Ousted, not out: at home in Lahore, the former prime minister hopes to make another run for office. © Betsy Joles/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Imran Khan: hero or hypocrite?

The former cricketer’s three-and-a-half years as Pakistan’s prime minister ended in a constitutional crisis. As he recovers from an assassination attempt and eyes a comeback, Atika Rehman examines his legacy
March 1, 2023

Not many people would laugh about surviving an assassination attempt that left both of their legs injured. But five days after the attack, on a dusty evening in November 2022, I sit across from Imran Khan at his family home in Lahore and he does just that. “As the bullets were going over my head, I immediately looked down,” Khan says, smiling. “My first thought was, ‘have I been hit anywhere else?’”

We are sitting in a room filled with ornate, gilded accessories and new artwork, none of which features the faces or feminine figures popular in the neighbourhood’s upscale homes. Instead, gold frames boast vivid abstracts and Islamic calligraphy. In the increasingly sanctimonious Pakistan, a refusal to display pictures of the human form is a mark of religiosity that impresses the pious and irritates liberals in equal measure. 

In his hospital pyjamas and with one leg bound by multiple plasters, Khan is busy. Video messages are disseminated to millions of followers. Interviews are recorded with international news channels. Lawyers mill about, preparing notes for their conversations with “Khan sahab”, as he is popularly known. A break, it is evident, is not on the cards for the former prime minister.

Khan was on an anti-government roadshow on 3rd November when a gunman shot him four times. “The bullet missed my main artery by a fraction of a millimetre,” he tells me. His tone is matter of fact, as if we are talking about the Lahore weather. Then he calls out to someone to get him a “local coffee”, the frothy, sweet Dalgona variety that was served in offices and homes across the country long before it became a lockdown fad on TikTok.

There is no exchange of pleasantries—and no coffee for me. In a country where even the poorest offer astonishingly generous levels of hospitality, Khan is not known for his social niceties. The last time that I interviewed him in the same house, in 2013, he ate an entire breakfast, gesticulating with a deep-fried puri in one hand, without so much as offering me a drink. 

“During the Jemima days, there was plenty of everything,” a friend of his once told me, referring to the period when Khan was married to Jemima Khan, now a screenwriter.  “She was a gracious host. But Imran? He doesn’t know how to boil an egg. He will never offer a glass of water, and that’s just his style.” It speaks more to his poor sociability than his frugality—an odd trait in a culture where politicians routinely offer journalists everything from tea and biscuits to clandestine envelopes of cash. It is what it is: when you are Khan’s guest, there are no frills. You get nothing but Khan.

It seemed like the perfect marriage: Khan to all appearances supported army policies and consulted serving generals on aspects of governance

Earlier that evening I saw him snap at his lawyers: “They tried to kill me, for God’s sake!” He wanted to name names in a report of the shooting that his lawyers were sending to the police, including those of the current prime minister and a serving senior military officer whom Khan believed were behind the assassination plot. The lawyers feared repercussions. Khan fears nothing. 

As he slowly made his way into the formal sitting area for our interview, I realised the damage the shooting had done. He no longer had the easy gait of an athlete. His shoulders were hunched, and he gripped the sides of a steel walker, keeping weight off one injured leg. For the first time, he looked his age: he is 70. But Khan was not going to miss an opportunity to reinforce the narrative that had lit a fire among his supporters: that senior officers of the country’s military, possibly with US help, had orchestrated his ousting as prime minister and tried to kill him. 

Pakistan is run by generals. As well as commanding one of the world’s largest armies, a handful of them play politics, install governments and manipulate elections. They dictate Pakistan’s nuclear and foreign policy and much of what happens at home too. Elected prime ministers have one task that supersedes all others: keep the army happy. Politicians in general, with their lust for political success and the riches that come with office, are often all too ready to cut the deals that keep them in power—an unsettling but chronic flaw in a system that is ostensibly democratic.

