From a young age, Imran Khan has displayed a rare combination of qualities which have enabled him to stand out from the crowd (and that is not only a reference to his renowned physical prowess and good looks). Throughout his life, he has shown intense determination, a considerably above-average intellect, extraordinary courage, a ‘never say die’ mentality and a powerful spirit.
As a cricketer, he started life as a ‘loopy’ medium pacer. After a brief stint in the national side, he was dropped. In-order to get back into the team, he felt he needed to change his bowling action. Expert opinion was that this would be nigh on impossible. Yet he persevered and has gone down in cricketing history as perhaps the only bowler to re-model his action successfully.
His achievements in the cricketing world alone are hugely impressive. Not only did he become a fine, skilful fast bowler, but also one of the world’s best all-rounders, and the best captain the Pakistan team has ever had. Under his captaincy, he took what was often a rabid, ill-disciplined group – many Pakistani cricketers often found themselves in the team via a completely ad hoc route – and turned them into one of the most successful teams in the world. Under his leadership, Pakistan won away in Australia and India; and shared the series against the great West Indies side of the era (to some the most naturally gifted side to ever play the game). Having achieved his cricketing goals, he decided to retire after the 1987 World Cup – yet this was far from the end of the story. Recognising his leadership qualities, the then dictator of Pakistan, General Zia Ul Haq, asked him on national television to come back and lead his country.
When the 1992 World Cup began, Imran was 39. He played with a shoulder injury throughout most of the tournament. Pakistan had a disastrous start and were almost knocked out in the group stage. Despite this, and wholly contrary to popular opinion, Imran insisted to anybody who would listen that Pakistan would win the competition. Lo and behold, their fortunes turned; and with some luck and help from the rain gods (and despite him having to take cortisone injections for his shoulder before the final), Pakistan went on to win their first ever World Cup under his leadership.
At this point, Imran Khan was forever immortalised. A living legend with the world at his feet, a taste for the good life, adored by women the world over, he could easily have retired to lead a comfortable lifestyle among the international jet set. But this was never in his nature or character. Hard work, restlessness and taking on challenges entirely against the odds have always defined him.
Having lost his mother to cancer, the sheer injustice and inequality of Pakistani society affected him in a deep, profound way. He recounts a story from when he was visiting his mother in hospital. A poor labourer worked on a construction site every day, so he could buy medicines for his sick brother. The poor man returned every evening to pay the hospital but was turned away because he didn’t have enough money (Last I checked the average labourer in Pakistan is paid the equivalent of just £2 per day). From this, Imran recognised that while he, a wealthy person, could take his loved ones overseas for treatment, the poor were completely helpless.
This fuelled his desire to build a cancer hospital in Pakistan, which would treat the poor for free. Again, many putative experts wrote him off, insisting that such an enterprise would be impossible; again, Imran proved otherwise. Using his name, public profile and the World Cup win to drum up publicity and momentum, he raised the funds necessary to build a remarkable, state of the art hospital which treats between 50% – 65% of patients for free and this in an entirely transparent manner in a deeply corrupt society. Even his most ardent critics laud this achievement.
This same sense of burning injustice, human decency, feverish restlessness and concern for the welfare of a country that he clearly loves underpinned his entry into politics. Once again, he had to start from scratch, was mocked and ridiculed and told he could never become Prime Minister (some said he would be lucky to get one seat). Exasperated by the endemic corruption and dynasticism of the dominant parties, he decided to form the Tehreek-I-Insaf (Party of Justice) (PTI).
Despite being idolised by millions, success in politics wasn’t immediate. From the outset, he rightly highlighted corruption as the country’s biggest issue – but the PTI only managed to obtain a single seat at the 2002 elections. For nearly 15 years, he would remain in the political wilderness: unable to gain ground against the established PML-N and PPP. Shrewdly, he recognised that to compete effectively with these parties, he would need to build a nationwide party infrastructure. In 2013, these efforts took his party’s tally of seats up to 33, making it the third largest in the country. It has gone on to become Pakistan’s most popular party in terms of membership, with around 10 million members.
Since the 2013 elections, where he promised a Naya (new) Pakistan, Imran has continued the fight against high level corruption. When the PML-N, led by Nawaz Sharif, refused to recount four constituencies in Punjab which Imran believed had been rigged, he led a long march, protest and vigil outside of Parliament, attended apparently by unprecedented numbers. After the release of the Panama Papers brought to light the wealth stashed overseas by the Sharif family, Imran once again led calls for an investigation into corruption. This effort culminated in both the Prime Minister and more latterly, the Foreign Minister being disqualified from office.
At the 2013 elections, the PTI won control of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) region in the north of the country. This was to prove a major litmus test of its ideas. Given its leader’s strong anti-establishment stance, the regional PTI administration has been keenly scrutinised – yet has delivered genuine reforms in policing, education, healthcare, introduced merit-based recruitment and implemented poverty reduction schemes; as well as delivering a 39billion tree tsunami celebrated by many environmentalists.
Moreover, through both activism and vigils, Imran has tapped into a level of political engagement hitherto unknown in Pakistan: culminating in the “mother of all Jalsas” in Lahore on 29 April 2018. With elections forthcoming, the PPP in disarray and PML-N suffering from serious corruption issues, the PTI and Imran are presented with a huge, even historic opportunity to form a government, headed by him as Prime Minister.
Is Imran Khan a saint? No. Does he make mistakes and misjudgements? Of course; but by the same token, his track record suggests that this a man who delivers. Whether on the cricket field, or the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust (SKMT), or in developing his party, he has shown that he is far more than just a dreamer. He is a visionary who can translate his dreams into reality. Philosopher and pragmatist, compassionate, intensely driven, determined, courageous and highly intelligent: even his most ardent critics don’t accuse him of corruption (Given the murkiness of Pakistan politics this is nothing short of stunning).
Given the above, I firmly believe that if Pakistan elects visionary, honest and effective leadership under Imran Khan’s command it will get the good governance that it desperately needs and progress further and faster in every area of society.
By Faisal Khan