*By Christina Lamb*
He married his faith healer after she advised him that was the only way he could become Pakistan’s prime minister. He took his main rival to court on corruption charges and got him barred from office. Then he publicly met the army chief, widely regarded as the real power in the land.
Today, with his spiritual, judicial and military support apparently all onside, the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan starts wooing the people with the official launch of his election campaign at a rally in Lahore. “We expect around 1m people to attend in what could be the biggest political rally in Pakistan’s modern history,” he said last week.
The 65-year-old former playboy hopes to lead his Movement for Justice to victory in Pakistan’s elections in July.
To do so he must break the stranglehold of the two main political parties, the Muslim League (PML(N)) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which have alternated in power for decades between spells of military rule. Although the latest polls from Gallup show him in second place — on 24%, while the PML(N) is on 36% — the former cricket captain has the clearest field he has ever faced.
Nawaz Sharif, leader of the PML(N), was dismissed as prime minister last year. His party remains in power and polls show that he is still Pakistan’s most popular leader. But he was barred from office for life by judges earlier this month and is embroiled in court cases that could see him jailed before the elections.
The charges, which he denies, were brought by Khan who has long campaigned against corruption.
The PPP, trailing behind Khan’s party, is now led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari whose mother, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in 2007. He and the other Bhutto children face so many security threats that they campaign by hologram.
Khan’s path to the prime minister’s residence in Islamabad is far from sure, however. Many accuse him of hypocrisy for taking into his party some of the old guard he has campaigned against. He also has no experience of government at any level.
His biggest challenge may be his own colourful past. After fathering an illegitimate daughter with one British heiress, Sita White, he married another, Jemima Khan, with whom he has two sons. They divorced in 2004. He was briefly married to a former BBC journalist, Reham Khan, in 2015. Earlier this year he married Bushra Maneka, a divorced mother of five who had been working as his spiritual adviser. She had apparently told him of a dream she had that he could be elected only if he married her.
As with his marriage to Reham, he at first denied that he had wed Maneka, but went public in February. Already there are rumours that all is not well. He appeared on television on Thursday to scotch rumours that Maneka had gone back to her parents. “We are together as long as we are alive,” he insisted.
Now Reham Khan has written a book, to be published before the election, which she told The Sunday Times yesterday would be “explosive”.
“He is desperate to be prime minister and fed up with waiting,” she said. “As a sportsman he is used to winning.”
She accuses him of being unfaithful — and also tells an extraordinary story about her dog. “Imran likes handsome dogs,” she said. “A dog I’d insisted on keeping was not to his taste because his ears had been cut off at birth.
“I tried to protect [the dog] but one night we were returning from dinner and Imran, who in my experience always drives recklessly, ran him over in his big bulletproof Land Cruiser. In the dark all I heard was the yelping of the dog and I froze.” Miraculously, the dog survived with an injured leg — but some fear the biggest loser in this battle between judges, generals, politicians and wives may be Pakistan’s fragile democracy.
Media organisations are complaining of increasing censorship in the run-up to the elections. Television channels have been taken off air, newspaper columns dropped and coverage of a sweeping protest movement by the country’s Pashtuns has been suppressed. Last week Freedom Network, Pakistan’s first media watchdog, issued a statement complaining of “massive censorship”.
Will Khan succeed in taking over? Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington where he is now director for south and central Asia at the Hudson Institute think tank, believes the prize may still elude him.
“Few people in history have wanted so desperately to be prime minister that they have made all aspects of their life [including marriage and divorce] subservient to that desire,” he said.
“At the end of the day he is a celebrity politician who has offered himself as ‘Mr Clean’ while tainting himself with too many deals aimed at just getting the office he covets.”
(Courtesy the Sunday Times, April 29,2018