Khan pulls no punches as he talks about the “powers that be”. He complains that the army defied him when he was prime minister. “I could not push them to take action against the corruption of the elite,” he tells me. He claims that the outgoing army chief General Bajwa all but dictated political appointments in Punjab, the country’s most populous province where electoral victory paves the way for power in the centre. He says the military thwarted his efforts to introduce electronic voting machines—he suspects the technology would have made it harder for the army to manipulate election results. It is fascinating to see him hurl these allegations. Not because they are untrue—but because in Pakistan it is widely believed that it was the army that put him in power in the first place. 

Before 2018, the military was searching for an alternative to the two main political dynasties in Pakistan: the aristocratic Bhuttos and the commercially successful Sharifs. From the army’s point of view, the problem was that both families were becoming difficult to control. 

The army’s leadership likely daydreamed about the most famous man in Pakistan. At his peak, Khan was a star cricketer, heartthrob and philanthropist, the face of major brands at home and abroad. In a cricket-obsessed nation, the Oxford-educated sportsman appealed to the military establishment’s vision of a “new Pakistan” where corrupt, feudal politicians would be shunned—or jailed.Having won the World Cup in 1992 and later funded a state-of-the-art hospital in Lahore and a sprawling university in his hometown, Khan was seen as a man who could deliver. He was clearly a highly ambitious politician, having founded in 1996 his own political party, the Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI) . But because he had so far failed to achieve his goals, he would do almost anything to get into power. 

His nationalistic vision and Islamic populism found support among men in uniform. Speaking passionately in both Urdu and English, he dared the electorate to dream that Pakistan could become a country  where rich and poor would be treated equally; a country that would not be a “slave” to western “masters”. He referenced Medina, where Prophet Muhammad made his home, as an example of a just society.He invoked the term “jihad” when encouraging citizens to pay taxes. He vowed to fight for Pakistan’s sovereignty and challenged the US on the war on terror. He pledged to make Pakistan so economically robust that “people from outside” would “come to seek jobs in Pakistan”. He would do this, he said, by making crooked politicians pay for their crimes, taxing the uber rich and creating a welfare state. 

After the attack: police in Karachi quell protests by Khan supporters following his attempted assassination © Sabir Mazhar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images After the attack: police in Karachi quell protests by Khan supporters following his attempted assassination © Sabir Mazhar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“For 20 years, Pakistan’s military told the public that the two mainstream parties, the PPP and PML-N, were corrupt to the core,” says Cyril Almeida, a political commentator. “They planted the seeds of hatred for the existing political class. In Imran Khan, they found a likeable man.” 

Khan denies that he had the military’s backing, but few in Pakistan believe him. Soon after he took office in August 2018, some of his opponents were jailed or disqualified. Wealthy political “electables” switched loyalties to side with him. The media—always aware of what the army is thinking—largely pushed a pro-Khan narrative. Some publishers that didn’t were censored or shut down.

With his opponents crying foul, Khan’s PTI won 115 of the 270 seats up for election in the National Assembly, fewer than two dozen short of the 137 needed to form a government alone. He was exactly where the army wanted him: without an overall majority and dependent on their backing. It seemed like the perfect marriage: Khan to all appearances supported army policies, gave retired generals key government positions and consulted serving ones on aspects of governance. Yet four years later, in April 2022, the army’s golden boy became the 18th prime minister to be removed from office. 

Khan denies that he had the military’s backing, but few in Pakistan believe him

What went wrong? Many say that Khan failed to deliver on his campaign promises and made the country’s debt burden worse. The army, perhaps, had realised that an incompetent leader was as insufferable as a corrupt one. But there was something else: Khan, always a man with overbearing self-confidence, was developing views of his own. “Imran Khan was beginning to get comfortable as prime minister,” says Almeida. “After three years of working together, he wanted the military to be his junior partner. What happened was inevitable.”

The opposition had been threatening to move against Khan for months but had to wait for the right moment. For weeks before his deposal, Islamabad was thick with rumours that Khan’s rivals were in talks with senior generals. Then the same pro-army parties that were said to have enabled him to form a government ditched him. Khan was going to have to go it alone.

Instead of accepting defeat, the ex-cricketer who often brags that he plays “until the last ball” dared the opposition to go for a vote of no confidence. Perhaps he hoped partisan generals would throw him a lifeline, and simultaneously began blaming first the US and then senior generals in the military for engineering his removal. 

