I had met Imran Khan when he was in the midst of turbulent politics, fighting and losing elections steadily, at his hilltop residence in Islamabad. One had to drive past the residence of Pakistan’s controversial nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, a house more ordinary than that of Khan who was hospitable, informal, as we wandered along with him in his house and finally sat down for a chat over tea.
Khan, was frank and honest, did not hesitate to criticise those in power in Pakistan but still carried the aura of the cricket captain who refused to hit below the belt. Given his non-appreciation for pomp and ceremony it was thus, surprising to read reports that he was planning a Modi kind of SAARC event around his oath taking ceremony. A fallacy that has been cleared now by his office with his guest list from India including old cricket friends—Navjot Singh Sidhu has been the first off the bat to accept the invite– and perhaps some Bollywood celebrities he knows well. The ceremony will be quiet, and austere is the latest out of Islamabad.
This follows his promise to convert the palatial Prime Ministers official residence into a hospital. And turn the Governor Houses to hopefully lucrative resorts. Something his predecessor Nawaz Sharif could never have done, or for that matter promised.
While Indians like to declare favourites in Pakistan’s power line up, for this writer having long covered Pakistan politics, there is barely any difference in the outcome. The Pakistan Army shifts its cards from political leader to leader, picking one up as it is perforce made to drop the other. Nawaz Sharif was credited by New Delhi—largely because of Pervez Musharraf perhaps–of being anti-Army but in reality he could not have survived even the few years in power without military backing. His brother Shahbaz Sharif developed close relations with the Army, and this is fairly well known in Lahore.
So the difference lies not in the visible or invisible behind the civilian seat of power, but in the personalities that come to occupy it. And Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan are as different as chalk and cheese. Sharif lived in grand splendour in Lahore, even in the years out of power, with his residence a virtual palace. Gold and crystal and rich carpets lined the huge rooms with Sharif entertaining in the formal style associated with maharajas. He sat on a high chair as the subjects sat around and barely spoke, letting the minions including brother Shahbaz, to intervene as and when he signalled. He relaxed only to partake of the fare, that he always did dig into with some gusto with several liveried servers lining the mansion.
In sharp contrast was Khan’s sober and yet beautiful home. No servers except the one who appeared rather reluctantly with the tea, and perhaps some cookies. Although a recognised opposition leader Khan was pouring the tea himself, answering the phone, and very much on his own without attendants fawning around him. He spoke with passion, laughed over his cricketing career, was intense about the cancer hospital he was running, and was categorical that he was not going to leave politics for the old flamboyant life come what may. That he would stick around for almost another decade since before he could come anywhere towards realising his dreams is testimony to his grit and determination, as his first wife Jemima observed after news of his victory broke.
Apart from being decisively the better looking of the two, Khan did have a run of bad luck with his politics and his personal life. After a hesitant start where he seemed to be learning the ropes with some difficulty during the initial years, he suddenly broke the barriers to emerge as the darling of Pakistans youth a decade ago. After a period of imprisonment, in 2011 to be precise, he became the young peoples hero with this reporter finding huge support for him in what appeared to be a generation divide within Pakistan, From a struggling politician he was transformed into a ‘hero’ with massive crowds attending his rallies. From doing everything wrong, Khan was suddenly doing everything right for his enthusiastic supporters. But failed to make it in the 2013 elections.
A quiet period followed, that saw a major personal attack on him. As he mentioned in his speech now, it was vicious and clearly difficult to accept. His personal life was made to literally chase his politics and seemed to have overtaken it just before the elections that finally turned in his favour. His first speech after winning power suggested austerity, a certain informality as he spoke easily and without rehearsed text, and promises that at least appeared sincere.
Imran Khan is close to the military like all others before him, including Nawaz Sharif. He is not corrupt. As for the rest, time will determine. But it does seem that for a while at least, before the system overtakes him, it will be politics with some difference in Pakistan.