‘I’m the opposite of Donald Trump’

Former cricket ace Imran Khan’s colourful personal life was once seen as political poison – yet yesterday he was set to be sworn in as Pakistan’s new leader – and the comparisons with Donald Trump are coming fast and strong


Imran Khan and Jemima Goldsmith married in 2005, divorced in 2004 but have since remained close
Imran Khan and Jemima Goldsmith married in 2005, divorced in 2004 but have since remained close

It was a moment on a par, perhaps, with Eva Peron’s famous speech on the balcony in Buenos Aires which began with the immortal phrase “We the shirtless”. As the preliminary results in Lahore showed that Imran Khan’s party was decisively ahead in the Pakistani elections, the 65-year-old former cricket star and playboy addressed the nation on television, outlining what he would do as prime minister.

“We’re going to run Pakistan in a way it’s never been run before,” he told waiting reporters, adding that he would never live in the prime minister’s mansion. In a country of so many poor people, he said, “I would be embarrassed” to stay in such a house. Like Peron, the millionaire crowd-pleaser had managed to portray himself as one of the unwashed, suddenly risen to high office.

In fact it was a perfect soundbite, and a classic moment of a political celebrity stooping to conquer, hardly marred by the sneering of critics who said that the official Prime Minister’s residence would represent a bit of a comedown from Khan’s own sprawling mansion with its 360-degree views of the water in Islamabad. The man who had for so long been christened Imran Khan’t – for his inability to seize the biggest prize in Pakistani politics – had finally won big. Members of rival parties accused election officers of fraud, saying many ballots had been counted in secret, guarded by soldiers. But Pakistan’s election authorities said the vote had been fair, and Pakistanis awoke to the unlikely news that their country’s biggest cricket legend was now also their country’s leader.

To outsiders this might have seemed like a natural anointing. In the US a whole wing of Congress could be filled with former sports stars who have made it big in politics. From Eisenhower to Schwarzenegger, the link between athletic prowess and political acumen seemed almost a natural part of public life. Even in Ireland, politicians from Henry Kenny (Enda Kenny’s father) to Dick Spring achieved their first mark of renown on GAA pitches. In Pakistan, Khan’s success was anything but a given, however, and his sporting celebrity had been considered a double-edged sword. For years, he had tried but failed to take the reins of this nuclear-armed Islamic republic. He founded his political party, PTI (Pakistan Movement for Justice), in 1996, and for many years made no real progress. Many mocked him. The Guardian journalist Declan Walsh dismissed him as “a miserable politician”, whose ideas and affiliations had “swerved and skidded like a rickshaw in a rainshower”.

In a country with a powerful emergent middle-class there were others who saw it as fitting that one of their own would rise to the country’s top job. Khan grew up in relatively privileged circumstances in Lahore, where his parents were moderate, practicing Muslims – Khan’s father was an engineer – and received a private education in England. At Oxford, he studied economics and politics, captained the cricket team and become known as a bit of a ladies’ man: though he latterly denies that he ever drank alcohol or engaged in any activities that may be considered inappropriate for a conservative Muslim.

In 1982, he posed for a London newspaper lounging on a bed, wearing only briefs. “Imran Khan is worried in case I portray him as a sex symbol,” wrote the English journalist sent to interview him. “This is possibly why Imran is stretched across his hotel bed wearing only a petulant expression and a pair of tiny, black satin shorts.”

In 1992, Khan, known affectionately as the Lion of Pakistan, captained the cricket team to a World Cup victory over England, the country’s former colonial ruler. It was a moment of immense Pakistani pride, and Khan was at the centre of it. At the same time, the English press ate up details of his romance with Jemima Goldsmith, daughter of the financier James Goldsmith. Khan was 42 when he met Jemima, then 21, on a night out with friends, and the two were engaged within weeks, thrilling and horrifying their circle of acquaintances. “I always assumed that my wife fell in love with me because of my passions and ambitions,” he said later.

Jemima duly converted to Islam and on May 16, 1995 the couple wed in a two-minute Islamic ceremony in Paris. On June 21, they were married in a civil ceremony in London, before heading off for their new life in Lahore. The marriage produced two sons, Sulaiman (now 21) and Qasim (19).

The Spanish honeymoon at one of the Goldsmiths’ farms was marred by a paparazzi photographer who took shots of the couple, with Imran wearing only a sombrero. Jemima’s father, the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, was furious and paid a reported five figure sum to buy up the pictures and prevent publication. But her father couldn’t save what Imran said was a “tough marriage”.

In Lahore, he immediately launched his political career, while his wife had to adapt to a life as a western star in a poverty-stricken city. On the campaign trail in 1997, she wowed the crowds with her Urdu as well as attempting a few words in the local Pashtu language, but she never managed to get the Pakistani masses to really warm to her. The marriage was controversial in Pakistan to the extent that some political opponents raised the Jewish roots of Mrs Khan’s late father, but that criticism quickly dissipated when it was revealed that she had embraced Islam and followed her husband in fundraising for Afghan refugees. In the run-up to one election, Jemima was falsely accused of having studied under the “blasphemer” Salman Rushdie. Protesters torched posters with her picture on them and demanded her expulsion from Pakistan. She was reported to have found the pressure unbearable.

