To survive, and to succeed, in Pakistani politics, even icons wear horns.
The paradox of humanity has always been: is there a monster within everyone, or is there a human within every monster? In Pakistan, that febrile fiefdom of Frankensteins, it is Halloween all year around. Imran Khan, playboy cricketer-turned-politician, revealed the monster within him last week by showing loyalty to Ajmal Kasab. A man, loved by India and who ostensibly returned the feeling with millions of fans and hundreds of socialites on his speed dial, was publicly outraged when a butcher who took part in the massacre of more than 166 innocent people was sent to the gallows. What makes a cosmopolitan Oxonian like Imran, who in his heydays clubbed, drank and womanised glamorously, turn into a cynical Islamist politician who condones terrorists?
The answer lies in Pakistan’s Dantesque politics where democracy is condemned to the purgatory of an ancient evil. To survive, and to succeed, in Pakistani politics, even icons wear horns. In retaliation for Kasab’s hanging, Imran’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), demanded that the Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh—sentenced to death on terrorism charges—be hanged. He even reportedly demanded that all Indian ‘terrorists’ in Pakistani jails be hanged as well—a charge his party hastily denied, realising the damage to Imran’s image as Pakistan’s next prime minister, one the West could trust. From the halcyon days when he terrorised Indian batsmen and bowlers, Imran has now been exposed as a Taliban sympathiser. To shocked cricket fans, it is a bit like Tendulkar demanding that Bugs Bunny be sterilised.
Imran’s tragedy is that India adored him. When he hoisted a hapless Mohinder Amarnath over the boundary, India forgave him. When he bowled Gavaskar out for a duck, we looked the other way. Imran generated the kind of buzz Alexander would have, dropping in for a game with Porus. With his aquiline Pathan looks, Oxford accent and predatory sexuality, he stole the hearts of millions of Indian women. He was a role model for callow Indian youth, who saw in his stoic attitude to victory and defeat the picture of the man they wanted to become. While Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram and Saeed Anwar were hate objects, Imran’s charisma set him apart as the strong silent warrior who would be forgiven every trespass so long he walked among the mortals. None else in subcontinental cricket—with the exception of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi—had Imran’s appeal of personal style and cricketing genius.
Ditto with Pakistan. A smart operator both off and on the field, Imran displays a keen understanding of his opponents—both democratic and fundamentalist—by promising to raise Pakistan from an Islamic slum to an Islamic welfare state. The astute politician cleverly nurtures his domestic constituency of frustrated, educated and jobless Pakistani youth by threatening to shoot down drones, while at the same time playing to the American political and media gallery.
But the Imran myth is disintegrating. Can whatever is left of Pakistan be trusted with this man, who justifies 14-year-old Malala’s shooting as part of the Taliban’s “holy war”? How did this former captain, revered for his strategic brilliance, become a coward by admitting that he cannot condemn the Taliban because he would be putting his party workers in danger though a schoolgirl had the nerve to take them on? By revealing his sympathy for Kasab, Imran has clearly indicated which ideology he is batting for. For a generation of Indians who were bowled over by Imran, seeking retribution for Kasab is a betrayal of emotional hospitality. Now, Hyde is no longer hidden—the good Taliban with the Oxford accent is outed. It’s a cynical game Imran is playing, but the field is different this time. He may well become Pakistan’s next prime minister, but this is one match he will not win against India.