By Muhammad Hanif
Last weekend, Pakistanis saw something they never expected to see: their prime minister, Imran Khan, in tears. He was addressing the nation on TV after being sent back to the national assembly by the supreme court to face a vote of confidence that he would go on to lose, to be replaced by Shehbaz Sharif.
Earlier he had refused to face the vote and had dissolved the assembly, but the court declared his actions illegal. Khan refused to accept the rules of the national assembly, tried to evade a ruling by the highest court in the land and only relented a few minutes before the midnight deadline imposed by the court. He turned a banal parliamentary procedure into a nerve-racking, edge-of-the-seat thriller. He behaved like a child who realises for the first time that other children have birthdays too. Because he believed that if he wasn’t in charge of the house, he might as well burn it down.
In his subsequent 8 April address to the nation, Khan reiterated his claim that it was the US that wanted him out; he asked people if they wanted to be a free nation or American slaves. The US would never do it to India, he said. Here, he welled up, he choked. As a cricketer, Khan was always shy of showing his emotion. Even in moments of glory, he offered half-hearted high fives and reluctant, two-tap hugs. But when he became prime minister he learned to emote. And he became very angry. Approaching 70, he transformed into that angry young man who passionately delivers one contradictory sentence after another.
For more than two decades, Khan was an outlier in Pakistani politics, more popular with London’s posh set than Pakistani voters; a sports celebrity who wanted to be the saviour king. In order to get his dream job, he got rid of his idealism. Before coming to power he stated that he would rather die than go to the IMF for a loan; a few months after he did, he went begging to the institution. He surrounded himself with the politicians he had claimed were the root cause of Pakistan’s problems.
As prime minister, Khan avoided dealing with the country’s structural problems, instead going on a moral crusade because in his youth he had lived a life of sin in the west and now he was not only atoning for it but wanted to be a spiritual father to the nation. In his head he was not only the leader of Pakistan but also the leader of ummah (community of Muslims) who can also do 60 pushups on the go. Last month he lectured foreign ministers of Muslim countries about how porn was responsible for rising divorce rates. He himself is on his third marriage.
While in opposition he was focused, hammering away at Pakistan’s rulers on his pet themes of corruption and nepotism. In power he seemed restless and distracted, as if he wanted to be back on the street. He rarely came to parliament, claiming that he could not sit with thieves and looters.
Faced with a vote of no confidence, Khan waited for the army to come to his rescue. During his rise to power, the army had celebrated his ascent and protected him from his political opponents. There was a strong feeling within the armed forces that they had been used, abused and abandoned by the Americans in the latter’s “war on terror”. In Khan they saw a man who was comfortable dealing with the west, and always on his own terms.
But this didn’t last. When Khan fell, it wasn’t because he failed to deliver, it was because he fell out with the army. Khan caused huge offence when he wanted his own man to continue as the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence. Any civilian prime minister interfering with the army or the way it wants to run the country’s defence policy is seen as the enemy. As soon as the army withdrew its support, opposition parties moved in for the kill.
Why is Khan not blaming the army for his ousting? Behind his petulant facade, there is a pragmatist at work. His party cadres are seething at the army for abandoning them, but Khan himself doesn’t want to burn the bridge that may one day bring him back to office.
Khan rose to power by convincing the voters that he was the only clean politician around, that everyone else was corrupt. Now everyone opposing him is not only corrupt but a traitor and an American puppet. Khan never seemed comfortable in office and now he has been sent back to the street where he can start his crusade to save the country all over again.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Red Birds. He is based in Karachi