Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Cricketer Candidate

Cricket dominated my sphere in my teens. Growing up in India in the 1980s, watching, playing and fantasizing about cricket was a major occupation. I wanted to be a wicket keeper. Lunging into the air to catch the red glazed ball as it bounced off the pitch and sped past the batsman straight into my oversized leather gloves, was always an adrenaline rush. Syed Kirmani, the Indian team's wicket keeper was my hero. Sunil Gavaskar and Vivian Richards were my favorite batsmen. Malcolm Marshall and Micheal Holding, the fast bowlers from the West Indies, were the most dreaded.

And then came Imran Khan, the dashing bowler from Pakistan. He captivated everyone with his charm, good looks, polished Oxford English and style. Watching him come down the long runway to pitch the ball in perfect action, was like watching Micheal Jordan dunk in all his elegance, grace and glory. I remember posters of Imran Khan on friends' walls, next to John Travolta and Amitabh Bachchan. Even though he was a Pakistani, his popularity across the border was quite substantial and remarkable. In 1992 Imran Khan captained the Pakistani team to world cup glory. That singular feat catapulted him into the stratosphere among many of his fans and countrymen, which eventually paved his way into politics in 1996.

Imran Khan of my youth is not the Imran Khan we see today, splashed across newspapers and magazines around the world. Poised to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan in a few weeks, this next big achievement of his has been a long time in the making. When Imran formed his political party, Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), he misjudged his own popularity. He lost his first election in 1997. It was only in 2013 that his party gained traction when PTI won the second highest number of seats in the general election.

After running an effective anti-corruption campaign to disrupt the two dominant dynasties of Pakistani politics, Imran Khan was successful this month in his goal of becoming the next Prime Minister of Pakistan. The imprisonment of ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges, and his absence on the campaign trail, gave Imran a significant advantage. He will be sworn in on August 11th, after forming a coalition with smaller parties and independents.

As he joins the growing ranks of populist leaders around the world, Imran Khan is being compared to Donald Trump in the media. While to some extent this comparison rings true, as he is an outsider of sorts and has pandered to the extremists to win the vote, there is nothing common between the two. Even though like Donald Trump, Imran Khan was known for his playboy image and his sordid divorces played out in the tabloid press, he is a seasoned politician who has been grinding away for decades launching severe vitriolic attacks against his opponents and endorsing extremists all to secure the top job, which he will at age 65.

Pakistan's political trajectory has always been murky and mired in assassinations and military coups since its formation in 1947. This will be only the second time in its seventy year history that one civilian government will pass on the baton to the next one. And like all the elections before this one, the plebiscite was soaked in controversy and violence.

The army as always cast its shadow even before campaigning began. Imran Khan was unofficially declared as the chosen one. Opposition party "electables" were poached to guarantee victory. Journalists were intimidated, disappeared and silenced where needed. Reports of voter fraud and rigging were wide spread. European Union monitors declared that it was not a level playing field for all parties. Delays in election results reporting cast further suspicion on the process and the losing parties cried foul.

In the end Imran Khan's strategy of flirting with religious extremists paid off. With only about 50% of the eligible voters casting their ballot, he was able to galvanize the large young demographic, who had only seen him be a cricketer on youtube. The lack of post election violence showed that many had resigned to him becoming their next leader. The impromptu speech he gave under the portrait of Jinnah flanked by the national flags, before being officially anointed, seemed to have calmed some nerves. His populist and altruist message of working for the poor and the down trodden and uprooting corruption seemed to have gone down well with many listeners. Even India, where the media had given him a bad image, seem to have warmed up to him when he mentioned his hope for better relations and said he would go the extra mile if India reciprocated. His inclusive message of uniting all minority groups under the constitution and respecting human rights was taken for face value. Many of his cricketing colleagues from India, were quick to congratulate him on his performance. The Indian prime minister congratulated him and there is even talk that he might attend his inauguration.

When Donald Trump became president of the United States, many hoped that the weight of the office would probably make him change his ways. The hope was he would become a unifying leader and move to the center to bring more people into the tent. Exactly the opposite happened.

Imran Khan has openly endorsed the Blasphemy Laws. These Pakistan's version of Jim Crow laws were enshrined in the constitution by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s to appease the religious extremists. Since then they have been steadily used to oppress minority groups in a draconian manner infringing on people's basic freedoms. The one singular group that has been effected disproportionally, are the half a million or so Ahmadis who live in Pakistan. Using the blasphemy laws as a pretext they are oppressed, ostracized and considered non-Muslim for their religious beliefs. In my recent film Salam, the tragedy of the Ahmadis is highlighted as their victimization continues unabated. As Tariq Ali quotes in the film "what they did to the Ahmadis was a fatal scratch which has now turned into gangrene and is infecting all of Pakistani society and many people still don't understand that".

Imran Khan has flirted with the Taliban with consistency. His party has provided funding to some Madarsas run by their associates. His rhetoric has often been conciliatory of the Taliban while being overtly Anti-American.

In 2006 he voted against the women's protection bill, which would have prevented women from being jailed for the crime of pre-marital sex or adultery. As a result, allegations of rape are nearly impossible to prove.

Imran Khan is at the start of his runaway down to the wicket. He has a lot to think about before he begins his run to the crease to deliver the ball. Whether it is going to be an in-swinger, out-swinger, full-toss, wide or a no-ball only he knows. Many are rooting for the candidate cricketer of my youth.

It is what it is.


  1. Very nice piece indeed: Well informed, well-thought out, and well said. I had heard and known of I.Khan for decades, basically as a cricketer and kind of a playboy before becoming a politician. But I did not know if he was a bowler or batsman until I read this piece. Further, while there are some similarities between our Jerk-in-Chief and IK, the major differences are on two counts, their looks and intelligence. IK outsmarts the Donald on both counts; except on the appearance of their contemporary wives. Pakistan's is a sad legacy and history of a failed and archaic state. I am rooting for I.Khan to help mend it to some extent. Modi Sahb should hold his hand and see what happens.

  2. "Imran Khan is at the start of his runaway down to the wicket. He has a lot to think about before he begins his run to the crease to deliver the ball. Whether it is going to be an in-swinger, out-swinger, full-toss, wide or a no-ball only he knows. Many are rooting for the candidate cricketer of my youth."

    Only th pitch can decide. Umpire ( here the Army will play a big role )
    As usual the spectators will be fooled that they are all playing Genuine cricket.
    i think the cricket we play with passion is limited to street cricket.
    So also the politician cricketer is the one will play as per the pitch/country/money/fame/ and last fade.
    Best of luck.
    A good article Anand, I enjoyed it.

  3. "Imran Khan is at the start of his runaway down to the wicket. He has a lot to think about before he begins his run to the crease to deliver the ball. Whether it is going to be an in-swinger, out-swinger, full-toss, wide or a no-ball only he knows. Many are rooting for the candidate cricketer of my youth."
    Depends upon the pitch, weather, and umpire ( here the Army ).
    We all enjoyed street cricket which is original, genuine.A cricketer turning a politician will fade like a out of form cricketer.
    Best of luck to him.

    Any well written post and liked very much.