Imran Khan: The Captain Begins His Greatest Test Match

Main Image Credit Imran Khan at a conference on the rule of law in Berlin, 2009. Courtesy of Heinrich Böll Stiftung/Wikimedia

Pakistan’s newly elected Parliament sits today for the first time. The country’s incoming prime minister has the potential to remould domestic politics but this will be an uphill struggle.

Cricket has always been referred to as the gentleman’s game – and unlike most other sports, the role of the captain is far more significant than, say, football or rugby. In Pakistan, where cricket has always been seen as a second religion, the world of army generals, feudal lords and politicians always collide on the cricket field. Even the Taliban did not ban cricket matches during the height of the insurgency on the Afghan–Pakistan border – a luxury not afforded to any other sport. Pakistan’s former world cup winning captain, Imran Khan has just broken four decades of continuous rule of dynastic politics over federal and provincial governments. However in what have been described as Pakistan’s dirtiest election, the cricket rule book has been torn up and it is far from being a gentleman’s game. Khan – whose party logo is a cricket bat – has used many a cricket analogy to dismiss his opponents. The monopoly of the two major parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), has been broken, and despite the allegations of the army’s involvement he remains a popular leader. For Khan to rule successfully, he has to fight corruption, an ailing economy and establish a balanced relationship with the generals.

Political Parties Mean Family Politics

Most observers would argue that politics in Pakistan has never been a level playing field. During the 70 years from the time of its independence from the British, Pakistan continued to see-saw between military generals and half a dozen families that have ruled at both provincial and federal levels. Khan has managed to break the families’ hold for now, although by how much remains to be seen. For, in the run-up to the current election, the media headlines had been about allegations of army interference in engineering as well as about casting aside two of the major parties, the PML-N and the PPP – in itself evidence that the old ways of ‘doing’ politics may not have disappeared. Furthermore, the conviction and imprisonment on corruption charges of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not stop his family trying to win instead. In his absence, his brother Shehbaz Sharif was named as the party’s candidate for the post of prime minister and Shehbaz’s son, Hamza Shehbaz, ran for the constituency formerly the domain of Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz who is also in prison along with her father. If that was not enough, the Sharifs dominate key electoral seats; it had been announced the grandson of Nawaz Sharif, Junaid Safdar is also poised to enter mainstream politics. And, of course, the former finance minister, Ishaq Dar who is also sought for corruption charges, is the father-in-law of Nawaz Sharif’s other daughter, Asma Nawaz.

Similarly Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the co-chairman of the PPP has self-deprecatingly claimed that, ‘he did not choose this life’ of politics, referring to an inheritance that has already seen his mother and grandfather become prime ministers, and his father the president. But, evidently, politics is what the young Bhutto wishes to pursue. And despite the ancestral home of the Bhuttos and Zardaris being in abject poverty and impoverished in comparison with all other parts of the country, there have been no strong contenders to challenge the family rule for four decades till the arrival of Khan.

It is these ‘corrupt family mafia’ as Kham calls them that his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is fighting against; Khan has galvanized the youth and the educated white-collared voters. And, according to an analysis and poll conducted by Credit Suisse, the bankers, Imran has the support for most of the banking and corporate class of the country and this has ushered him into power as his opponents have been accused and convicted of gross financial misconduct and widespread corruption.

Khan’s manifesto pledges included ending corruption and the perpetuation of family party rule in Pakistan, and his party has been credited in a recent article by The Economist with cleaning up Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province by bringing more order and rooting out corruption. It is this narrative and record of governance, coupled with cricket analogies that appeal to the masses that still see Khan as their hero. And Khan has a long record in this regard: he has accused Nawaz of corruption even back in his cricket days – saying that Nawaz always brought his own umpires when playing club cricket in the 1980s. This was in reference to how the PML-N had allegedly become a party of one family employing nepotism over merit throughout the decades. Even the PML-N’s stalwart and former interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali, has left the party citing the competency of Nawaz’s daughter to take over key decision-making positions.

Khan’s Last Innings

Khan has been in politics for over two decades – last time around he managed to win Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and has been credited with widespread reforms including cleaning up the police force which was seen as a major issue in the run-up to the election. Khan toiled hard in his cricket years, with his team winning the world cup when he was aged 39 – when most cricketers had hung up their boots. Now at 65, he is set to govern; his success depends on his ability to fend off the entrenched rule of families and land-owning classes who have widely been accused of taking the country to the brink of economic ruin. As for the army’s involvement, this is a reality of political life in Pakistan. The former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who is accusing Khan himself of cosying up to the army, was a creation of former military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, and has often praised him publicly. So, Khan won’t be able to change all the moulds of Pakistan’s politics.

Ironically it was Nawaz Sharif who invited Imran to politics many times, and now that invite has come good as Imran is set for his toughest Test match.

Kamal Alam is a Visiting Fellow at RUSI.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Kamal Alam

Visiting Fellow, Pakistan

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