “It is not defeat that destroys you, it is being demoralised by defeat that destroys you.”
But for now, this charismatic personality will have to grapple with this allegation of sexual harassment, until he manages to get his name cleared of any wrongdoing.