For the first time Pakistani establishment looked towards Imran Khan as a possible alternate was way back in mid 80s when he was at the peak of his cricketing career and got a call from Gen Zia, who offered him ministry. He politely turned down the offer saying he is enjoying his cricket.
But he remained on their ‘radar’ for different reasons as the then military dictator was looking for a team of non-political people and technocrats to counter ideological politics which at that time revolved around Bhutto and anti-Bhutto.
Zia was disappointed with Imran’s refusal and later found Sharifs as his biggest concern was to counter Benazir Bhutto and the PPP, which at that time was strong in Punjab, even after the execution of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. After almost 25 years, Imran Khan, who made a political debut in 1996, out on a duck in 1997, when his newly-born PTI, could not won a single seat, got one in 2002, but never looked back after 2013.
On July 25, his party celebrated the day as ‘Thanksgiving’ while the Opposition observed it as Black Day, as they believe Imran Khan is a ‘selected’ prime minister, and elections were not fair. In 2013, Imran made similar accusation against his political opponent and questioned how Sharif came to know the results. He did not use the word ‘selected’ as now been used for him. His government which is year-old is a mixture of success and failure, with foreign policy a success story but economic policy led to massive price hike in the country and curbs on voices of dissent, considered as his government’s failures. He has yet to face a serious challenge from the Opposition, which is still looking for a joint counter narrative.
However, it will be interesting to see how the former captain of Pakistan cricket team becomes darling of those who matter in this country and with massive public appeal and emerged as an alternate to traditional politicians. But he himself considered his biggest success is the process of accountability, which he believed led to action against his political opponents Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari.
After his refusal to Zia, the latter convinced Mian Sharif, and he agreed as he too considered himself as one of the victims of PPP’s nationalisation policy and like many businessmen and industrialists provided support to PNA movement in 1977.
After holding elections on non-party basis in 1985, Gen Zia picked a Sindhi politician who till that time was little known in political circles and ‘selected’ him as the prime minister as he wanted to counter political sense of deprivation in Sindh after Bhutto’s execution. Within three years, he sent Junejo home after latter sent signal to Benazir Bhutto to return from exile’, allowed press freedom and against the establishment’s advise signed Geneva Accord but with political consensus.
On May 28, 1988, Zia dismissed Junejo’s government and promised fresh elections. His team again approached Imran Khan but he told one of his closest aides that he has no interest in politics. Sharifs soon started consolidating their strength in Punjab and led anti-Junejo camp of the PML, which resulted in the creation of PML-Junejo and PML-Nawaz.
However, Zia did not hold elections after 1985 and on August 17, 1988, he along with some other senior generals and the then US ambassador to Pakistan was killed in a mysterious plane crash. Plane crash led to a big crisis and the then military establishment decided not to impose martial law and instead asked the then acting president Ghulam Ishaq Khan to go for elections.
It was like a dream come true for Benazir Bhutto as she was campaigning for it since her return in 1986. But attempts were made to block her rising popularity and the team led by the former ISI chief late Lt-Gen. Hameed Gul maneuvered which led to the formation of Islami Jamoohri Ittehad.
In 1988 elections, the PPP emerged as the single largest party and Nawaz Sharif emerged as the main Opposition leader. Benazir faced one political crisis after another like vote of no- confidence against her in 1989, and within 18 months she was sacked by president Ishaq Khan on August 6, 1990.
In a bid to ensure anti-PPP government, the then establishment allegedly distributed money among the Opposition leaders, which later became a high-profile ‘Mehran Bank or Asghar Khan case’.
In 1992, Pakistan won the cricket World Cup, under the captaincy of Imran Khan, and within no time the charismatic Khan became country’s most popular person because of people’s love for cricket. This led to a new thinking within the then establishment as he was nearing retirement and announced giving his full time to build a cancer hospital, named after his mother Shaukat Khanum, who died of cancer.
With charisma, popularity and a clean record in cricket, he was considered as one of the choices initially as interim prime minister after the establishment was disappointed with Sharif’s first government as he had ‘ditched’ them, something which former interim prime minister late Mustafa Jatoi once told this scribe.
Gen Gul personally approached him in 1993 and again in 1994. After Abdus Sattar Edhi and some other notables refused Gul’s plan, Imran too distanced himself from him and this he himself confirmed to me few years ago.
It was in 1995 when for the first time Imran started thinking of joining politics mainly because of the bureaucratic and political hurdles created in making Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital.
A year later he formed Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) comprising mostly people who had no experience of politics. Within nine months after launching the PTI in 1996, the party decided to contest in 1997 elections but got no seat.
Gen Pervez Musharraf’s coup in 1999 was welcomed by Imran Khan as he was expecting him to take action against both the PPP and the PML-N leaders. He was also expecting a big post in the government after he (IK) voted for him in the referendum. But like Zia, who wanted to counter Bhuttos in Sindh and picked Junejo, Musharraf picked Chaudhrys to counter Sharifs. Imran withdrew his support for Mush in 2002 and since then joined mainstream politics and contested all the elections except the one in 2008.
So he remained on the ‘radar’ of successive establishments which perhaps finally got the alternate in 2018. How long will this relationship lasts would be interesting to watch in the next few years, if not months.
The writer is a columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang.
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