On the day the vote was to be held, Khan instructed the National Assembly deputy speaker to dismiss the motion. On Khan’s advice, Pakistan’s president was ordered to dissolve parliament, triggering a constitutional crisis. When it became clear that the military had dumped him, Khan pinned his hopes on the Supreme Court, which has its own complicated history of judicial overreach. But the reprieve did not come. 

Out of office, Khan turned on the army. He called the generals names and mocked them for their “neutral” stance. “Allah does not allow us to be neutral,” he defiantly told massive crowds in Timergara, a city in the conservative province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; “only animals are neutral.” He bashed the military so relentlessly that the army chief made the usually elusive head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s top spy agency, publicly address Khan’s allegations. For most politicians, this would spell the end of their career—or worse. But Khan was indestructible, and his popularity soared. 

In the months after his removal, I spoke with a serving military officer to understand how the institution felt about Khan’s transformation from semi-friendly accessory to fierce critic. “You don’t think we have audios and videos of Khan sahab?” he snapped before he cut the line. 

The officer was alluding to the ISI’s ultimate weapon, which it has deployed against many a Pakistani politician: sex tapes. Given Khan’s lifestyle, many thought it possible that he could have provided sufficient material. Sure enough, explicit clips supposedly of Khan having phone sex appeared online. His party dubbed them “fake”. In any case, the army tactic backfired. On one level, Pakistan is a pious Islamic society. On another, it’s a patriarchy where the sex lives of men are a source of admiration. Khan is relaxed about the tapes. “He’s not losing sleep over them,” one of his advisers tells me.

It’s remarkable how popular Khan has become out of office, given that the gap between what he had promised and what he delivered is enormous. When Khan came to power, Pakistan’s biggest problem was rapidly dwindling foreign exchange reserves. Khan likened the idea of approaching the IMF for assistance to being enslaved, famously saying he would “rather die than get an IMF loan”. Nine months later, he got one. The economy was jolted into action but just as growth rates began to revive, deficits reappeared. Foreign exchange reserves fell sharply. The army and Khan approached Saudi Arabia for an emergency loan of $3bn. “Most of this happened because of bad decisions. Khan pressed the State Bank to make interest rates negative for much longer than was necessary. It encouraged the printing of money and set the economy on fire with inflation,” says Khurram Husain, a senior business journalist in Pakistan. 

For diehard Khan loyalists, however, none of this mattered. “He worked 12 hours a day, didn’t take a single day off. His performance was better than all other governments, only the media was against him,” one Khan admirer tells me. “He had a clear vision, and was following the examples set by Prophet Muhammad,” says another. “You would never name your child after Nawaz Sharif or Asif Ali Zardari, but you would give him Imran Khan’s name.” 

Back in his drawing room, I wonder where his elusive better half, Bushra Bibi, is. His third wife hails from a conservative landowning family in the Punjab city of Pakpattan, home to the shrines of Sufi saints. Over the past decade, she has become famous in the area as a pirni, a title given to spiritual masters in the Sufi tradition. In a country where scores believe in omens and the evil eye, Bushra, who is 48, is famed for helping troubled souls with prayer—as well as less conventional practices.

When I ask Khan about her whereabouts, he ignores my question. I push him to tell me more about their relationship. And his reply takes me by surprise. 

On the back foot: Khan’s ill-timed visit to Moscow on the eve of  war may have harmed his international image On the back foot: Khan’s ill-timed visit to Moscow on the eve of  war may have harmed his international image © Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“I am married now, content… what more could I say?” he says, blushing. I ask how things are between the two of them, given his dreadful track record in romance. In 2014, a decade after his relationship with Jemima ended, Khan was briefly married to Reham Khan, a -British-Pakistani former BBC weather presenter who later wrote a scandal-filled page-turner about Khan’s -sexcapades and drug-fuelled parties in Islamabad—allegations that Khan and his party rejected as propaganda sponsored by his political opponents. 

“To put it simply,” Khan says, “I never actually believed in soulmates, but I know now what a soulmate is. I have been a bachelor for most of my life, seen so many marriages fall apart… I didn’t want to get married because I thought it wouldn’t work. Every now and then, I would hear this word ‘soulmate’… and I wondered, will I ever get that lucky?” 

