Letter From Lahore

Imran: The Inevitable

Mehr Tarar is a well-known Pakistani columnist and author
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Pakistan is his passion and he will play it out like a true democrat

1982 ON A ROAD SOMEWHERE in Leeds, UK, driving with a friend, a song slowly filled up the fast- moving car. Silently, rapt, he listened to the song. For the rest of the journey, he played the song on what is today known as a loop.

2018 Thirty-six years later, Imran Khan still loves the Lata Mangeshkar song, Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh (‘An odd story is this’). Not many songs seem as apt as this one to encapsulate the story of Imran Khan’s life as the hauntingly beautiful lyric, ‘Kahaan shuru kahaan khatam (Where does it start, where does it finish).’

From an Oxford-educated, devastatingly handsome man, a legendary cricketer, to the prime minister-designate of Pakistan, Imran Khan has come a long way. Khan is probably the only sportsman in the history of sports whose career trajectory is marked with so much variation that it is like reading a multi-volume epic journey of a protagonist who, humanly flawed, weakened by constant obstacles, marches on, undeterred, fearless, single-mindedly focused on that distant, barely visible light at the end.

Retired from cricket in 1992; involved in his philanthropic work since 1990 to build the first-ever cancer hospital in Pakistan that would provide free treatment to patients from underprivileged backgrounds; construction of an international university for students from low-income families in Mianwali, his backward, primitive hometown in Punjab; construction of cancer hospitals in Peshawar and Karachi; fund-raising for his cancer hospitals in Pakistan and among the Pakistani diaspora globally, Khan created milestones and went beyond them. Political success, nevertheless, remained as elusive as sunlight in Iceland.

1996-2018 Khan’s journey in politics is of good intentions, apparent cluelessness of grassroots political realities, lack of support on all levels, repetitive rhetoric, unworkable dreams. Khan’s journey is that of persistence, a singular focus, a never-say-die spirit, falling, getting up, learning, adapting, gaining the public’s confidence, awakening a hitherto politically unaware class, swapping his image of an international cricketer and a flamboyant heartbreaker for that of a political icon for young Pakistanis uniting in passion to do good for Pakistan. Khan never cared for personal wealth, and he remained financially incorruptible. On July 25th, 2018, he won the elections.

In Khan’s journey is a very remarkable manifestation of the motto of Aitchison College, his alma mater in Lahore: ‘Perseverance Commands Success.’

On July 26th, 2018, in his thank-you address to the nation, Pakistan and the world saw Imran Khan the politician turn into a statesman. In that speech, which was humble, expansive, large-hearted, humane and human, conciliatory and farsighted, Khan, composed, dignified, appeared to accept with grace the huge honour his nation had bestowed on him, fully aware of the huge responsibility that came with that honour.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is literally a movement for justice, which was established to work on the principle of ‘justice based on an independent, credible judicial system’. Having faced electoral annihilation in the 1997 elections, won one seat in 2002, boycotted the 2008 elections, and secured 31 seats in 2013, the PTI won the 2018 elections with 115 seats, defeating Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N (64) and Asif Zardari’s PPP (43). Amidst the noise of alleged pre-election manipulation by the establishment- judiciary nexus; the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif from his third-time prime ministership; and the July 6th, 2018, sentences of Sharif, his daughter, Maryam, and his son-in-law Captain (Retd) Mohammad Safdar, and their jailing, the elections took place as scheduled.

While certain mishandling on a massive scale by the Election Commission of Pakistan is indeed a fact, it has to be understood that accusations of post-poll rigging and changing the results have not merely come from parties that have been unable to gain the winning number, they have also been made by the winner, PTI. That, consequently, suggests that much attention is required to remove logistical and other flaws from the electoral process of a country that still has a long way to go in the achievement of a democratic system that is fully functional. Whereas there has been no evidence of systematic rigging, a thorough and impartial inquiry into all accusations of electoral malpractice must take place. Khan in his thank-you address to the nation on July 26th promised that all assistance would be provided to investigate accusations of rigging by all political parties.

In his speech, Khan expressed his desire to have good relations with all our allies and neighbours: Afghanistan, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and India. In his leadership and mantra of non-aggression to solve long-standing issues, I firmly believe Pakistan’s foreign policy would have a positive and farsighted stance. With India, while politics divides, cricket unites. Khan hopes to unite people through cricket.

