In the brief interlude of Chechen independence between the Russia-Chechen Wars of the 1990s, I travelled with Imran Khan from Grozny to Baku, where we were due to meet Azerbaijan’s finance minister. We had different reasons for our visit. I was interested in the business potential of the countries of the Caucasus, while Khan, a former cricketer turned fledging politician who had recently formed the Pakistan Movement for Justice party (PTI), was keen to support the then independent Sufi Islamic state of Chechnya.
To get to Baku we had to catch a plane from the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan. Our Chechen hosts told us that we did not need papers to get across the border. The result was a terrifying shouty standoff between our convoy of Kalashnikov-wielding bodyguards and Russia’s border patrol. Fearing a firefight, I ducked down low in the back of the SUV. Imran, with a fearlessness that has characterised his career, sat back and roared with laughter.
There is no doubt that Khan has a natural air of authority and commanding presence. During our trip, he was the one to whom our hosts deferred. The great Indian cricketer Sunil Gavaskar once described to me Khan’s intimidating physical power when they shared dressing rooms: ‘We would cover up our flabby bodies while Imran would walk round half naked with just a small towel.’
Even a fully clothed Khan has been an imperious figure: a populist politician who has dealt dismissively with his political opponents. But now his pedestal has suddenly crumbled. On Sunday Pakistan’s opposition parties, in cahoots with defectors from Khan’s PTI-led ruling coalition, attempted to force a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Khan. It was speculated that a new government might seek to arrest him, a common fate for ousted Pakistani leaders, along with execution or assassination.
Khan has received an unexpected last chance. To the fury of opposition MPs, the Deputy Speaker, Qasim Suri, ruled that their call for a vote of no confidence was unconstitutional on the spurious grounds that it was at the behest of a ‘foreign power’. He left it unsaid that the foreign power referred to was America; Khan had been accusing the US of intervention in Pakistani politics all week.
Following the parliamentary session, Khan, after discussions with President Arif Alvi, appeared on television to announce a dissolution of parliament. He called for fresh elections in 90 days.
Can Khan repeat his election victory of 2018? At first glance, the odds would appear to be against him. Inflation, now at 13 per cent, has taken its toll on his popularity. Since September his poll ratings have fallen from 48 per cent to 36 per cent.
The army, always the final arbiter in Pakistani power politics, has also fallen out of love with Khan. In October, the Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa replaced Khan ally General Faiz Hameed as head of the Inter-Services Intelligence. Khan delayed confirmation of Hameed’s successor but ultimately lost out in the standoff.
Khan’s private life has also been ridiculed by his opponents. After a divorce from his first wife Jemima Goldsmith (whose half-sister, for full disclosure, I used to be married to), the daughter of billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, he married and quickly divorced Pakistani journalist Reham Nayyar, who has now become an outspoken critic. Khan has described this marriage as the worst mistake of his life. Six months before becoming Prime Minister, he married Bushra Bibi, a veiled Sufi guru from Pakpattan who was his spiritual teacher. Apparently Khan never saw her face before they married, and subsequently his enemies have sought to portray her as a witch: a woman whose face has no reflection in a mirror.
Still, Khan has a track record of beating the odds. He succeeded in politics when many (myself included) predicted that his anti-corruption campaigns would prevent him from attracting the powerbrokers usually required for success in Pakistan.
And then there is his unappealing opposition. Both Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples party, are inheritors of parties besmirched by decades of corruption. Shehbaz, brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, disqualified from holding office for corruption, seems the most probable alternative to Khan. But he too has been indicted for money laundering. Will Pakistani voters want to return to the rule of disgraced dynastic parties?
Furthermore, leaving aside inflation, Khan’s record as Prime Minister has been creditable. Guided by the IMF, which supplied Pakistan with emergency loans in 2019, structural improvements have been made to the economy, including the strengthening of measures to clamp down on corruption. In July 2019, Khan launched a commission staffed with members of the National Accountability Bureau to investigate infrastructure projects whose cost over the previous decade had crippled the economy.
Perhaps the greatest unknown is whether Khan’s shift of Pakistan’s geopolitical position will stick. He has largely pursued closer relations with China and Russia. Pro-western factions within the army and Pakistan’s political elite, who refer to the Prime Minister as ‘Taliban Khan’ for his outspoken support for the ejection of US forces from Afghanistan, are unhappy with the direction of travel in foreign policy. Joe Biden’s neglect of Pakistan – he has never even telephoned Khan – is further evidence of a drift away from the historically close US-Pakistan relationship.
Pakistan’s purchases of Chinese military equipment now exceed those from the US. China is also heavily invested in Pakistan’s new port at Gwadar, west of Karachi, as a key opening on to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. At the same time, Pakistan is energy poor, particularly in Punjab, and looks to Russia as a solution. The West may be horrified that Khan met Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on 24 February, the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But Pakistan doesn’t want to risk cancellation of the 1,100km Pakistan Stream gas pipeline, to be built by Russian contractors, which will link the gas terminals in Karachi’s port to Kasur in the Punjab.
Whatever the outcome of the election, unless the US comes up with a better offer to keep Pakistan on board, the country will become a part of the emerging China--Russia bloc. It is a geopolitical realignment that makes sense. Pakistan needs Chinese investment; it also needs Russian gas. Unlike the West, neither Khan nor his electoral opponents, faced with a chronically weak Pakistani economy, can afford to take moral positions over Ukraine.