Grid Pin, Opinions

From a “political nobody who would never amount to much” to the prime minister of Pakistan

Twenty-two years ago, did I think this day would ever arrive? That in little more than 10 minutes, a visibly uncomfortable Imran Khan would fumble over difficult Urdu words and take the oath to become Pakistan’s 22nd prime minister? I wish I could say a resounding yes, but I, like so many of his supporters, have seen Imran rise and fall over the years (only to rise again) with exasperation.

‘Surely he will deliver once he reaches his goal’ is how we have comforted ourselves through the many stumbles, U-turns and compromises. Along the way, we have been called cult followers, youthias, boot lickers, extremist lovers – and these are the more polite descriptions. Nonetheless, it remains hard to believe that what seemed impossible has become possible.

“In all my decades of working at the Parliament House, I have never seen a sight like this one,” said the elevator operator, an elderly man inside the building, as we took the lift up to the visitor’s gallery last Friday to witness the National Assembly take a vote to select the new PM.

The lift opened to a charged crowd of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters shouting slogans and pushing to get inside the visitor’s gallery. It was rowdy yet festive, as the crowd was determined to see their leader take oath, now that he finally had the numbers (Happy Independents Day, indeed!)

The next day, the media pass for the much sought after inaugural ceremony failed to arrive due to lack of space and the decision to have an austere ceremony, which is why many passes were not issued eventually. I woke up early to catch the ceremony on TV instead. The small ceremony of just 250 people was hosted by the President and was a formal affair where high ranking officials, government functionaries, close PTI party members, the 1992 Cricket World Cup team and a coterie of Imran’s best friends had been invited. A friend who attended described it as,

“A long one-hour wait for a rather short, stuffy ceremony.”
Imran himself opted to take the oath in Urdu for the benefit of the public, but it clearly wasn’t the awami show he would have preferred. Only tea was served, as he wanted to keep the ceremony simple. Imran has now also moved into a small annex meant for the PM’s secretary, in keeping with his vow of not wasting the public exchequer’s money.

It has certainly been a long journey to the PM’s office. Twenty-two years ago, freshly returned from college in the US, I attended one of Imran’s first political rallies held outside Lahore. It was October 1996, and Imran had just launched his mass contact campaign to meet the public and raise awareness about the corruption of the political elite and the need for accountability. Even back then, everyone in Lahore knew Imran – not only for the 1992 World Cup victory, but because he was often seen zipping around Lahore in his Hilux while building his hospital. He would be busy holding fundraisers, even going from one street to another to collect funds. The Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital (SKMH) finally opened its doors in December 1994.

Back at the small Friday Times office in Lahore where I worked in those days, my colleague Khaled Ahmed (a relative of Imran from Zaman Park) wrote of Imran’s late mother, Shaukat Khanum, being his ‘spiritual guide’. She was the original spiritual guide who had gifted to her only son ‘an independence of mind’ and ‘remarkable will power’. Ahmed wrote,

“The greatest tribute to this woman is her final ability to transform the life of her only son.”
Many say that Imran only re-entered cricket with the motivation to win the World Cup in order to build the memorial to his mother, who passed away from cancer in 1985. In fact, Imran’s journey – from a shy Aitchisonian with big dreams, to an aggressive cricketer competing at the highest levels, to the philanthropist who set up a world class hospital – can all be attributed to her. Along the way he decided to enter politics, and thus was born the well-meaning but inexperienced politician, and now the tasbih-wielding Sufi disciple, intent on transforming his own life and Pakistan along with it.

In 1996, I visited PTI’s office housed in the Scotch Corner off Lahore’s Upper Mall. It was hard to imagine then that it would become home to one of Pakistan’s biggest political parties. There were no filing cabinets, no literature; just bare walls and a chaotic, disgruntled team who tried – often in vain – to get Imran some traction in the local media (the foreign media was always interested in Imran, thanks to his glamorous cricketing past).

I wrote then, and to some extent the latter part still holds true,

“It is as if the local press has jointly decided to blank out coverage of Imran’s Tehreek. Is this a well-planned conspiracy, or is it just the outcome of having a disorganised and inefficient media cell?”
Even now, it is Imran’s well-wishers and supporters on social media who constantly defend him against the relentless attacks directed his way in the absence of a well-oiled PR team.

One thing that has remained constant over the years is his popularity amongst the ordinary public. On our way to his rally in Gujranwala back in 1996, his car would be greeted by frenzied crowds as word spread that Imran would be attending a public rally. His organisers were too disorganised back then to have arranged this kind of welcome for him, and I witnessed genuine enthusiasm on the Grand Trunk Road. For the masses of Pakistan, he will always be a larger than life hero, a living legend – and now their PM.

Imran arrived late at the rally of what I estimated to be a crowd of around 10,000. Most of them were teenage boys carrying the Pakistani flag. I still remember the young crowd chanting as Imran finally got up to the podium to speak,

“Wazeer-e-Azam Imran Khan!”

(Prime Minister Imran Khan!)
His theme for the evening was the by now all too familiar,

“Politicians are looting the country!”
He spared neither Benazir Bhutto nor Nawaz Sharif.

“With these looters this country has no future… We have to spread the message of justice, or else there will only be darkness ahead,” he roared into the crowd.
His language was simple and direct, with plenty of catchy phrases thrown in. He quoted a verse from the Holy Quran, stressing on the fact that you cannot change your circumstances until you change yourself first. He quoted the same verse in his first televised speech to the nation as its PM.

One of the journalists who had accompanied me to Gujranwala noted,

“He’s really improved. Before he couldn’t really articulate himself. He’s getting better with every speech.”
And indeed, he is a fast learner who has improved his oratory skills over the years to the extent that he can now speak at length extemporaneously. We also forget that the essence of his message of anti-corruption has not changed fundamentally – it has only taken him 22 years to get to the point where he can now implement his vision. Indeed, on the floor of the National Assembly last Friday, he laid it out more or less in these words, loosely translated by a friend as,

“It’s taken me 22 years to get here… You want to make a ruckus? Well I’m here and I’m going to get you.”
In a sense, he has finally come full circle.

So what did I foresee all those years ago at the very birth of the PTI? Well, my editors (including Najam Sethi) were not too happy with my article. They complained that Imran was “a political nobody who would never amount to much. He should stick to philanthropy or cricket”.

But they were liberal enough to allow me space for the article. In my own words, written two decades ago,

“He needs to capitalise on the one important quality that he possesses and which neither Benazir nor Nawaz can boast about – (financial) integrity. If he smooths out his faults, there is no reason why Imran should not become a major force to reckon with in the near future.”
At the ripe age of 65, surely his greatest moments are yet to come as the prime minister of the world’s sixth largest population, and as Pakistanis, all we can do is hope for the best.

Rina Saeed Khan

The author is an environmental journalist based in Islamabad. She most recently authored the book, “From Mountains to Mangroves: Protecting Pakistan’s Natural Heritage” on her travels throughout Pakistan. She tweets @rinasaeed (