The Nawaz-Imran equation

ush! Tush! Fear little boys with bugs – not Imran Khan with his fuzzy mumblings about insaf and azadi and what not. But wait, it seems

Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of Pakistan

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our socialite turned social reformer has got Punjab patriarch Nawaz Sharif’s face boiling red. Who would’ve thought.

If politics were predictable, it would cease to be politics, wouldn’t it?

For a start-up party and no parliamentary representation, Imran’s rivals have always given him an inordinate amount of attention. As early as the 90s, Benazir Bhutto had begun to keep an unyielding eye on his activities, never forgoing an opportunity to mock him as a “me-too” candidate whose central beliefs were worth “little more than a few greeting card pleas”. Even the Czar of Karachi, Altaf Hussain, betrayed IK-anxiety and thundered in many a telephonic address about presenting the National Assembly with evidence of Imran’s “bad character.”

But Nawaz has a concerted, though little reported, history of being unsettled by the nation’s favourite son. During the campaigns for the 1997 elections, as Jemima Khan writes in the Sunday Telegraph, wild mobs showed up to picket the Khans’ family home, accusing Imran of being part of a Zionist conspiracy because he was married to a person with a Jewish background. “They insisted I be thrown out of the country,” Jemima writes. “They took out full-page newspapers ads, inciting people to riot outside our home. Fundos took to the streets with placards bearing my name and the word ‘infidel’.” A number of prominent newspapers carried a hazy image of a cheque of 40 million pounds, supposedly from Jemima’s father to fund Imran’s party.

All this for a political nobody whose party was just some years old?

Indeed, the same Nawaz who today calls Imran hopeless and irrelevant did not find it beneath himself to issue, in 1997, a list of “Six questions for Tehreek-e-Insaf convener Imran Khan,” accusing him of having hired a London advertising agency and for being an international playboy. And even as a prime minister with a heavy mandate, Nawaz couldn’t help attacking Imran, calling him a “desperate, failed conspirator” and scoffing that his “plot to capture power with the help of his father-in-law’s wealth” had met with a brick wall.

In 1998, things even took a turn for the surreal when Imran and Jemima bought bathroom tiles from an Islamabad shop, only to be told – when Jemima attempted to ship them to her mother in London a few days later – that they were goods of paramount archaeological interest. The trial went on for two years and was quashed in April 2000, after Nawaz’s fall from power, and when an official from the Ministry of Culture and Archaeology suddenly came forward and declared that the tiles appeared “to have been made at some time in the last 40 years,” not in the mid-17th century. “To say it was politically motivated is an understatement,” Imran told his biographer Christopher Sandford. “The whole thing was a crass abuse of power.”

Indeed, it was, analysts say, because of Nawaz’s concerted attacks that mobs continued to hound the Khans in the months following the 1997 elections. It was also this concerted criticism of Imran’s personal life that perhaps led him to later betray something of a soft corner for the Taliban and declare that while their “medieval zeal is not what Islam is about…that still doesn’t make them terrorists.”

Imran Khan, December 2007

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Ironically, Imran and Nawaz are, with each passing day, beginning to sound more and more like each other. Both are extremely militant in supporting Pakistan’s nuclear programme and overstate its purported link with national self-esteem. Both attack the present government for corruption and American cronyism. Both have called to break the begging bowl. Both have aggressively criticised the excesses of the war on terror and held dangerously ambiguous positions on militancy and the Taliban.

Most importantly, while Nawaz was midwifed by the establishment as part of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad in 1988, reportedly to prevent Benazir Bhutto from sweeping the polls, it is now Imran who, if one were to believe the rumours, has the backing of the boys.

But Imran also has his pluses: A deeply ingrained work ethic that is evident in his tireless campaigns for his cancer hospital. A grounding in administrative wrangling that comes from a decade as Team Pakistan’s captain. And just the simple ability to power on in politics, despite all odds and losses, like a bowler obstinately pegging away on a flat pitch, rolling up his sleeves and getting on with it.

Much to his rivals’ chagrin, all this has turned Imran from – in the words of one of his own friends – “not one of life’s natural baby kissers,” to a politician who now woos enormous crowds of churning and burning humanity.

But is this political transformation as total as the one that turned him in his 20s from a county trundler to a world-class cricketer?

Not yet. And it won’t be until Imran realises something very basic: People are smart. They get tired of the boring old talking points. Poverty, unemployment, corruption – people don’t just live to fight evils. They live for positive goals and discernable core beliefs. Soon enough, they will want Imran to give them specific policy pledges on Pakistan’s economy and foreign policy. They will want their captain to move on from vague mantras to proposing the substantive reforms that are the stuff of real leadership.

It has been famously said about Imran that his ideas and affiliations “have swerved and skidded like a rickshaw in a rainstorm”. The people want the PTI jalopy to lead them somewhere now. Pakistani politics being about as predictable as a wasp on speed, we’ll just have to wait and see where.
(From The News, Pakistan

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