February 20, 2020
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The Umpire Takes Sides

The caretaker Prime Minister's support to Imran Khan raises suspicions about the establishment backing him

The Umpire Takes Sides
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Cricket hero Imran Khan's campaign for the February 3 national elections was bound to be controversial. With his marriage to a British heiress, his lively social life in England and his nonexistent political experience, media attention was guaranteed. But no one had expected caretaker Prime Minister Malik Meraj Khalid to add to the controversy by overwhelmingly endorsing Imran's prime ministerial aspirations.

But then, Imran's political future is not the only thing marked by uncertainty. There are still doubts over the elections being held on schedule. And the caretaker government installed by PresidentFarooq Ahmed Khan Leghari seems to be going out of its way to confuse the situation. Not a day passes without the interim set-up taking a questionable decision or issuing a controversial statement.

The latest uproar ensued when Khalid was invited to a function at Imran's Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital in Lahore. In his speech on the occasion, the ageing politician is reported to have said that people should support Imran's political objectives. He advised affluent people to follow the former cricketer's example and declared that he would now be allowed to run the campaign for his hospital on the state-run electronic media—a facility disallowed by theBenazir Bhutto government.

The reaction was immediate. Other political parties accused Khalid of being partisan. And while the next day the government claimed he had been misquoted, suspicions about the caretakers' intentions remain. One school of thought has it that this is part of President Leghari's gameplan to ensure a hung Parliament. The casual scrutiny of Imran's declaration of his assets in his nomination papers and the extensive coverage he is receiving in the foreign media have helped fuel speculation that he has the support of the establishment in Pakistan.

But these very things may work against him. Says a Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader: "Had Imran's declaration of assets and his personal wealth been divulged, it would have been enough to disqualify him under Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution. We don't understand why his mis-statements have been ignored." He also accuses Imran of fathering an illegitimate child: "The girl was born on June 15, 1992, and out of wedlock. Let Imran say that he is not the father of that illegitimate girl."

Ironically, Imran, who has been blasting politicians for being corrupt, is getting a taste of his own medicine. "It was easy to paint everybody bad. What Imran did not foresee was that he too was sitting in a house of glass," says a central executive member of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

Imran's declarations, which were challenged by the PML(N) candidate from Karachi, Ejaz Shafi , make interesting reading. Imran did not pay any income tax in 1996, he has no foreign currency or overseas bank account, his cash and balance accounts show that he only has Rs 1,56,000 in the bank and his British wife Jemima has no jewellery or gold. Imran is also said to own two properties abroad: one in London and another in New York.

So far Imran has tried to put up a brave front. He says that whatever he did in the past is none of anybody's business. "My intimate affairs abroad have not caused any damage to the country unlike those politicians who have plundered national wealth for decades," he counters. Academically, he may be right. But what he doesn't seem to have reckoned with is the subtle political culture back home; one false move or miscalculated statement and a conservative society like Pakistan would never forgive him.

Says the PML(N) leader: "Imran cannot get away with this argument simply because he is the son-in-law of Jewish billionaire James Goldsmith. His conduct has to be above board if he is an aspirant for the leadership of the country. He has to bear close public scrutiny. He would have been disqualified, had he been a politician in a western country, if charges of such nature were brought against him. I wonder why the caretakers fail to take notice of this. Regarding the Pakistani establishment having a soft corner for him, I think, given his links with the Jewish lobby and the recent visit of the Israeli president to India, the military will see him as a security risk for the country."

But Nasim Zehra, information secretary of Imran's Tehreek-e-Insaaf party , brushes aside these allegations: "Why has it been suddenly discovered after four years that Seeta White had a daughter from Imran? I would say she had been paid by somebody to make such an atrocious claim." As for Imran's chances in the elections, she says: "

The masses are disgusted with the stereotyped politicians and want a change. Imran has promised that change. He is still drawing large crowds despite the fact that these are his second and third rounds of mass contact. The first one could be attributed to his glamour but currently, people are coming on their own to listen to his ideas. Imran has specifically chosen (former prime minister) Nawaz Sharif's constituencies because we want to challenge him on his homeground and shatter his myth." Interestingly, Imran is holding well-attended rallies in areas where Sharif is known to be popular.

ZEHRA denies any covert support from the establishment, saying that had Imran wanted to come to power through the military or the president, he could have done so ages ago. As for the former cricketer's public admission of his promiscuous past, she holds that this will not harm his image: "At least, he has the courage to do so. What about those sitting in Parliament and indulging in all kinds of things?"

However, not many politicians perceive Imran as a serious threat. The PML(N) leader, whose party stands to lose most if Imran clicks, says there has been no groundswell of support. "Elections in Pakistan cannot be won by money or through the western media. The fact that Imran could not even find candidates in all the constituencies is an indication that he is a non-starter. Besides, his decision to contest from nine constituencies reflects that he is not sure of his chances. Contesting against Sharif would just bring Imran some extra media coverage but nothing else."

Whether Imran fares well or not, only the elections will tell. But as things stand, there are signs that the current political set-up could change, especially after the election boycott announced by Qazi Hussain Ahmed's Jamaat-e-Islami. His party says there is no use holding elections when the same people who have been previously sitting in the assemblies (and who are charged with corruption) are in the fray. Qazi says accountability should first be enforced, even if this means postponing elections. He has announced rallies to pressurise the caretaker government.

Other religio-political parties are also said to be thinking along the same lines. Their boycott may not affect the election results as their support base is limited, but their agitation could make life difficult for the already shaky caretaker government. There are already rumours of a referendum to decide whether elections should be held on schedule or be postponed to carry out the accountability process. On January 2, in the first major crackdown on corruption, the authorities arrested Benazir's father-in-law, Hakim Ali Zardari, and former Punjab chief secretary Aslam Hayat Qureshi. According to a government spokesman, another 30 to 40 people were expected to be ar rested shortly.

Every political party has some reservations about the interim government. Imran's party is worried about Leghari backtracking from his commitment to ensure concrete accountability. The PML(N) is not happy over the Imran affair. And the PPP is out to get Leghari at any cost. Given this atmosphere, many believe that the election results will not be acceptable to all.

Benazir is not thinking that far and is still confident that the Supreme Court will restore her dismissed government. Her petition is likely to be taken up by the Court this week. She has put off a decision on boycotting the elections till the middle of January. If Benazir does decide to boycott the elections, it would be a serious setback for the entire process and the elections would evoke little credibility. She had once boycotted the partyless elections during Gen. Zia-ul-Haq's time and paid a heavy price for it politically. Now, she has to take another tough decision.

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