With Naeem’s death, Imran Khan has lost one of his dearest comrades who stood by him through thick and thin
“Partner, yaar beymaar ho gaya hun. Siyaasi cancer say lartay lartay lagta hay asli cancer ho gaya,” he told me around a year ago. At first, I thought he was joking but then I realised it sounded unlike Naeemul Haq. I tried to console him. “Partner, inshallah sub sahi ho jaey ga. Don’t worry.”
Since then, whenever I used to call him I always started my conversation by inquiring after his health. In the last few months, it started deteriorating but he kept himself busy. One of his last assignments was to engage with the Chaudhries of Gujrat. He had held several meetings.
Imran Khan had full confidence in Naeemul Haq. He was disturbed when he first developed differences with his ex-wife, Reham Khan. I found Naeemul Haq quite perturbed with the situation. Once he discussed the matter in some detail, but the conversation was off the record. He was the first one to break the news about their divorce.
I had a long association with Naeem going back to the 1990s, when we first met at the Karachi Press Club. Back then Imran had not even launched his political party. When I first saw tickers about Naeem’s death running on the screen of Geo News, I was shocked. I couldn’t help but recall the early days of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. Naeem contributed greatly to building Imran’s image as a politician not just a cricketing hero. With his death, Imran Khan has lost one of his dearest comrades who stood by him through thick and thin.
I still remember the day when he had asked me to join the PTI. “Partner, why don’t you join us? We need people like you in the party, particularly in Karachi,” Naeemul Haq asked me a few months before the 2018 elections.
He went on to say, “Partner, I am serious. I can arrange your meeting with Imran.” I laughed and said, “Partner, I am happy where I am. Journalism is my passion, can’t leave it for politics. Benazir Bhutto had also asked me and I refused her too. But, thank you.”
Naeem will be sorely missed. Unlike others in his position, I never noticed any change in him over time. He used to discuss many things, both on and off the record. He was temperamental but perhaps because of high blood pressure, which at times would lead to awkward situations on TV talk shows.
He would always regret, and at times, even curse himself after such incidents. He had similar episodes with Daniyal Aziz and Jamil Soomroo. After each incident, I would call him up and advise him to apologise. “Partner, jab goli kha kar nahi jata, kuch aisa ho jata hai,” he would say.
Prior to Imran’s formal entry into politics, Naeem had tried his luck with politics from the platform of Tehreek-i-Istiqlal (TI), as he was impressed with Air Marshal Asghar Khan. The TI, during the late ’70s and early ’80s, had look like the party of the future and many politicians including Chaudhry Aitezaz Ahsan had joined it. But it did not last.
It was in 1993, when controversial news made headlines across the country. Abdus Sattar Edhi made a sensational disclosure that he was under tremendous pressure from the then establishment to join politics with other notables like Imran Khan. He issued this statement from London, and in fact had even written his will in case anything happened to him. Years later I asked Naeem and Imran about it, and they both expressed their ignorance.
However, Imran once said he had been close to former chief of the ISI, Lt Gen Hameed Gul, but then distanced himself since he wasn’t comfortable with his narrative.
Naeem was a regular visitor to the Karachi Press Club, where he used to discuss the possibility of Imran’s success as a politician. He was looking to recruit people and would ask doctors, lawyers and businessmen to join Imran. Till then the party had not been formally launched but ‘friends of Imran’ had started working on it. He along with Dr Arif Alvi and Nazim F Haji had also approached Justice Fakhruddin G Ebrahim to join the PTI.
In 1995, a year before the PTI was formally launched, Imran was not allowed to air paid content for his hospital. This irritated him, and this issue became the launching pad for his political career. The party was launched in 1996 with a few dozen people who hardly had any experience in politics.
Throughout his association with Imran, Naeem remained loyal to him. In jest, I would call him Imran Junior. During the PTI’s early years, Naeem had a tough job. When scandals relating to Imran’s personal life made headlines, particularly in the Western media, Naeem defended him well. I once told him that such stories would not affect Imran, as he had carried the same public image from his cricketing days.
After the party was launched, Imran came to Karachi and held his first press conference a few months prior to the 1997 elections. There were more sports reporters than political correspondents at the presser. Owais Tohid, my former colleague, and I started asking questions about cricket. After a while Naeem intervened and took me to a corner. “Partner, ask political questions. We want to build his image as a rising political star as well.”
The PTI was not ready for the 1997 elections and there was a division in the party whether to contest the polls or not as PTI was hardly a year old. But, they went ahead and faced a crushing defeat. After the elections, Naeem invited some journalists for a chat with Imran. “It was too early to compete but you must have learned a lot from your first election,” I asked Imran. Naeem whipped back, “Thank you, Mazhar. “Finally you asked a political question from Kaptaan.” Everyone, including Imran, laughed.
When left wing leader Meraj Mohammad Khan joined the PTI along with other leaders of his party, the Qaumi Mahaz-i-Azadi, it gave Imran a political boost. Dr Arif Alvi and Naeem ul Haq played an important role in bringing the likes of Meraj Mohammad Khan to the party.
When Imran welcomed the 1999 coup, I asked him the reason behind supporting a military dictator. “He has promised to make both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif accountable for corruption.” Some other journalists also started asking tough questions. Naeem came to me and said, “Partner, zyaada sakht sawaal na kar,” and I responded by saying, “Yaar, cricket par baat kartay hain tu siyasat par baat karnay ko kehtay ho.”
I had never seen Naeem as happy as he was the day the PTI was voted to power in 2018. I called him to congratulate. “Partner, barra lamba saar raha,” he said. “Ab asal saar hai, chahay tu angrezi ka kar lo, chahay tu Urdu ka,” I responded. We both laughed.
The partner is no more. Long live, Naeem, the partner.