The Tragedy of Imran Khan

The Tragedy of Imran Khan

Defeated in a vote of no confidence on Sunday, the ousted prime minister leaves behind an image of intellectual decay and whimsical dysfunction.


Islamabad—Imran Khan is no longer the prime minister of Pakistan. He was defeated in a vote of no confidence on Sunday, and it is a source of some irony that the nearest analogue to the precipitous downfall of a man who takes such pleasure in deriding the culture of the West can be found in the pages of Shakespearian tragedy. Like Macbeth, Khan carved out a reputation as “valor’s minion” when he led the men’s cricket team to victory in the 1992 World Cup. At the time, the independent state of Pakistan was a mere 45 years old and had so few historical heroes that the success turned him into an immediate icon—a unifying symbol in a land of disparate identities.

Fast forward 30 years, and it is now not uncommon to hear Khan’s detractors opine that it would have been better if the cricket team had lost that tournament. For it was in that moment of triumph, some contend, that Khan first developed a sense of his enchanted destiny. “There’s almost a messiah-like complex that he exudes all the time,” says the journalist Quatrina Hossain, who has observed Khan closely throughout his political career. “He really believes that he’s the chosen one.”

It is perhaps for this reason that the folklore surrounding Khan also tends towards the fantastical. It is widely believed, for instance, that he married his spiritual adviser after she dreamed that their union was a prerequisite to his becoming prime minister, and that he subsequently made political decisions based on her prophetic visions.

Whether that’s true or not, the image of the ousted premiership is one of intellectual decay and whimsical dysfunction. Shahid Khaqan, who preceded Khan as prime minister, accuses him of having run the worst government in Pakistan’s history. “I’ve put my mind to trying to find something positive to say about his four years, and it’s a sad day for our country that I really can’t think of anything,” he tells The Nation. “Every sphere of the economy has suffered; our foreign policy is in shambles; internally, we are divided; freedom of press has suffered greatly; there’s been a lot of pressure on the judiciary; accountability mechanisms have been used to coerce the opposition.…there has been no respect for parliamentary traditions or norms, the rules or even the Constitution.”

Of these myriad indictments, it is Khan’s economic performance that has contributed most to his waning popularity. Almost two-thirds of those polled by Gallup have identified inflation—regularly in the double digits—as the single biggest problem facing the country, along with 21 percent of respondents citing unemployment. In the view of Ahsan Iqbal, who served as interior minister in the PML-N government, “Khan did not have any understanding of how Pakistan’s economy operates. What are the institutions? What are the mechanisms? What is the background of economic policies that we’ve been pursuing? When he came in, he took wrong decisions—especially the way he devalued the rupee and increased policy rates. Those two decisions were the principal causes of the economic mess we find ourselves in today.”

It is a criticism that Khan and his supporters reject. Shireen Mazari—who served as human rights minister in Imran Khan’s cabinet—told The Nation that opposition parties were guilty of trying to distort the truth. “The fact is, we were left with a bankrupt economy and huge debts by the previous government. Then there was the Covid pandemic. Despite all this our government, has brought us out of the edge and our Covid policy has left us in far better shape socially and financially than our neighbors and even some developed states.”

For Mazari and her colleagues, the reason behind Khan’s ouster lies not in his performance but in the opposition’s fear of being prosecuted for corruption. Over the last couple of weeks, Khan has repeatedly referred to his political opponents as a “gang of thieves” and invoked Islam to posit a choice between good and evil. It is an intellectual posture that Senator Sherry Rehman describes as an essential part of Khan’s persona. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing—that in a sense defines his intellectual grasp or reading of things…and the world is seen in these great Manichean polarities,” she says.

“Imran Khan, to me, follows in the category of leaders like Trump, Johnson, and Modi,” says Ahsan Iqbal. “Leaders who have created—by design—hate and polarization in society to form a new constituency for themselves based on very ultranationalist ideas, wherein they make themselves look like defenders of the people and make everyone who opposes them look like traitors. This is a very dangerous trend and a very dangerous type of politics.”

Within the framework of a battle between good and evil, the United States and Western powers were presented as colonial overlords. In the days before he was ousted as prime minister, Khan publicized a diplomatic cable sent by his ambassador to the United States, which allegedly conveyed the assessment of a State Department official that US-Pakistan relations had deteriorated under Khan’s premiership, to create a narrative that the no confidence vote was part of an international conspiracy. On April 3, the deputy speaker of the National Assembly—a Khan loyalist—dismissed the no confidence motion on the basis that it was part of a US-led plot to institute regime change in Pakistan, only for the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling as unconstitutional four days later. It was in this fractious atmosphere that the vote of no confidence was finally taken in the first few minutes of Sunday morning, after an almost 12-hour session of the National Assembly, and Khan was unseated by a majority of the total membership of the house.

Now out of government, Khan is falling back on a favored tactic: presenting himself as the embattled savior of a system riddled with corruption, a 21st-century caliph fighting a war against evil. It is an approach that has served him well in the past. In the years before he was elected prime minister, this “drain the swamp” narrative elevated Khan into a genuine populist force and won him the support of the Pakistan Army—long considered the real power in Pakistani politics. But in government, Khan’s belief in his own moral superiority made it impossible for him to collaborate with his rivals. That is the view of Syed Naveed Qamar, who served as minister of finance under the late Benazir Bhutto. “Though we’ve seen partisan approaches in previous parliaments, it has never been to the extent that you don’t even talk to each other, let alone cooperate, for some positive legislation.”

The reason, according to Naveed Qamar, for Khan’s rejection of political courtesies is that he never recognized parliament or politics as being his—or his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s—source of power. “He always knew that he had come in because the military establishment had decided that he was the person who would lead the country. Given that, he felt he could hit out at anybody and not have to look over his shoulder. Whereas the two main parties [the PMLN and the PPP] knew that they had to resolve their issues in parliament rather than to take it to a point where a third party had to act as an arbiter of things.”

In the end, it was that third party that tired of Khan. In October 2021, he became the latest in a long line of Pakistani prime ministers to fall out with his military benefactors after having ridden their coattails into power. At the time, the political commentator Murtaza Solangi told The Nation that he could not see Khan surviving the confrontation. “It wasn’t rocket science,” he says of his prediction. “As a student of politics and history, especially the history of civil military relations, it was quite evident after October…that the fate of the Imran Junta was sealed.”

But for how long remains the vital question. Though he has been largely shunned by progressives, it is clear that his base has not yet deserted him and that his influence will continue to be felt in Pakistani politics. Iqbal, drawing an analogy with Trump, believes that the “infrastructure of hate” created by Khan will continue to haunt Pakistan in the foreseeable future. Quatrina Hossain corroborates this anxiety, blaming Khan for having destroyed the social fabric of the country. “When we mention the word ‘legacy,’ the first thing that comes to my mind is polarization and hate. That is what I will remember him for. He has cracked down on and hurled invective against just about anyone who’s ever criticized him.”

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