Later, clearly lovestruck, he narrates a story from the time that Nelson Mandela invited him, Jemima and a host of public figures to take a journey on the Blue Train to raise funds. “I saw him [Mandela] and his last wife [Graça Machel] sitting together. There was total chemistry between them… I thought to myself, ‘will I ever have a soulmate?’ Now, I have one.”

His words leave me gobsmacked. Not just because Khan looks genuinely smitten, but because Bushra Bibi, or Pinky as she is widely known, is the opposite of what anyone imagined for him. The media picked up on the relationship when Khan started visiting Bushra in “secret” for spiritual guidance, possibly believing she could help make him prime minister and that marrying her would take him to new political heights. Eventually Bushra divorced her husband, the father of her five children, and in 2018 she married Khan.

In Islamabad, the unsubstantiated rumours were wild; the drawing room gossip was that Bushra worked a form of magic and commanded an army of meat-eating djinns. Her relatives “used to say she is a medium of sorts—that she could hear voices,” an acquaintance of the family tells me. “Our family dismissed it as nonsense. But she was clever.” 

Before his victory, Khan was seldom seen without a green stone ring on his pinky finger, believed by many to ward off danger. People then began to notice that Khan had largely stopped attending burials, even of close friends and associates. Many suspected, without evidence, that Khan had come to believe it was bad luck to be in the same room as a dead person. Then in 2021, he sparked controversy by refusing to meet with the family members of Hazara ethnic minority miners killed by Islamic State in Balochistan until the community had buried their dead.

Khan’s alleged superstitions may have made things awkward in other ways, too. One of the first public fissures in his relationship with the military was over his inexplicable delay in appointing the intelligence chief—one of the most powerful positions in Pakistan. A serving minister claimed it was because the first lady told him to make the announcement at a propitious time. Where the truth lies, it is hard to know.

Few politicians would think it propitious to find themselves in Russia on the day the modern world changed forever. But on 23rd February 2022, hours before news broke that Vladimir Putin had invaded Ukraine, Khan emerged from an aircraft in wintry Moscow. “At what a time I have come! So much excitement!” Khan said to Igor Morgulov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, who welcomed him at the airport. His exuberance at this awkward juncture was captured on camera. The optics, many in Pakistan said, were terrible.

Khan could not have known that within 12 hours of his arrival, Putin would announce the invasion. But before he left Islamabad, hoping to make trade deals, he knew that tensions between Moscow and Kyiv were at an all-time high. Just that week, US intelligence agencies had warned that Putin was moving troops close to the border with Ukraine and soldiers had received orders to invade. An official at the US National Security Agency had called his Pakistani counterpart and urged caution. From Putin’s perspective, it was a political masterstroke. “It was the perfect publicity stunt,” a journalist in Moscow tells me. “You invade a country and shortly after you appear relaxed, meeting the prime minister of Pakistan as if what you’ve done is no big deal.” But it became apparent very quickly that there were no significant trade deals to be made between Pakistan and Russia during this trip. Khan was in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

How did he get there? “Pakistan has been trying to suck up to Russia for the last 10 or 15 years,” says Kamal Alam, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has worked closely with Pakistan’s military. “Everyone knows the US-Pakistan relationship ebbs and flows… The Russians don’t trust Pakistan because of this, and see the Pakistani military as too ‘pro-west’. In Imran, however, Putin saw a leader who could be trusted more than those in the past, because of his unorthodox thinking. They were waiting for this for 20 years.”

On 23rd February, hours before news broke that Vladimir Putin had invaded Ukraine, Khan emerged from an aircraft in wintry Moscow

At an Oxford Union address last October, Khan explained that he went to Russia in “the national interest”. “Russia would have supplied us with cheap oil,” he said. He added that he wasn’t “anti-America” but that he suspected the Biden administration “wanted a more pliable stooge”.