In Khan’s journey is a very remarkable manifestation of the motto of Aitchison College, his alma mater in Lahore: Perseverance Commands Success

Much has been written about Imran Khan the cricketer, Imran Khan the ‘failed’ politician, and more will be written as long as Imran Khan the name is relevant arguably as one of the most famous Pakistanis in the world today. I voted for Khan because he is not corrupt, because his singular passion is a better Pakistan. I voted for Khan in 2013, and I voted for him on July 25th, 2018. In the constituency where my vote is registered, NA 131, Lahore, the candidate was Imran Khan. When I stamped the bat, PTI’s electoral symbol, I uttered a silent prayer.

My pre-election prediction was based on a gut feeling, something that may seem irrational and wishful to those who had either written Khan off again in the 2018 elections, or those who believed the PML-N would sweep them on a Sharif-jail sympathy card. My prediction (120 seats, minimum 100) was the number that besides being a dua, was a very conscious manifestation of how I viewed his politics in the last six years of his 22-year-old journey. I knew Pakistan was ready to vote for Imran Khan.

Wishing the best for a party you support is one thing, factoring in the reality of grassroots Pakistan to make a prediction where the majority vote may go is a detached study of what appears to be the mood of the country. Primarily, I consider Khan’s victory as a victory of the mandate of the millions of young people of Pakistan who while supporting Khan as the cricketing hero who won the 1992 World Cup for Pakistan, saw him as an honest leader whose main aim is to establish a corruption-free Pakistan from the shards of misgovernance, governmental and institutional misdemeanours of various civilian and military governments, and the self-serving agendas of a tiny ruling elite; and a Pakistan that would be a representation of the best of its people’s potential, not a hodge-podge of sketchy, selectively misleading and consciously defamatory headlines that Pakistan seems to have become on the global stage of nations.

The 200-million-strong Pakistan cannot have one story of backwardness, religious extremism, terrorism, and an entrenched system of corruption that gnaws on the country’s very existence. In Khan, millions of Pakistanis saw a leader who despite his flaws, errors of judgement at times, and many a political faux pas termed as ‘U-turns’ by his critics, was monetarily incorruptible and single- mindedly focused on the progress of that one entity that instead of unifying, despite differences, is forgotten by its ruling elite: Pakistan. Imran Khan was and is Pakistan to his supporters and voters, a country that is much more than the sum total of its flaws.

Khan’s PTI with 65/95 seats gained a clear majority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the only province where the PTI formed a government in 2013; this is the only time in that province’s history that the same party has won the elections right after the completion of its governmental term. Despite criticism of not been able to fulfil the promises of having a proper system of accountability, elimination of corruption and construction of small dams, the PTI managed to implement police, education and healthcare reforms; a billion-tree project; establishment of departments of local government, social welfare, women rights, special education; and enactment of 168 laws.

One testimonial of PTI’s performance in KP was the presence of a huge number of women in polling stations in Bannu, an area where women, reportedly, are rarely seen to vote. In Lower Dir, a backward area where women had been banned from voting, PTI’s Dr Sumera Shams, 26, has been elected as the youngest MP. PTI’s Zartaj Gul Wazir won having defeated a powerful feudal leader in the very patriarchal Dera Ghazi Khan.

In Sindh, the PTI won 23/130 seats in areas that are said to be PPP and MQM strongholds. The staggering victory in Karachi is a simple manifestation of the message that seems to have resonated throughout Pakistan: enough.

Khan’s singular agenda is Pakistan, and that Pakistan is promising, prosperous, fair and peaceful

In Balochistan, the PTI won 4/50 seats.

And in Punjab, the province with the largest electoral representation, the PTI won 123/295 seats in a neck and neck contest with the winning PML-N with its 129 seats.

A large number of women along with the young and the middle- aged, the disabled and the elderly, the haves and the have-nots, the educated and the thumb-stamper, the tycoon and the pauper, the feudal and the industrialist, the foreign-educated and the villager, the liberal and the conservative, have voted for Imran Khan. Nations are changed when people vote, not when rigged elections catapult you into power. No one knows that better than Khan.

Imran Khan’s PTI today is the only party in three decades that has representation in all four provinces. And that is despite and beyond allegations of being the establishment’s puppet, an uneven electioneering field, and rigging. The PTI’s victory is the culmination of that 22-year long journey in which Khan faltered, erred, floundered, was defeated and derided, given derogatory epithets of ‘fascist’, ‘Taliban Khan’, ‘extremist’, and even written off as a political non-entity, but remained steadfast, his passion undiminished, his spirit undefeated.

