Until recently, Imran Khan’s fame rested on three things: exploits in cricket, culminating in clinching the 1992 World Cup; philanthropic work, which ushered in building Pakistan’s first dedicated cancer hospital; and a protracted political struggle, that was finally rewarded when he was elected prime minister in August 2018. His stupendous achievements in these three diverse spheres may be set down to two singular traits of his personality: an indomitable fighting spirit in the face of heavy odds, and a ravenous appetite for success.
Of late, however, every now and then Prime Minister Imran Khan is finding himself in the spotlight for the wrong reasons, particularly for the gaffes associated with him. It seems the rigours of governing the country have put an otherwise sure-footed person off his stroke.
It all started when Imran Khan stumbled through the text while reading out the oath of the prime minister during his swearing-in last year. We all know for a fact how strongly he had coveted the highest political office of the land – of course not for his own sake but for the sake of the nation, which had to put up with a long line of corrupt and incompetent leaders – and how closely he had been to grab it on more than one occasion. Therefore, his having fumbled with the words on that historic day was human. However, judged by the lofty leadership standards that Khan himself has set, that would go down as a faux pas.
A week later, the new prime minister received a call from US Secretary of State Mark Pompeo to greet him on his election to the high office. While Washington insisted that the secretary of state raised the issue of cross-border terrorism in Afghanistan – until then the Americans were hopeful that they could defeat, or at the very least dictate terms to, the Taliban – Islamabad denied that the matter formed part of the conversation. With both sides sticking to their guns, Washington shared the record of the conversation with Islamabad. In response, our Foreign Office did what the diplomatic corps in any other country would do in a similar situation: hush the matter up.
One evening in the following month, social media was abuzz with the reports that Imran Khan had put French President Emmanuel Macron on hold while the former was having a tete-a-tete with senior mediapersons. In the eye of PTI supporters, and even some anchors who were present on the occasion, finally we had a leader who could show his teeth to a counterpart from a rich, powerful country. Much as we would like our leaders to stand up to the powerful, these reports were not credible for the reason that heads of state or government seldom make unscheduled calls to each other. It’s only in an extraordinary situation that such a call is made and for that very reason diplomatic norms dictate that it should be taken. Later, it was clarified that the call in question was made by the French embassy in Islamabad with a view to fixing a schedule for Macron’s call on Khan.
While broadcasting one of the prime minister’s addresses, which he delivered during his first visit to China last November, the state-run PTV mistakenly mentioned ‘Begging’ instead of ‘Beijing’ as the dateline. The pratfall appeared all the more embarrassing, because the visit to China was part of the prime minister’s diplomatic initiative to seek economic assistance from friendly countries to ward off a balance of payments crisis.
In April this year, the premier was in Iran on an official visit. At a joint press conference with the Iranian president, he tried to drive home the message that developing common economic stakes was the key to cementing ties between the neighbours – in that case Pakistan and Iran. It was indeed an astute observation. However, in support of his argument, he cited the example of Germany and Japan, which, according to him, had set up joint industrial units in their border regions after the Second World War.
Germany and Japan were allies during the disastrous war but everyone knows they have never been neighbours. So by all accounts it was a slip of the tongue on the PM’s part. Probably, he meant Germany and France, which were enemies during the Second World War, but turned allies in the post-war international order through enhanced economic cooperation. But the gaffe provided enough ammunition to his hard-nosed opponents and detractors to gun for him for his ‘lack’ of knowledge of elementary history and geography. Bilawal Bhutto, Khan’s political rival and like him an Oxonian, in a tweet insinuated that the latter was admitted to the prestigious British university on the basis of his cricketing credentials pure and simple. Politics is, indeed, a cruel game.
Ostensibly outraged over Bilawal’s trolls, Imran Khan referred to him as ‘sahiba’, the Urdu word for ‘madam,’ in a public rally. Several of Khan’s apologists – with the notable exception of Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad – tried to wind down the outrage generated by the sobriquet sahiba for Bilawal by describing it as a slip of the tongue. It is, however, widely believed the PM by design took a jibe at his young political rival with a view to denigrating him. This explanation seems more credible, because male and female genders have long been associated with strength (masculinity) and weakness (femininity) – and wrongly so. Strength or weakness is a function of personality and circumstances, not of gender. But the erroneous gender-based role ascription persists in our part of the world. Indian PM Modi draws rave remarks for his ‘broad’ chest, a symbol of masculinity and strength, while his antagonist Rahul Gandhi is trolled for ‘lacking manhood’. Hence, if someone intends to write off the prestige of a man, they will call him ‘womanish.’ Seen in this context, the jibe at Bilawal is indefensible.
Slips of the tongue, as well as of the pen, are a common phenomenon. In Freudian psychology, such slips reveal inner or subconscious thoughts and attitudes, which themselves are an expression of suppressed desires. On this interpretation, a gaffe, thought not volitional, is not meaningless either. Another view sets down such gaffes primarily to the enormity or unfamiliarity of the situation. On balance, people are more likely to make a slip of the tongue if they are speaking quickly, or are stressed, nervous, scared or excited. Many would recall how they had stumbled over words during their first job interview.
Since as a rule, politicians, especially those in government, make more public speeches and draw greater attention than the rest of society, they are more susceptible to make pratfalls. The same goes for PM Khan. To this we may add the tough times Pakistan is passing through, as the economy is in hot waters, relations with most of the neighboring nations are at a low ebb, and time to fulfill the promise to create heaven on earth is getting on. His predicament may be illustrated by a couplet from the incomparable Mirza Ghalib: ‘Rau men hai rakhsh-e-umr kahan dekhiye thame; ne haath baag par hai na pa hai rikab men.’ Translation: ‘The horse of life is running at a gallop and I have no control whatsoever over it.’
At the same time, the pratfalls bring out the human side of Imran Khan’s personality. Over the years, he has presented himself to be miles ahead of other political leaders on both the ethical and intellectual scales. In the eyes of his supporters as well, he is a cut above the rest head and shoulder. Notwithstanding such claims, Khan never ceases to show signs of being an ordinary mortal, who’s apt to be swept by the heat of the moment.