While Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s domestic rivals have been out for his throat ever since the former cricketing star entered the political arena in 1996, for those with an honest mindset, allegations of hypocrisy and inconsistency betray the fact that when compared to almost all other front-line Pakistani politicians, Imran Khan has had a very consistent career both in cricket and politics.
Interviews and mini-biographies on the cricket star from the 1980s and early 1990s reveal a man who takes his glamorous image in his stride, while not wanting to disappoint fans who readily flocked to stand beside a man that many felt to be a living legend of sport.
Yet while many Pakistanis as well as Pakistan watchers are readily willing to point out the hypocrisy of Pakistan elites who literally sell-out the interests of their nation to western businesses and governments, Imran Khan represented and continues to represent a far more consistent strain of Pakistani patriotism in spite of being accused of being mired in contradictions by his most unhinged critics.
Both as a student and as a celebrity cricketer, Imran’s name and perhaps even more importantly his face was as well known in western celebrity circles as it was in Pakistan. Yet even during the height of his pre-political fame, Imran’s interviews from the era clearly reveal a man for whom charity and compassion towards the poor are a penultimate goal in life, while Imran also revealed that in his heart, a sense of purpose for Pakistan burned deeply. The fact that such a commitment to elevating the condition of the people remains at the heart of his government’s political programme is a testament to a career formed around a common thread of values whether that career was in sport or in politics.
It goes without saying that Imran Khan did not enter politics for money as unlike some of his rivals, Imran’s life since becoming party-political has become all the more personally austere. Furthermore, Imran Khan’s wealth was derived from sport rather than through politicised business dealings. Thus, Imran’s personal wealth is clean money and few could rationally dispute this.
Yet while Imran was making a name for himself in cricket, Donald Trump’s public celebrity continued to rise during the 1980s and 1990s as he built both a property and branding empire while cultivating a personal image that personified the wealthy American mogul. Strangely, Donald Trump’s interviews from the 1980s and early 1990s also show a remarkable political consistency, even if his policies in respect of an opposition to free trade were as obscurantist then as they are now.
And yet while both Trump and Imran had a clear sense of what they wanted for their country before entering politics – most people felt that the idea of a “President Donald Trump” or “Prime Minister Imran Khan” was fanciful up until the moment that each man reached the zenith of his respective political power.
And yet it is ironically the similarities between Donald Trump and Imran Khan’s rise to fame and later into politics that paradoxically serves to highlight their differences. While Trump is the embodiment of American exceptionalism, bombast and corporate empire – Imran Khan has long been a champion of the poor, a figure of inspiration for people that others never even attempted to inspire and a patriotic voice amid a sea of politicians in it for themselves.
Already, the two have clashed in public, though not face to face. When Trump accused Pakistan of “doing nothing” to combat terrorism, Imran Khan took to Twitter to eloquently defend the dignity of his nation that has suffered more than any other in terms of both human life and material costs since the US declared a seemingly aimless “war on terror” in 2001. Imran Khan has also stated in a recent interview with US media that Pakistan will no longer be a “hired gun” for the US military-industrial complex and that any relations between the two countries must be based on mutual respect and a more Chinese style businesslike approach to bilateral affairs.
Between the Trump-Imran Twitter battle and Imran’s Washington Post interview, Trump drafted a letter to Imran requesting Pakistan’s assistance in bringing some sort of conclusion to the longest US war in history – the American war in Afghanistan. Imran has approached the Trump “olive branch” with a combination of personal dignity and informed caution. While thus far the US has pivoted towards a pro-India/anti-China policy in the wider region, unless Washington wants to risk Pakistan’s total defection from its old lopsided US partnership, American policy markers should not be so callous in their insults directed at Pakistan. It is because of this that there does remain a possibility (however slim) that the US might inject at least some pragmatism in its otherwise reckless attitude towards Islamabad.
When it comes to the all important but little discussed matter of personal relations in geopolitics, it must be noted that while Donald Trump’s Indian friend, Premier Narendra Modi is decidedly un-glamorous compared to Imran and speaks very poor English compared to Imran’s fluency in the language, it remains to be seen whether these differences will elicit a future sense of respect from an American President who self-evidently prefers dealing with larger than life characters in politics and could clearly relate to an Asian leader who could conduct a full conversation with him without risking any verbal miscommunication. In many ways, Imran’s celebrity background and his multilingual eloquence could make for a surprisingly thorough breaking of the ice between Trump and Imran should they ever meet in the near future.
Imran Khan has experienced the Trump jet-set lifestyle first hand and has instead elected to become a Prime Minister whose austere surroundings are combined with a drive to transform Pakistan into a welfare state with Islamic characteristics as first envisaged by founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But within this framework, as Trump is clearly a man who seeks to build political relationships based on a personal bond, Imran and Trump can in fact speak the same language in more ways than one – even if Imran traded gold and glamour for politics while Trump continues to attempt and combine the two.
While some thought that the meeting between the larger than life Trump and the larger than life Kim Jong-un would result in less than nothing, their historic Singapore Summit has clearly resulted in a meaningful peace process in Korea. Far from being an isolated state like North Korea, Pakistan under Imran Khan seeks to remain open to the wider world but in respect of the United States, Imran seeks to transform relations from that of military subservience to economic pragmatism.
It is anyone’s guess as to whether such an understanding can be reached between the two powerfully minded men, but because Imran and Trump’s rise to power has some similarities that are more than superficial, there does exist a foundation on which the two can build some sort of personal understanding which for Trump is often more important than building a geopolitical understanding.