Both in and out of power, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan (2018-22) has always exhibited a certain restless quality — a leader who can’t wait for the next chapter in his story to unfold and is consistently pushing the buttons on an imaginary time machine, trying to fast forward to his ultimate destiny. Equally, Mr. Khan carries an air of grievance, of having been cheated of that destiny. Given that the former cricketing hero, who brought home Pakistan’s only World Cup in 1992 and subsequently launched a fiery political career with a meteoric rise to power in 2018, has tasted success several times, it is often unclear just why Mr. Khan feels so cheated, and why much of his speeches at the massive rallies he has addressed over the past year are filled with bitterness and self-righteous anger.
They are also marked with a sense of drama, much of it engineered by the man himself, and the past week has been no different — as his party workers clashed with the police in Islamabad outside the Judicial complex where Mr. Khan was due to appear in the ‘Toshakhana case’, where he is accused of illegally acquiring watches and expensive jewellery he received during his tenure as Prime Minister.
“We are not free, we are slaves. We may have Pakistanis at the top of the government, but we are serfs,” he thundered during a recent “address to the nation”, one of several that he puts out on YouTube, accusing the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) coalition government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif of plotting to kill him, of arresting hundreds of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) workers and muzzling the opposition.
As if on cue, the electricity goes out during the recording, and Mr. Khan is heard expostulating, and impatiently asking his aides to turn on the torch on their cellphones so that he can complete his speech. “Be prepared to give every drop of your blood, be unafraid,” he tells supporters, calling them to a “Haqeeqi Azaadi” (Real Independence) rally, his first this year being held at the Minar-E-Pakistan monument on Saturday night.
The sense of history is not lost on his supporters, as March 25 marks the day in 1992 that Mr. Khan’s “Cornered Tigers”, as the Pakistan cricket team was called, won the World Cup. “Today, PTI has been cornered by the State with unprecedented unleashing of fascism against its leadership & workers, but we will win because under Imran Khan’s leadership we are fighting for freedom & Rule of Law,” tweeted PTI leader Shireen Mazari ahead of the rally.
Then 40 years old, Mr. Khan could have probably retired after the World Cup and lived a life of eternal adulation. Within four years, however, he launched his “second innings” in Pakistani politics, vowing to wrest power from the two powerful dynasties — the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, who have alternated in running the government for much of the past 35 years. His political path was nearly dead on arrival — in the 1997 election, his party won no seats, and in 2002, just one. He did not contest in 2008, in protest against military ruler Pervez Musharraf, but made a startling comeback in 2013, with 35 seats. In 2018, the PTI finally won power, with 149 of 342 seats, enough to form a comfortable majority. Mr. Khan’s populist pitch, the personality cult he built and the use of social media were part of similar successes in democracies around the world — from the U.S. and the U.K. to Brazil and even India. Through the journey, Mr. Khan has always pitched himself as an underdog undertaking a lone battle, despite his obvious successes and popularity with his supporters.
“Imran Khan — the once and future Prime Minister of Pakistan is all things to all men and women,” explains Fakir Syed Aijazuddin, columnist at the Dawn newspaper, “Adored by acolytes, wooed by women, a cricketing champion, married first to a Jewish heiress (Jemima Goldsmith Khan) and now to a Pirni (spiritual figure Bushra Bibi) with unnatural powers, he defies conventional analysis.”
Asked about the sense of grievance, Mr. Aijazuddin, author of several historical books, adds that Mr. Khan “is tempted by martyrdom, had he not loved power more”, referring to the 12th-century Archbishop Thomas Becket who fought with the British King and establishment, and is the subject of many theatrical works.
As Prime Minister, Mr. Khan was often seen breaking rules, and justifying his actions by showing the power of his popular support at massive rallies. The risk-taking and brinkmanship reached a crescendo last year, when Mr. Khan faced a no-confidence vote in Parliament.
Despite knowing he did not have the numbers, he stalled for time, ensuring the vote was delayed, and then dramatically resigned with all PTI MPs, saying he was the victim of an “international regime change conspiracy”, a charge aimed at the U.S. and the Pakistani military Generals, whom he referred to as “Dirty Harrys”.
There is some truth to Mr. Khan’s allegation that he has been treated unfairly since then — as the Sharif government has slapped as many as 80 cases against him, his party workers have been targeted and arrested, his speeches and interviews have been banned from being aired on Pakistani television channels by the electronic media watchdog, which accuses him of “spreading hate speech through his provocative statements against state institutions and officers which is prejudicial to the maintenance of law and order and is likely to disturb public peace and tranquillity”.
In addition, he has faced the full force of state forces, including an incident earlier this month, when a PTI activist allegedly died from injuries he received from the police during the protests outside his home. In an assassination attempt on him during a rally last November, Mr. Khan was shot in both legs.
Still limping from the injuries as he walks, Mr. Khan is, however, oblivious to the charge that he is not the only leader in Pakistan that has faced attempts on his life, and that he himself stands accused of running an authoritarian government, where opponents had cases slapped against them, and journalists faced restrictions. He dismisses such claims. “My three-and-a-half years are considered the most liberal in Pakistan’s history in terms of journalists, in terms of freedom of media and press. My three-and-a-half years were exemplary,” he said in a recent interview to the New Yorker.
Imran Khan’s focus now is entirely on bringing his party back to power and recapturing the Prime Ministerial post. As he launches an all-out campaign for elections to be announced at the earliest, his politics is likely to be more confrontational. Analysts say his tone against the Sharif government is likely to become more shrill and he will bring more of his supporters to the streets, in a manner harking back to his famous words to team-mate Wasim Akram during the two overs that decided Pakistan’s World Cup win in 1992 — “Forget about the no-balls. Just bowl fast.”