x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

How a cricket hero lost the plot on the way to parliament

Imran Khan showed a lot of promise, but the latest moves by his party give rise to concern, writes Tom Hussain.

Imran Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party. A Majeed / AFP
Imran Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party. A Majeed / AFP

For the vast majority of its citizens, Pakistan is a depressing place to live, and has been so for as long as memory serves. It is unsafe, ruled by people who care only for themselves, and lacking in opportunity for the vast majority of the population. This has created a mindset defined by bitterness and hatred which, in turn, has fuelled three ongoing civil wars – Taliban, sectarian and Baloch – that are sucking the life out of the country. As such, Pakistan is ripe for a change of leadership.

Enter: Imran Khan, the heroic captain of the national cricket team that won the sport’s World Cup in 1992. He has since harnessed that adoration to show Paki­stanis what can be achieved with unselfish aims and clarity of purpose. Initially, he did so by raising funds to build the country’s first dedicated charitable cancer hospital. In due course, he emerged as a leader with the potential to supplant Pakistan’s established political players, all of whom are either dictatorial or dynastic.

His Movement for Justice party (PTI) was thus able to achieve the unprecedented during the May 2013 election campaign by mobilising the country’s middle and wealthy classes. Coming from nowhere, the party barely missed out on second place and won enough seats to form a coalition government in the northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

Pakistanis, including many of those who didn’t vote for him, were optimistic that the emergence of Mr Khan as prime minister-in-waiting would force his political competitors to prioritise good governance or face obliteration.

Unfortunately, Mr Khan and his party have undone much of the good work of the 2013 election campaign through eccentric behaviour. Pakistanis had widely expected the Oxford-educated Mr Khan to contribute positively by championing meritocracy and prioritising nation-building over corruption, nepotism and incompetence.

However, the PTI seems to have been over-run by naysayers who are obsessed with conspiracy theories of their own making and completely intolerant of other opinions – especially, it would seem, ones founded on fact and reason.

There is no better example than the PTI’s claims of massive vote-rigging during last year’s elections and threats of staging a revolution to correct that supposed fraud. The basis of those allegations is a secret conversation between a PTI politician and an unidentified Western diplomat.

The diplomat had supposedly been confounded by a Punjabi-language phrase, “35 punctures”, which was allegedly used by the caretaker chief minister of Punjab province during a confidential conversation with an unidentified member of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party. It supposedly took place while votes for the 2013 election were being counted.

The unidentified Western embassy had supposedly obtained a covertly-recorded copy of the conversation and asked a PTI politician to explain what was meant by those “35 punctures”. It was an assurance, PTI party spokesman Shireen Mazari tweeted in February, that the results of 35 constituencies had been fixed to ensure they would not be won by the PTI. On that basis, Mr Khan’s reasonable demand for a recount in four constituencies was upgraded to calls for a review of the 35 constituencies and, more recently, to a demand for an audit of the entire election – failing which the PTI would launch a revolution.

For the sake of perspective, let’s state the obvious: no diplomat would ever disclose to a Pakistani politician that he or she had obtained a covert recording of any such conversation. Nor would any diplomat have required a politician’s translation services, because all embassies employ Pakistani translators.

However, let’s assume that the diplomat was struck by a moment of incredibly poor judgment. Of all the politicians in the whole country, the last person they would have asked would be the PTI spokesman, Dr Mazari.

In 2012, during her brief stint as editor-in-chief of a local English-language newspaper, she published the name of the CIA station chief for Pakistan, prompting his hasty repatriation to the United States.

This time around, however, she has seen no reason to be outraged by foreign espionage. Rather, the PTI is using it to justify threats of a campaign of mass civil disobedience that is scheduled to start on August 14, the 67th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence.

Mr Khan would be well-advised to rethink his plans and broaden his perspective. Pakistan already has more crises on its hands than it can handle and its people are distressed beyond words. To their credit, they haven’t yet given up hope; that’s obvious from the way their eyes light up every time they watch a replay of the 1992 Cricket World Cup final that made Mr Khan a national hero.

Tom Hussain is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist and political analyst