In late February, just hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived in Moscow with all smiles. “What a time to come, so much excitement,” Khan remarked. Reports also emerged that he pursued the ill-timed visit against the advice of his own foreign ministry and armed forces.
That’s not to say that Khan’s defiance of the military in this particular incident is the reason for the prevailing political chaos in Pakistan, or the Supreme Court’s historic decision Friday to undo all the damage Khan had committed in the face of a no-trust vote.
Rather, Khan’s remarks on that chilly night in Moscow was a telling moment of how the former cricketer and celebrity playboy always seemed to lack political maturity and strategic prowess both on a national and international scale.
Instead of resigning after his key coalition partner Muttahida Qaumi Movement (Pakistan) joined the Opposition last week, Khan chose to make a mockery of Pakistan’s Constitution. He got the no-trust vote dismissed and a presidential nod to dissolve parliament, calling for fresh elections citing ‘conspiracy’ and a ‘foreign hand’ that allegedly sought his ouster. Imran Khan faces a fresh no-confidence vote Saturday, which experts say he is unlikely to survive. Even Khan’s cricket analogy of “playing till the last ball”, which he continues to parrot even after the Supreme Court’s decision, reflects an inability to see the wood for the trees — his party was bowled out the day the coalition fell apart.
Given Pakistan’s history, it’s not alarming for the prime minister to be removed from office, either through staged coups or the invisible hand of the army. Not even seasoned politicians like Nawaz Sharif and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto survived in the minefield that is Pakistani politics. But the self-assured hubris with which Imran Khan has held office since winning the 2018 election — naming a US official for an unsubstantiated “foreign conspiracy”, neglecting Pakistan’s economy while professing an Islamist welfare state, mishandling the Covid pandemic and making empty promises of a ‘Naya Pakistan’ — is what separates him from his predecessors.
Imran Khan will be remembered as the army stooge who left office with controversy and disgrace. And that is why he is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
From gentleman’s game to dirty politics
Before he was a twinkle in the army’s eyes, Imran Khan was among Pakistan’s most beloved cricket players under whose captaincy the country clinched the 1992 Cricket World Cup. He was a national hero with strong ideals. In his autobiography, Pakistan: A Personal History, he wrote of how “the Pakistani people drew solace from its success in cricket” amid “the steady erosion of the country’s political and social fabric” under military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq.
Just like the message behind the 2001 Indian film ‘Lagaan’, Khan also understood the importance of the cricket field. “For teams like Pakistan, India, and the West Indies, a battle to right colonial wrongs and assert our equality was played out on the cricket field every time we took on England,” he wrote in his autobiography. It would seem that Khan had a pulse on the nation more as a cricketer than as a politician.
After retiring from cricket in 1992, Khan waded into philanthropic work. An Oxford University graduate, he raised a tremendous amount of money during an event in Britain in the 1990s for the construction of the first cancer hospital in Pakistan. The hospital, named after his late mother Shaukat Khanum who succumbed to cancer in 1985, was opened in 1994.
“I think that suffering, and watching her [Shaukat Khanum] die, that touched me deeply. It was a watershed [moment] in my life,” Khan said in a rare ’90s interview shortly after the fundraising event. “I wasn’t sure how people would react to a hospital in Pakistan. My main idea was to tap the Pakistanis living in Britain.”
In 1996, after years of toying with the idea of politics, Khan launched his own political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). But it wasn’t until two decades later that the PTI would taste success and Khan, having undergone two divorces and shaken off his party boy persona, became the premier of his country albeit with the army’s nudge.
Legacy of flawed economic policies
It could be argued that Imran Khan’s neglect of Pakistan’s economy started his downfall.
Despite storming into power on the promise of a ‘Naya Pakistan’, Khan did little to focus on reform and growth, as pointed out by Indian economist Mihir Sharma in an op-ed for Bloomberg. Inflation is over 12 per cent now, exacerbated by the global spikes in commodity prices caused by the Ukraine war, as compared to an average of 5 per cent or so in the five years before the former cricketer took office.
Let’s not forget that last November, after much back and forth, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to revive a $6 billion bailout for Pakistan’s battered economy but the money is now on hold due to Khan’s recent antics.
Under Khan, Islamabad has also come to rely more and more on Beijing, creating fears that Pakistan’s rising debt alongside the strategic China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project could put the country in a similar position as Sri Lanka, when the Chinese seized the Hambantota International Port.
Khan’s delusions about the economy being on track were put on prime display during the pandemic when his rhetoric didn’t exactly match the actual mismanagement of the health crisis. In March 2021, YouTuber Yashraj Mukhate’s rap remix of Khan’s infamous ‘Aap Ne Ghabrana Nahin’ speech a year before went viral.
The sarcastic lyrics communicated Pakistani people’s frustration with rising inflation and high prices of everyday goods like soap, all while the government asked them not to worry.
Acting out instead of resigning
They say breaking up with a person shows you their true colours. Imran Khan’s messy break-up with his prime ministership is certainly telling. It shows a man who would rather act out and override the Constitution instead of resigning as per parliamentary rules.
He went as far to accuse the US Assistant Secretary of State of being involved in a “foreign conspiracy” against him. As former Pakistani ambassador Husain Haqqani recently noted in an Off The Cuff episode with ThePrint’s Shekhar Gupta, it’s a bit much to give an Assistant Secretary of State, a post equivalent to a Joint Secretary, so much importance even as there was no sign of the “threat letter” that Khan had cited to back up this allegation.
Journalist Mansoor Ali Khan pointed out that the Supreme Court’s decision to restore the National Assembly, that too after reading the minutes of the National Security Council, “punches holes in Imran Khan’s “foreign hand” narrative.”
Khan was clearly grasping at straws this week, by giving Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri powers he didn’t have and telling President Arif Alvi to dissolve the National Assembly. What’s tragic is that there once was hope for Imran Khan, whether it was during his cricket or philanthropic days. As his ex-wife Jemima Goldsmith said last April, in response to his comments on rape, this isn’t the Khan the world once knew. Now, he will have one of the most unceremonious departures from the most important post in his life.
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(Edited by Prashant)