ISLAMABAD: Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi, the exceptionally talented cricketer who took the political plunge in 1996, is almost certain to be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan with his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) having taken a massive lead in the National Assembly election 2018. Pakistan voters were swayed by Imran Khan's promise of an Islamic welfare state and a "New Pakistan" which had no place for the corrupt, more jobs for the youth, better infrastructure including more schools and robust health facilities.
The suave, debonair and UK-educated Imran Khan's direct attack on his main rivals and the leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Pakistan Peoples Party, several of whom have been convicted and jailed for graft with the most notable being former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, ensured a direct connection with the voters.
While Imran has been in politics for almost 22 years now, he has managed to keep a clean image with maybe the only shortcoming being his inexperience and larger than life stature because of his cricketing exploits including the One Day International World Cup victory in 1992.
Born in a prosperous Pashtun family on October 5, 1952, in Lahore, Imran did his schooling from the elite all-boys Aitchison College. He then went to England for his graduation from Oxford University in 1975 where he studied philosophy, politics and economics for his Bachelor's degree.
He made his international cricket debut in the Test against England at Birmingham on June 3, 1971 and went on to play for Pakistan till March 1992. His last match for Pakistan was also the pinnacle of his career as he led his team to ODI World Cup win against England at Melbourne on March 25, 1992.
With Pakistan witnessing regular political instability and weak national governments, Imran founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in 1996. He entered Pakistan's National Assembly after winning from Mianwali in Punjab in the 2002 elections. But he then gave an election boycott call during the 2008 polls and started to drum up support by organising public rallies across the country against corruption and inefficiency by the government.
The PTI registered a win in the 2013 elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and formed a government. He then started taking on his rivals - PML (N) and PPP - head on and emerged as the severest critic of Nawaz Sharif.
His massive rallies in 2014 resulted in Sharif clamping down on the PTI leadership with an iron hand but the move boomeranged and led to a massive surge in Imran's popularity. With rivals accusing Imran of being a front for the all-powerful Pakistani Army, the PTI chief also played a prominent role in the Panama Papers leak scandal against Sharif.
Imran also used the allegations of his closeness to the army by his rivals to launch a counterattack, pointing out in a New York Times interview in May 2018 that it was "the Pakistan Army and not an enemy army".
His campaign during the 2018 elections revolved around proving a clean and corruption-free government to a new Pakistan in addition to the creation of millions of jobs. Both promises caught the attention of the voters as Pakistani youth faced with lack of formal employment opportunities were becoming a fertile ground for terror groups active in India and Afghanistan.
He has been a vocal critic of Sharif for the former PM's closeness with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He, however, advocated a peaceful solution to the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. He is yet to enunciate a clear India policy but on Thursday asked India to take a step forward following which Pakistan will take two.
Imran has also been overtly critical of the United States of America's policy in Afghanistan and the hardline stance against Taliban. He has been labelled "Taliban Khan" by his critics for his soft stand towards the terror group and for advocating dialogue with them.
His personal life has been extremely colourful resulting in three marriages and numerous alleged affairs. He married a British billionaire's daughter Jemima Goldsmith in 1995, which ended in a divorce after nine years. He then married BBC journalist Reham Khan in 2015. The two divorced after 10 months. His third marriage was with his spiritual guide Bushra Maneka in April 2018.
After over two decades in politics, Imran Khan is finally getting the chance to chart a new course for his country and lead it to a better future just like he did during his playing days with the Pakistani cricket team.