Imran Khan: populist premier or messiah for Pakistan?

By Aamir Latif

KARACHI, Pakistan (AA) – Imran Khan, a former cricket hero, has become the 22th prime minister of Pakistan with promises of sweeping reforms and a fight against corruption.

His center-right Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has emerged as the single largest party in the elections.

Born in 1952 in the northeastern city of Lahore, Khan, won the only cricket World Cup for Pakistan in 1992, something which he has often repeated in his election campaign.

A fiery speaker with authoritarian instinct, the charismatic Khan has been seen as a savior by the common man in the roles of a cricketer, philanthropist and politician.

This wave of support for him is fairly new. Until a decade ago, he was not even considered among the top 20 politicians of the country.

Khan grew up in an upper-middle class family in Zaman Park, Lahore and is one of the few Pakistani politicians who has an impressive educational background in addition to his top-notch cricket career.

When he started first class cricket at the age of 16, he was still a student of the prestigious Aitchison College, the alma matter of several top bureaucrats and politicians.

At the age of 18, he was sent to the Royal Grammar School High Wycombe, England and later to the Oxford University to study political science, philosophy and economics.

During his stay in England, he began playing county cricket, apart from representing Pakistan in international cricket.

He starred in five World Cups; 1975, 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992.

Khan became one of the fastest bowlers in 1976 and helped his team win scores of matches.

After retirement from cricket in 1992, he swapped his lifestyle for philanthropy and politics.

Khan set out on a journey to collect donations to establish the country's first state-of-the-art cancer hospital — named after his mother Shoukat Khanum who had died of cancer in Lahore. His successful mission earned him huge love and respect among Pakistanis.

He founded the PTI in 1996 with promises of 'Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan)', where dynastic politics had no role.

The PTI could not win even a single seat the first time it contested in 1997. In the 2002 elections, he could win only one seat from his hometown Mianwali — a remote district of Punjab province. His party boycotted the 2008 elections, which were held by the then military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Khan’s political career took an actual flight in 2011 with a mammoth public rally in Lahore that stunned political commentators and rang alarm bells for the Sharifs, who had been ruling the most populous province Punjab for the last three decades.

In the 2013 elections, Khan appeared to have an impressive appeal to the youth, which make up 60 percent of the country's total population.

He gave a tough time to two mainstream political parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which have taken turns to rule the country.

His party not only turned out to be the second largest party but also managed to form a government in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KP) province.

Wednesday's election result suggest the PTI will comfortably form governments in the center and KP, and is neck-on-neck with arch rival PML-N in Punjab.

– Personal life

Khan married thrice, out of which two ended with a divorce.

He first married Jemima Goldsmith from England’s billionaire Goldsmith family in 1995, who bore him two sons; Sulaiman Isa Khan and Qasim Khan. They divorced in 2004.

Eleven years later he married a local news anchor Reham Khan in a union which could only last ten months.

Khan has tilted towards Sufism in recent years, with frequent visits to shrines and faith healers to seek blessings for his political journey.

This led him to marry faith healer Bushra Manika, commonly known as Pinky Peerni, in 2018.

Khan is sometimes likened by his rivals to Donald Trump due to his frequent criticism of free media and policy u-turns.

The former cricket icon will lead the government when his country is reeling from internal and external polarization.

On the internal front, mainstream parties are against him because of his alleged foul language and statements against his rivals. Whereas, on the external front, Islamabad is not enjoying good relations with its neighbors and allies, including India, Afghanistan, and the United States.

But his supporters see in him a messiah, who will steer the country out of simmering predicaments by sheer determination and goodwill.