Unparallelled: Imran Khan is perhaps the greatest achiever to become prime minister in history
August 20 2018 02:28 AM
GAME-CHANGER? At a time when the subcontinent cannot seem to get beyond the politics of hatred and venality, Imran Khan’s ascent as head of government can be history-changing, says the author.

By Jaideep Varma

If the above claim makes you blanch, please ask yourself the following two questions. One, has any elite sportsman ever become the head of government of any country before (the closest is Liberia’s president George Weah but not quite in the same league)? Two, when is the last time someone was single-handedly responsible for the treatment of about 100,000 seriously ill patients free of cost, before becoming head of government? Even one of these qualifications is unprecedented, both of them — unreal. 
The usual answer to the above is — so what? How is this relevant to the responsibilities of Imran Khan on becoming head of the government, especially in a troubled nation such as Pakistan? 
Take Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital and Research Centre first — the hospital Imran Khan founded in memory of his mother who died of cancer. This is dismissed as “philanthropy” by many, where 95% people cut cheques of amounts that don’t affect them much personally. For Imran Khan, not only was this hospital a full-time obsession since 1989, his core objective of keeping it a charitable institution involved the kind of commitment and sacrifices very few people even comprehend making in their lives (his often moving 2011 book Pakistan: A Personal History recounts a lot of this), including bending in front of rivals to make this hospital a reality.  
The hospital is now in its 24th year and is widely considered, even by Imran’s political opponents, to be among the finest hospitals in Asia, not just Pakistan (WHO acknowledged its excellence in 2006). Most importantly, astonishingly for these times, it has managed to stay a charitable institution; last year, about 75% of its patients were treated free by the hospital (that has almost 3,000 employees). 
Reportedly, its philanthropic spending till date is in the region of US$370 million (please allow this to sink in) which has treated about 100,000 patients till date since its inception. This is against the odds and all the advice Imran Khan has received over the years to dilute the charitable intent. And he still has to regularly raise funds to maintain this intent, on this scale! 
This is not merely a philanthropic act but a visionary one. Perhaps, it says a lot about our times that many people actually wonder whether such a fierce commitment to the plight of less fortunate people qualifies as a leadership quality for someone who runs a country. 
Now, take the career that made him famous before that (and helped considerably in the materialisation of the hospital). If the anodyne custodians of cricket had more imagination, they wouldn’t have a problem in defining Imran Khan’s exact place in cricket history as among the three greatest players to have played the sport, and certainly the most significant Asian. Only Muttiah Muralitharan comes close as a player, but Imran was also a legendary captain. 

FEVER PITCH: Supporters of PTI raise slogans during a public rally in Islamabad. Imran Khan comes into power on the back of a populist agenda for change, but this has raised tremendous expectations across Pakistan. He is the first Pakistani politician to have been elected from a record five national constituencies, including three of the four provinces as well as the federal capital.

Imran Khan is Cricket Royalty, not just another individual who played the sport with distinction. Not only did Imran the player rewrite his country’s cricketing history with remarkably well-timed performances as a player (despite losing about half his prime years as a fast bowler due to injury that forced him to redefine his game — a mythical story of character in its own right), he also famously put together a disparate and arguably the most difficult bunch of talented individuals in the sport together and led them very effectively (Sarfraz Nawaz, Javed Miandad, Abdul Qadir among them). 
No other captain in cricket history can also be credited with the ability to pick and groom as many world-beaters on just raw talent and in the absence of match evidence (most famously, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Inzamam-ul-Haq). Pakistan was the second-best Test team in the 1980s after the all-time great West Indians, against whom Pakistan actually drew three back-to-back Test series, in many ways an even bigger achievement than their more famous 1992 World Cup win, Imran’s swansong as captain. 
Moreover, his insistence on neutral umpires in the 1980s shaped the future of the sport as it functions today, and his accent on attacking cricket in circumstances that previously demanded circumspection remains a guiding light for captains even now.
Does the character and discipline Imran showed as a player (especially when he reinvented himself from debilitating setbacks to great success) not to speak of his judgment and his inspirational courage as a leader of men (universally acknowledged in the sport) not count for anything as leader of a nation? Or indeed, the incorruptibility that Imran is associated with to this day, a quality that kept match-fixers at bay in those early days, and gives Imran the courage to attack his political opponents on rabid venality today. Even his worst rivals have not been able to nail him on this one aspect, despite being in a position to wield that power on him. 
And yet, there are weak spots in Imran’s resume. Due to his appearance, and the inevitable glamour around that, those two accomplishments have anyway never entirely been given their true importance by the mainstream. His exploits in the high society scene, in the 1980s especially, kept many a gossip columnist gainfully employed and later, his version of practicing his faith has been an object of ridicule for the contradictions with his past life and the supposed hypocrisy. 
The problematic part is his ostensible support of radical elements like his defence of blasphemy laws (contradicting his own stance in his book Pakistan: A Personal History). But it is worth pointing out that no-one else actually has had the stomach to address this lately — the last prominent people to do this publicly were Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, who were both shot dead in 2011. 

GLOBAL CELEBRITY: Imran Khan with ex-wife Jemima Goldsmith, left, and British supermodel Naomi Campbell at an event held in honour of South African visionary and former president Nelson Mandela.