It was this thinking that birthed the “cipher controversy” in Pakistan—the conspiracy, promoted by Khan for months, that the US was behind his removal because he was “too independent-minded” and would not be a “slave” to “western masters”. Days before he was ousted, Khan claimed that he had evidence to support his claim: a diplomatic cable supposedly showing that the US had backed “regime change” to overthrow him. The allegation—which Khan finally retracted in February to level unsubstantiated blame at the army instead—didn’t shield him from the opposition’s no-confidence motion. But it did serve another purpose. Khan’s supporters poured into every major city in the country to protest his removal. He had become a political martyr. 

Remembering these events took me back to one of my early interviews with Khan, in Karachi a decade ago. We were driving to the airport and he was wearing a crisp white shalwar kameez—his signature look—and a pair of dark Ferrari sunglasses. He was railing against the way in which “VIP culture” and the whims of the elite unleash suffering on ordinary citizens. Then we hit bad traffic. It looked like he wasn’t going to make the flight. 

As I asked my questions between stops and starts, Khan had his eye on the clock. At one point, he turned to a party comrade at the steering wheel and said, “Do you know anyone at AirBlue? Ask them to hold the plane, I need to make this flight. I can’t miss it.” He was seemingly unaware of his double standards—denouncing VIP culture but expecting to be treated as one too. He lambasted his rivals for their wasteful expenditure on travel but during his election campaign, he flew from one city to the next on a private jet borrowed from a friend. He understood that winning elections required money, influence and deal-making, but railed against his opponents for the very same.

Khan is confident he will win again—a bigger victory, perhaps, than ever. “I will only take government if I have a majority,” he says. “Making a coalition government… that’s where army rule became prominent.” 

It is unclear when Pakistan will have an election. The government is nervous about Khan’s popularity—his party has triumphed in 27 of 36 byelections held since his removal—and is trying to stall the process. But although Khan’s rivals are floundering as they try to stymie a cost-of-living and foreign debt crisis, his path back to power is hardly clear. Out of favour with the army and hated by his opponents, Khan faces a slew of court cases and a possible disqualification from the electoral process altogether. Without its charismatic ideologue, the PTI will fall apart.

For Pakistan’s shaky democracy, Khan’s surging popularity is not all good news. He wants to rule with an iron fist and fantasises about a China-style political system. As prime minister, during a state visit to Beijing he said that in “western democracies, it is difficult to bring change as you are bound by rules and regulations. Democracies of today plan only for the next five years. The Chinese Communist Party achieved better without democracy.” In office, he refused to negotiate with the opposition even on crucial reforms of national importance. He doesn’t seem to care much for press freedom, either: Reporters Without Borders listed him as one of the world’s 37 worst rulers in 2021. But he remains unfazed. “Had we been so powerful, there would have been no criticism of us,” he tells me. 

For all his army-bashing, he seems to admire aspects of the military’s influence. He says it’s “pragmatic” to work with the generals; the idea of removing them from politics altogether is “idealistic”. He respects the military’s power and organisational skills, and tells me he would allow it to work to some extent outside of its constitutional mandate if that served his purpose. 

On women’s rights, too, Khan is insensitive at best. In a country with more than 100m female citizens, and where the women’s rights movement is growing stronger, Khan’s position that rape is often the result of “temptation” or “frustration” is offensive. Bizarrely, on occasions when he has been confronted with the realities of sexual violence, he has often quickly pointed out that sexual violence against children is a bigger problem.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that Khan, who preaches the tolerance of Sufi Islam, seems to have goaded and emboldened religious fundamentalists when in power, suggesting he is little different to his predecessors. Soon after taking office he chose Atif Mian, a respected economist and professor at Princeton University, as a member of his Economic Advisory Council. But Mian belongs to the Ahmadi faith, a religious minority that has been persecuted for decades in Pakistan. Under pressure from extremist groups, Khan ditched him just days later, in the first blow to his “new Pakistan” narrative. “Unfortunately the government could not withstand the pressure it faced both within the party and outside on account of my faith,” says Mian. 

The former adviser now echoes what many of Khan’s more discerning supporters felt early in his government. “Mr Khan was a new face in power, and as such many hoped he would bring about some positive change,” he says. “But effective change requires a vision that spells out the new direction for the country, and that vision must be backed up with political courage to take difficult decisions. Unfortunately neither vision nor courage was there during PTI’s tenure. And so the country finds itself back in usual troubles, except now the hole is even bigger.”