On a cold January day in 1997, just five years after he captained Pakistan to a World Cup win and earned demigod status in the country, Imran Khan stepped out onto a nearly empty street in Islamabad, for one of his first ever election rallies. This could have become the “second innings” of the Captain, who had led his team for more than a decade, but had also led the life of a playboy, called “Romeo Rat” by women he left in the lurch.
Just a year before the rally, no one was sure if Mr. Khan would even join the electoral fray. During a joint interview with his then wife Jemima in early 1996, he had said that if he had really wanted to join politics, he would have accepted the offer of a Cabinet berth from former President Zia-ul-Haq, and his only interest was in a better, corruption-free Pakistan.
The crowds in the Pakistani capital’s government colonies were small, with more children running up for Mr. Khan to sign a bat or ball than serious political followers. Mr. Khan said with a laugh to Indian journalists following curiously that he was forced by a lack of campaign funds to take a “
” (go by foot), while his rivals Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif took to the sky in helicopters. But outside Islamabad, especially in Mr. Khan’s home state of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (then the North West Frontier Province), he was drawing large rallies, which caught the attention of the world.
Building the party
In the elections that followed, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML) won by a landslide, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was trounced, while Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won only about 3,00,000 votes nationwide, or less than 2% of the total vote. In his autobiography,
Pakistan: A Personal History
, the Oxford-educated leader called his 1997 campaign effort the “Charge of the Light Brigade, but without the horses and without the arms.”
Contrary to expectations, however, Mr. Khan didn’t drop out of politics, although he frequently travelled outside the country on speaking tours, and signed up as a cricket commentator for Indian television channels. For some years after the coup by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999, Mr. Khan used the time Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif lived “in exile” in the U.K. and Saudi Arabia to build his party from the grassroots in his characteristically hands-on, but erratic style.
After he contested and won his seat in the 2002 elections under Mr. Musharraf’s dictatorship, Mr. Khan began to build a reputation as “Taliban Khan”, leading protests against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, and slowly turning to a more religious political rhetoric, which included advocating a Sharia-compliant state.
Mr. Khan refused to stand for elections held under a “military ruler” (Musharraf) and boycotted the 2008 elections, a far cry from today, when the common narrative is that he is the Army’s “laadla”, or chosen one.
Ms. Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007 brought the PPP to power and eventually installed her husband Asaf Ali Zardari as President.
The next few years saw Mr. Khan working hard to return from the political wilderness.
In 2013 elections, he won a foot in the parliamentary door, with 30 seats, and there has been no looking back since then.
At a business meet in Kolkata in 2012, Mr. Khan was asked what was the biggest lesson he had learnt in all his years in politics. “Fear success, not failure,” he replied. “Because in failure, you learn who your friends really are, but success brings so many others who don’t share your commitment to the cause, and eventually become the cause of your downfall.”
As Pakistan’s next likely Prime Minister, 22 years after he first took that walk in Islamabad, Mr. Khan’s political journey has borne success, and he has finally been given the chance to test that theory.
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