The PTI, reportedly, in 2018 is that victorious party that has received the highest number of votes in the history of Pakistan.

Khan’s singular agenda is Pakistan, and that Pakistan is promising, vibrant, prosperous, fair and peaceful. In his constant reiteration of turning Pakistan into a country that is for all, his message is clear, in his own words: “...To fight for a pure democratic system. I’m a firm believer that there’s no system better than democracy. It is the only system that, given a chance, has a self- corrective mechanism. When a military dictator takes over, he destroys the institutions. Countries are not ruled by one man. Sustainable development is only thorough institutions.”

While seeking a mutually respectful relationship with the US, Khan is a strong critic of the American policy of drone attacks in Pakistan, and the human and material damage done to Pakistan through the War on Terror; a long-time endorser of ending the Afghan war through dialogue with Taliban (something the US now has grudgingly accepted as the only viable solution); a supporter of Pakistan’s refusal to be part of the Saudi-led war against Yemen; and a vehement critic of sending Pakistani troops into tribal areas without making arrangements for safety of residents of the region. He believes civilians invariably become collateral damage whenever “an army goes into a civilian area”.

Respecting the armed forces as an indispensable and essential institution of a state, Khan believes in strengthening all civilian institutions in order to create a state where civilian supremacy is a given, and the elected civilian head is the primary authority.

Khan, who reveres spirituality and Sufism, is a firm believer of a Pakistan that is equal for all irrespective of their faith or religion, despite allegations of his appeasement of extremist elements during electioneering. Talking to Peter Osborne of The Spectator, on the controversial blasphemy law, Khan said, “I’d never get rid of blasphemy legislation... Because I’d open the way for lynching mobs. If you accuse anyone of blasphemy, the other person has a right to prove that he’s innocent. But if you take that out, you will have, in villages, some mullah from a mosque instigating people.” Khan also promises to “punish those found to have falsely accused others of blasphemy”.

The principal elements of the Islamic welfare state that Khan wishes Pakistan to be are: compassion, fairness, accountability, forgiveness, an all-encompassing equality, empathy and brotherhood.

Khan won, and to me one of the reasons for that is his absolute and unending pain for the poor of Pakistan. He truly cares, as I’ve seen over the years through his actions, and from people who have known him for years, closely, without pretence. It reminded me of the incident that became the motivation to build a cancer hospital, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital (SKMH), in his mother’s name, whom he loved the most, and whose love for him was the “greatest, and unconditional”. SKMH was built on donations worth millions of dollars, including Khan’s own contribution, and is run on donations. The poor are treated for free. That is how much Pakistanis trust Khan with their money: they donate when he asks.

In Khan’s interview in 2004 to Simi Garewal:

“It was one moment. I saw her (his mother) in pain. I was waiting for her doctor. This old man walked in with a slip in his hand; he asked the assistant if he had brought all the medicines, who answered one more was needed. I saw this man, his face just became sad. And he left. When asked, I was told that the man’s brother was dying of cancer. He had brought him from a place 100 miles away; no bed in the hospital, he slept on the floor. All day he worked, returned and sat with him all night. And he toiled to buy him medicines.”

“Because of my own situation (his mother’s cancer), this became a turning point. Here, I am privileged, no shortage of resources, and look at what I’m going through. What must this man be going through?”

“That was when I thought of building a cancer hospital. Where a poor person can walk in, and if he doesn’t have money, he shouldn’t have to worry about having a loved one treated free.”

This is a limited-word essay, and I’d need much more space to refute point by point with logic and facts the allegations that Khan faces today, but for that I may have to write a book some day. A book that explains the journey of a man who is a cricket legend; a flawed human being who introspected, soul-searched and changed for the better; a politician who fought long and hard, a loving but long-distance father to two wonderful young men, Sulaiman and Kasim, a third-time husband, a very loyal and loved friend to those who have known him almost his entire adult life, a leader who inspires, and who defines himself the best:

“I was a dreamer. I had the passion to succeed, the ability to take the knocks, the ability to pick myself up. I always believed I could win. And I never gave up till the end.”

That Imran Khan is all set to take the oath of prime minister of Pakistan in a few days.

I wish Imran Khan and my beloved Pakistan all the best in the newest chapter of the dastaan of his life, and that of Pakistan.