Did General Zia-ul-Haq Unwittingly Pave The Way For Imran Khan?

"Perhaps, if Zia hadn’t cajoled him to come back to cricket in January 1988, he might not have played again"

Did General Zia-ul-Haq Unwittingly Pave The Way For Imran Khan?

After Pakistan lost the 1987 One Day International Cricket semi-final against Australia, Pakistani cricket captain Imran Khan, heartbroken by the unexpected humiliation at the hands of the Aussies, announced his retirement from cricket. It was an impulsive and emotional decision which was later proved by the reversal of his retirement announcement. President Zia-ul-Haq personally intervened and convinced Imran to take back his decision before Pakistan was to fly out to the Caribbean to play against the mighty West Indies. It was billed as the unofficial test championship final and the winner of the test series worthy of being titled the best test team in the world.

The test series which followed (like expectations) turned out to be an epic series between two highly talented and skilled cricket teams. Eventually West Indies won the test series (by the margin of 2-1) but only after some biased umpiring in the last test match in, Bridgetown, Barbados.

Fast forward from 1987-88 to the Pakistan of April 2024, a country standing on the brink of absolute chaos and disaster engulfed by perhaps the biggest economic crisis of its existence (only if we could exclude the first four or five years of Pakistan’s infancy stage). A country where political polarisation which is perhaps the most anywhere in the world. There is not a single man-made disaster or crisis which doesn’t exist in our homeland. Massive unemployment, crippling economy, precarious security situation, volatile neighbourhood and frosty bilateral relations with most of our neighbours, political instability and toxic polarisation leaves no hope for the future. On top of that all the problems faced by our beloved homeland seems to have a vicious cycle and we don’t seem to get out of it anytime soon.

The youth of the country has lost all the hope in their motherland, which is proved by their desperate attempts to leave the country legally or illegally. On 18 June 2023 an overcrowded boat off the coast of Greece sank in the Mediterranean, causing the death of over 300 Pakistanis who left their homeland for a better future on European shores.

After losing his government in April 2022, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan had used all the positive and negative tactics in his repertoire to pressurise the military establishment to install him back in power. He accused the erstwhile powerful military in trying to assassinate him in Wazirabad on 3 November 2022. He also managed to create divisions and fissures within the Pakistan Army, along with the help of his party members. He had succeeded in massively dividing the general public by his vitriolic narrative and the country had never been so bitterly divided as it is now.

And then the D-Day came when the beasts of hate, bigotry, false self-righteousness and arrogance played havoc in the country after IK was arrested in Islamabad on 9 May 2023. His supporters went on a rampage in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and other cities across the country and torched and demolished military and civilian installations and monuments. Military heroes’ monuments were also not spared in this process. In the ensuing mayhem of following the arrest of Imran Khan PTI crossed the proverbial red-line and with it crossed the point of no return in their complicated relations with the military. Party leaders and supporters of PTI were arrested on a massive scale throughout Pakistan. In the next few weeks, many stalwarts of the party left it the same way, they had joined it after gentle and at times forceful cajoling by the establishment.

It would be safe to say that Imran Khan has left Pakistan in much worse circumstances than he had inherited when he became Prime Minister in August 2018 (there not much space to delve into this right now). He only wants power and his only grievance from the military is that he wants them to get him back to power.

The state had also failed in bringing the culprits of the violence of 9 May 2023 to book in a reasonable period of around 10 months. This in itself is a huge failure on the part of the state. The state apparatus had to dismantle the Imran project completely to make Pakistan prosper again but unfortunately the powerful establishment had not spared the opportunity to meddle with another elections in February 2024. The state should have only got after those PTI politicians and workers who have broken the laws of the state and spare other elements in the party.

Now coming back to General Zia convincing Imran Khan to backtrack on his retirement decision. Perhaps, if Zia hadn’t cajoled him to come back to cricket in January 1988, he might not have played for Pakistan again. Eventually, he wouldn’t have the great honour of winning the ODI cricket world cup for Pakistan. That honour created the persona of a leader possessing Midas’ Touch and made him an all-conquering superhero.

With all the mess and havoc created by him, it would have served the country great dividends if IK had spared politics and continued with his career of international playboy and philanthropist.

In a weird twist of fate, it would seem Zia took revenge on his own countrymen from the grave, to help launch the career of a narcissistic and self-obsessed politician.

The writer is a researcher and human rights activist based in the UK.