Perhaps, out of sheer pragmatism, Imran is waiting to have the power to change it before making reckless statements that jeopardises his life and politics? Another criticism was around the funds and infrastructural support his party gave to the Haqqania madrassa, though Imran has clarified that was to enable seminary students to assimilate with mainstream society and keep away from radicalisation. 
People talk about his supposed cozying up to the security establishment or giving tickets to tainted traditional politicians with voter bases — the “electables” — that has been worrying, but there are also some facts to consider in this context. Imran’s leadership style during his cricket days was led by pragmatism. He played hard and fair, but also pushed the boundaries within legal limits, with a clear aim to win. After his 2013 election campaign, it was clear that PTI would not win without support from certain quarters; either he accepted that and worked outside the system (which is basically political oblivion) or played the game as it is played, to try and win first. 
Imran has always believed that one man’s vision drives a system (whether it be Mahathir bin Mohammed of Malaysia or Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore or even more exalted ones like Nelson Mandela) and the rest have to serve that vision — so, the belief system of the ones who execute that vision is not of primary importance. Also, those who are saying that he is the army’s puppet should remember that Imran has not taken orders from anyone for 36 years; it is highly unlikely that a man like him is going to be pushed around by anyone now. 
These balancing acts have got him very bad press but whether they define him today will become clear now. Being a favoured person to speak for the Taliban earned him the sobriquet “Taliban Khan” but is it really wrong to try and engage with the most problematic parties in the hope of diffusing age-old conflicts and saving lives? (After all the self-righteous chest-beating, even the US ended up talking to the Taliban, didn’t they?) 
A great deal of the unease in the liberal classes has to do with the conservatism in his own life in recent years. Again, on the evidence of his life, does that necessarily mean that he will impose his way of life on the people of Pakistan? Those who feel he comes from a position of patriarchy do not hear the sheer pride in his voice when he talks (in an interview with prominent TV show host Hamid Mir) about women studying in the co-educational Namal College in Mianwali district, that he set up, another prominent dream of his that is seeing fruition. 
As cricket captain, one of Imran’s hallmarks was to allow people’s individuality to flourish entirely, and align it to the team cause. Is a fundamentalist state Imran’s team cause now? That’s not what PTI’s manifesto suggests at all. Some people hyperventilated when Imran said he wanted to build Pakistan in the image of seventh-century Medina, without absorbing that he meant it as a humanist welfare state, where widows and the poor were specifically taken care of. 
In the end, how should a man’s legacy be judged? For who he supposedly is as a person or the things he has concretely done? Perhaps the first is only relevant to family and friends, and the second to everybody else. 
What is more important — the unconfirmed personal scandals, or how many people have progressed because of his actions? Whether he preens as a narcissist at times or the economic and social injustice he has most definitely put himself on the firing line for? Which is the balance sheet that really matters? 
But that is not how many modern-day liberals, these warriors of little knowledge, view the world. Their leaders need to be flawless individuals, idealised in their image of that perfection (very unlike themselves of course, but necessarily within their own value system which they believe to be supreme). And so, like an income tax official gone rogue, faults are held up and extrapolated with exaggeration that eventually end up unravelling the whole persona, all the potential for greater good be damned.
Like those who hark back to when Imran was nicknamed “Im the Dim” in his Oxford days or those who’ve compared him to Donald Trump lately. Perhaps, they do not know that Imran has the formidable PPE degree from Oxford (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) – the course that Bill Clinton couldn’t complete, but Harold Wilson, Bob Hawke, Malcolm Fraser, Aung San Suu Kyi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did, among others, recommended as it is for a career in politics and public life. Some who know this point out that he got a third-class, though no-one examines what class the others got; for example, Christopher Hutchins and Tariq Ali are two other well-known PPE third class degree holders. And no-one factors this in — Imran Khan got this degree after becoming an international cricketer and despite the sport being his primary career plan – which is extremely rare, if not unprecedented. 
Still, make no mistake, Imran Khan’s current challenge is a very difficult one. His party, PTI, didn’t get a majority and had to form a coalition government, which is straightaway grounds for compromise. Moreover, due to a parliamentary amendment in 2010 of provincial budget allocations, Imran Khan also has a far smaller budget available to him — about half of what his predecessors have had, also with far fewer powers than they had. 
And yet, these odds are not lower than what people gave Pakistan halfway through the 1992 World Cup, which they won despite injuries to key players Saeed Anwar and Waqar Younis before that tournament began. Imran Khan is that very rare combination of a visionary and a doer — a big picture person. Such people usually tend to strive for something much larger than themselves; greed and selfishness usually don’t figure in their calculations. And if we look at the big picture of his life, the integrity and perseverance he has shown over the years with his many causes, there is no reason to believe that his dream of transforming Pakistan’s faltering institutions and enabling a vibrant merit-based society is out of his reach. 
At a time when the subcontinent cannot seem to get beyond the politics of hatred and venality, Imran Khan’s ascent as head of government can be history-changing and inspirational. He has already done far more good than any one person gets to do in one lifetime. And yet, the time to judge his real legacy perhaps starts now. 

Jaideep Varma is an Indian writer and filmmaker who also conceived of Impact Index – the most written-about alternative stats system in cricket. 

Last updated: November 17 2019 10:27 PM

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