Conspiracy theorising is a national obsession in Pakistan as is cricket punditry. Thursday’s failed attempt on the life of Imran Khan would confound the most consummate pundits of both: Political conspiracy and cricket.
Political conspiracy we understand, but why drag cricket into this, you might ask. We will explain that in just a bit. First, the five things with this latest turn that do not fit with the usual military-political intrigues. As you may have noticed, we put the military ahead of politics invariably in Pakistan. The five issues:
• Political assassinations are routine in Pakistan and invariably the army is involved directly (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) or through proxies (his daughter Benazir). What isn’t routine is a failed assassination attempt. There’s been one-odd before but it isn’t the pattern. So why did this one fail?
• After every assassination attempt, either the target goes six feet under, or one who survives becomes a ‘perfectly well-behaved chap or lady’, to use the language faujis in the subcontinent prefer. Nobody dares raise a finger at the army.
• Pakistani mobs are way bigger, angrier and recklessly violent than anything we’ve seen here. They can ransack the most protected establishments, including the USIS once while protesting against Salman Rushdie’s book. Now Rushdie is a native Indian who lived in Britain then, so why ransack the US Information Service centre, is a moot question. They did a thorough job of it. Last year, they came close to similarly sacking the French Embassy, now over President Emmanuel Macron’s allegedly blasphemous comments on Islam. Politicians’ and cricketers’ homes, places of worship are all fair game.
What they haven’t threatened yet is an army establishment of any size, least of all the residence of a corps commander. Unlike India, Pakistan does not have army commands (like Western, Northern, Southern etc). It has its nine corps in key regions, and their commanders are the storied equivalent of the “politburo” even the Chief defers to. Nobody messes with a corps commander. Least of all that of the mighty Peshawar Corps. Karachi, Lahore, Mangla, Multan, Rawalpindi etc facing India are militarily more important. But in politico-strategic terms Peshawar is the top. It monitors and mostly controls Afghanistan, fights the most active insurgencies by the Waziristanis and Pakistani Taliban.
It is the keeper of the Durand Line that no Afghan regime has ever accepted. It is also the ‘back office’ of all of the terror networks the Establishment patronised. Remember where Osama bin Laden was living and Indian Mirages went firing missiles at that Jaish-e-Mohammed centre.
While protests broke out in many parts of Pakistan, the fiercest were in Peshawar where thousands laid siege to the corps commander’s home. They chased away army troops, defied firing and set up a chant we are getting used to hearing in Pakistan: Yeh jo dehshadgardi hai/is ke peeche vardi hai. Loosely translated: Hey, you want to know what’s terrorism? It is the ‘uniform’ (army) that’s behind it. It has come up a few times in the past, sort of sporadically, but even opposition leaders at their rallies have tried hard to stop it. Nobody will attack our brave, venerable army, is the message.
So, our third question is, why has the army lost this immunity?
• Go back to Pakistani media headlines in the period leading up to the assassination bid. One of his key political lieutenants had already named the men likely to be planning his assassination. Top of the list was Maj. Gen. Faisal Naseer, whose house was, if we might use a more familiar Indian expression, gheraoed now by mobs more violent and angry than you might have seen here in a long time. People who blame top army generals or ISI chiefs for assassinations are usually chroniclers and contemporary historians living safely overseas. Usually foreign, or Pakistani exiles. Though as some recent events show, including this assassination attempt over a Pakistani dissident in The Netherlands we covered, an exile is no guarantee of safety. It was only earlier this week that ‘agents’ connected with the ISI were charged in Britain for this attempted assassination in The Netherlands. So how come key people around Pakistan’s most popular (but out of power) political leader are daring to accuse top generals of plotting assassinations now?
• The fifth and last is an issue we discussed in detail in last week’s National Interest. If the chief of the ISI has to hold a first-ever press conference mostly to attack a prime minister they first ‘selected’ unlawfully and then ‘ousted’ almost entirely so, it shows that for the first time the army is fearful of a popular politician. The fifth question therefore is, even after these dire warnings and the open declaration of hostilities by the GHQ, why didn’t Imran do the usual, “wise” thing and cut his losses by suspending his march on Islamabad.
We can discuss the possible answers to each of the five in detail. But why waste so much more ink or digital space if the common answer to all can be just two words, or one name: Imran Khan. Which takes me back to where I started. Or the reason I said this would confound pundits of both Pakistani conspiracy theories and cricket.
Far too many political journalists now of a certain vintage can claim to have personally known, interviewed, met for informal chats, followed and studied Imran Khan the cricketer. I humbly admit to having done all of the above. It is likely — in fact most certainly so — that most of us saw him as a unique character, most unlike the usual subcontinent cricket star. There has always been a risk-taking edge to him bordering on the reckless.
Among the many cricketers I might have known, especially in my years of regularly covering serious sport, he wasn’t just knowledgeable, but also perceptive. India had made a habit of losing to Pakistan then, he said, because Indians were too scared of losing. He was the first to speak out strongly against the Indian cricketing establishment’s tendency to toss sheer pace and favour line-and-length.
What wasn’t usual was the risk-taking. In a more quoted (and later notorious) interview with me for India Today conducted in his very modest London apartment later in 1994 when he was under fire for ball-tampering, he said no English cricketer of class, the Oxbridge types, had attacked him. It was only those of the “below stairs class”, Botham and Lamb for example.
Botham and Lamb sued him for libel. Imran and his then wife Jemima were calling me to go and say I misquoted him to save him from ‘ruination’. How this ended was described in some detail in this article.
Check out his political journey. In his first election (1997) he was routed in all nine seats he contested, losing his deposit in seven. On the usual PIA Fokker Friendship shuttle from Islamabad to Lahore, I found his old mate and now enemy Sarfraz Nawaz sitting next. How does your friend contest from five seats, I asked. Why, even when he played he thought he was the entire team, Nawaz said. Now, after losing power, he contested from all of the seven seats holding by-elections and won from six. And then said he wasn’t even returning to Parliament, which he considered illegitimate. He dared the army to allow a fresh election, but also demonstrated what might happen if one was held. Unlike the usual politician anywhere, and in Pakistan in particular, don’t expect Imran Khan to keep his cards close to his chest.
So, the insights:
One, he would tamper with the ball if needed, fight back the mightiest with the worst slurs, risk Britain’s nasty libel law, presume he’s the entire team, ask and expect a ‘friend’ to lie in court. And now he thinks Allah is with him.
Conventional wisdom in Pakistan is that of the logic of the casino. No matter what cards, skills, how much money you have, it’s always the House that wins. Like him or hate him, it had to be an Imran Khan to finally threaten to demolish the House.
He can be a cheat, a cynical, self-serving, self-obsessed liar. It’s just that he isn’t and never was ‘Im the Dim’ as his Pakistani critics would call him.