It was 1997. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government had been dismissed two years before its term ended by President Leghari on charges of corruption and mismanagement of the economy. Fresh elections were called.
Pakistan Muslim League (PML) leader Nawaz Sharif was making waves. He was expected to win the polls hands down. Sharif made it a point to tell all Indian journalists who had arrived to cover the elections that he was keen to improve ties with Delhi.
Lahoreâ€™s business leaders milling around Raiwind, Sharifâ€™s home, spoke of a future when Indian and Pakistan business could trade without going through a circuitous third country route. The PPP government was derided for its corruption and expected to be thrown out of office, mainly for the misdeeds of Asif Zardari, Benazirâ€™s husband who was nicknamed Mr 10 per cent.
This was also the year when Imran Khan made his political debut. He had formed his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) a year earlier in 1996, to offer citizens a third choice. He was critical of both the two main national parties, the PPP and PML, and promised to give people a new clean party, with emphasis on governance and not loot. He had made a mark through his social work. He was working towards making world class cancer treatment available to everyone in Pakistan. The Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre were not yet built but work was in progress.
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Imran Khanâ€™s mother had died of cancer and he wanted to honour his motherâ€™s memory by making cancer care available to the poor. Everybody lauded him for his philantrophy, but Pakistanis did not take Imran Khanâ€™s PTI seriously.
Most people, while appreciating his cricketing achievements and his social work, dismissed his political ambitions. Nobody believed he would stay the course. His party was made up of just Imran and some young people, who admired him not just for his cricket, but his drop-dead good looks and celebrity status.
Pakistani journalists were amused that all foreign reporters who had parachuted into the country were keen to interview Khan.
Remember being told that Imran Khan would be wiped out after the elections? He was contesting from two constituencies in Lahore and Mianwali.
The meeting with Imran Khan
I went to his modest home in Lahore. A lot of journalists were in the queue waiting to talk to the acclaimed cricketer-turned-politician. All of them non-Pakistani journalists. Local reporters did not bother to line up for interviews.
He was friendly and said he had lots of friends in India and welcomed me warmly. When we sat down to talk, I realized why my Pakistani colleagues did not take him seriously. He was totally apolitical. He spoke with passion about the need to clean the country of corruption. He talked about the North-West Frontier Province (now renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) with warmth.
I remember being shocked when he said that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was the creed in the area from where his family came originally. What was shocking was his admiration for the medieval practice of a thiefâ€™s hands being chopped off. He felt that was the only way to frighten the corrupt.
Khanâ€™s later penchant for religious parties was apparent even in those early days. He wanted Pakistan to become like Malaysia. Where Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists lived together in harmony. Khanâ€™s inexperience was showing. Any other Pakistani politician would have said he would like to build a country where Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians would live together as Muhammad Ali Jinnah envisioned after partition but did not live long enough to carry out his idea of Pakistan.
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I asked him about his party and how people were saying only kids who admired him as a cricketer were joining him. To this he replied. â€œLet people say what they want. But one day I will be the Prime Minister of Pakistanâ€.
Khan was defeated from both constituencies. All his party candidates also lost in 1997. Things have come full circle for Imran Khan.
With two controversial marriages behind him and a third this year to his spiritual guide Bushra Maneka, Khan may just have hit the bulls eye.
Maneka is not a society girl like Jemima, nor a modern professional working woman like Rehman Khan. The wedding photos showed her with her face and head covered. Far from the women Khan dated and married. A mother of five, Maneka is deeply religious and if Rehman Khan is to be believed, is into all kinds of religious numbo jumbo. Yet for the playboy Khan who seems to have turned to religion in a big way, she may be just the kind of wife who would be endorsed by the traditional rural Pakistani electorate. She may be his lucky charm.
His parting shot to me about becoming PM one day seems almost prophetic.
His first wife Jemima Goldsmith, daughter of a Jewish billionaire, has supported him all through. She is the mother of his two sons. His second wife wrote a tell-all book on Imran Khan, racking up the muck. Not that any of it is sticking to the telegenic Khan.
Pakistani celebrities have long supported Imran. From Fawad Khan to Mahira Khan, all support his charity. Well-known Pakistani actor Hamza Ali Abbasi is one of his staunchest supporters. More important in the last few years, well-established politicians are also flocking to his party from both the PML (N) and the PPP. Most important, the all-powerful Pakistan Army is said to be backing him.
The battle with Nawaz Sharif
Pakistaniâ€™s now admit that Imran has been tenacious. He has been fighting Nawaz Sharif soon after the latter won elections in 2013. Saying the elections were rigged, he called thousands of his followers out in the streets and literally shut down Islamabad.
Panama Papers were a godsend for Imran Khan. He used it to paint Nawaz Sharif into a corner and kept up a volley of attack till the courts took cognizance of it. Today Sharif and his political heir Maryam are in prison and not allowed to contest elections.
The PPP is a shadow of its old self with Bilawal Bhutto yet to find his feet and his father Asif Zardari thoroughly discredited. In this dismal political scenario, where options are limited, the electorate just gave Imran Khan and his PTI a chance.