During these years, Imran also became friendly with Princess Diana who was close friends with Jemima. Because of Khan’s Muslim heritage and understanding of British aristocracy he was asked, he later said, to act as a marriage broker with the heart surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan (a distant cousin) just three months before Diana’s death. In an interview on TV, Imran later dismissed Dodi Al-Fayed, the also deceased son of Mohamed Al-Fayed as a mere ‘summer romance’ for the Princess. Jemima, who had known Diana for 20 years, corroborated this story.

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While the Khans made time to fan romance among their friends, there was trouble for them on the home front, and persistent rumours of difficulties in their own marriage. As stories appeared in Pakistani and British media saying that her relationship was in crisis, Jemima placed an advertisement in Pakistan newspapers to deny them. It read: “Whilst it is true that I am currently studying for a masters degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, it is certainly not true to say that Imran and I are having difficulties in our marriage. This is a temporary arrangement.”

In fact, it would soon become more permanent and the couple were divorced in 2004. The pair remained close, however, and after Imran’s recent election Jemima tweeted: “22 years later, after humiliations, hurdles and sacrifices, my sons’ father is Pakistan’s next PM. It’s an incredible lesson in tenacity, belief & refusal to accept defeat. The challenge now is to remember why he entered politics in the 1st place. Congratulations.”

Imran’s next marriage, more than a decade later was to BBC presenter Reham Khan. After 10 fractious months together, the couple divorced in 2015 with the sportsman-turned-politician now calling their marriage the “biggest mistake” he has made. He told one Indian publication: “Normally I don’t say anything about Reham, but I will say this: I’ve made some mistakes in my life, but my second marriage has to be the biggest.” This was because during the run-up to the election, Reham had published a tell-all book in which she made a number of lurid claims against Khan; including that he believes in black magic, and had had affairs with a string of Bollywood actresses. She also wrote that he admitted to her that he had five illegitimate children and used ‘all sorts of tranquillisers, mainly benzodiazepines like Xanax and Lexotanil’. in Pakistan and India, Reham’s book was variously described as foolish and courageous, but she proved to be a persistent thorn in Imran’s side.

Reham would later say that Imran had been ‘stolen’ from her by his spiritual adviser, Bushra Manika, who married him soon after his divorce from Reham was finalised.

In a moment that he perhaps hoped would symbolise some spiritual growth, Imran revealed he did not see his new wife’s face until the nuptial ceremony. “I proposed to her without seeing her because she had never met me without her face being covered with a full veil.

“The only idea I had of what she looked like came from an old photograph I had seen in her house,” he was quoted as saying. “I have gradually realised that although I know more about physical attraction than anyone else, actually the character of a person and the mind, the intellect, is much more important than the physical, because in my experience that has the smallest shelf life,” he added.

Khan’s worldly mixture of the spiritual and the urbane may be one of the qualities that has made him the man of the moment in Pakistan. His party has broken the stranglehold of the two main political dynasties that have been in power for decades between periods of military rule. Khan promised an end to the corruption that he says has led the South Asian nation to the brink of failure as a state. Riding a wave of social-media outrage, he successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to disqualify a former Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, from politics. “It’s a big victory,” Khan says. “But the struggle is now on. The corrupt political elite is trying to protect itself. We have hit rock bottom. The poor are getting poorer, and a tiny number of people are getting richer.”

But is Khan really a great reformer or is he simply Pakistan’s version of Donald Trump, a celebrity sideshow with no coherent political philosophy?

His fame, his showbiz charisma, his three marriages and his explosive use of social media have drawn comparisons with the current occupant of the White House. It’s a comparison he bridles at.

“Compare me to Bernie Sanders instead,” he said recently when someone mentioned it. “I’m the opposite of Donald Trump.”

Running for office: Athletes who made the grade in the world of politics

Kenny Egan: The Dubliner won a boxing silver at the Olympic Games in Beijing but famously told RTE that you can’t get a mortgage with a medal. That led him to careers in mental health services and politics. He now works as an addiction counsellor and as a FG councillor in South Dublin. He said the confidence sports gave him meant he knew he was worth more than “just a slap on the back after winning Olympic silver”.

Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Terminator star transformed a bodybuilding career (he won Mr Universe aged 20) into a career as a Hollywood actor, starting with Conan the Barbarian in 1982. He became one of the biggest action movie stars of the 1980s and 1990s, and in 2003 was elected governor of California. In 2006, he won a second term, by which time his nickname ‘The Governator’ had stuck.

Sebastian Coe: Coe once said that running and politics don’t mix but he is a living contradiction of that statement. An Olympic medal winner in both the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles games, he went on to become a member of the British parliament from 1992-1997. Coe was at the forefront when the United Kingdom made its successful bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, and was chairman of the British Olympic Association for those games.

Sunday Indo Living

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