Imran and Benazir: the clash of privilege

Tim McGirk in Islamabad on the bitter rivals who have so much in common
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The cricket imagery was coming in fast and hard. Microphone in hand, Imran Khan stood on top of a metal shipping container that had been dragged into the teeming square of a poor neighbourhood in Rawalpindi.

"Benazir is the World Cup winner of lies and corruption," shouted Imran, and a cheer went up from the rooftop of a nearby mosque, where hundreds of his supporters squatted around the minarets and the white domes. "We have bowled the first two wickets - Benazir and her diseased husband, Asif Zardari, have been removed from office."

The biggest roar of all camewhen he jeered at Ms Bhutto for "licking the boots of Bill Clinton and other Western interests". Pakistan's former cricket captain now dresses in native garb, a long salwar shirt and pantaloons, and his politics are as traditionally Muslim as his clothes. His is a potent message: the Oxford and Harvard-educated Benazir was perceived by many Pakistanis as too foreign-influenced, too alien a ruler for her own land.

The irony of this accusation, coming from a cricket superstar more at home at Lord's or with the English aristocracy than Ms Bhutto had ever been, was completely lost. By his code of honour, it is perfectly acceptable to marry Jemima Goldsmith, the half-Jewish daughter of politician and multi-millionaire Sir James Goldsmith, without being mesmerised by "Western interests".

The hatred between Imran and Ms Bhutto is coming to a head since he announced on Friday that his new Justice Party will contest the 3 February elections. These are being held after Pakistan's President, Farooq Leghari, dismissed Ms Bhutto's government last week. Her cabinet's corruption, along with her queenly arrogance, had made her despised by many Pakistanis, her own party and the President.

Imran and Ms Bhutto rose from remarkably similar backgrounds of feudal privilege. Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was a brilliant, gentrified leftist who become Pakistan's most loved prime minister before he was deposed in a military coup and hanged - the event that politicised his daughter. Imran's parents owned less land than the Bhuttos, but nonetheless came from a clan of Pathan tribal chieftains.

When Imran went to Oxford in the early 1970s, Ms Bhutto was already there. She was reported to have enjoyed as normal a life as any student in the 1970s, but one that might not be seen as entirely fitting for the female premier of a conservative Islamic republic. "Benazir will never say anything about me. I know too much about her," Imran is quoted as saying. And indeed, she has yet to attack Imran directly herself - the smears she delegates to underlings.

Imran had taken his gilded existence for granted until his beloved mother, Shaukat, developed cancer. As he frantically took her from hospital to hospital seeking treatment, he saw in these dingy wards that poor Pakistanis without money for bribes or influence - that is to say, most of the 130 million people - were doomed. He realised there were two Pakistans: the country of "the brown sahibs", who drank whisky, sent their sons and daughters to schools abroad, ran the army and government and owned most of the wealth; and the other land of misery and ignorance, without schools and basic health care.

When Ms Bhutto was elected in 1989, after years of martial law, Imran approached his Oxford classmate for help in building a cancer charity hospital. But this, it seemed, would only be forthcoming in exchange for certain political favours .

Ms Bhutto's first term of office, like the latest one, ended in dismissal for mismanagement and suspected corruption, but in 1993 she was re-elected. When it became apparent that her party's penchant for bribes and kickbacks had merely increased, Imran went on the offensive. Having forged a World Cup-winning team out of a talented but sulky Pakistani side, he was the most popular man in the country. On fund-raising tours for his cancer hospital, he was showered with coins and affection.

Increasingly critical of the prime minister, Imran found himself courted by right-wing Islamic groups. Ms Bhutto's alarmed advisers began attacking Imran as the dupe of Muslim reactionaries or, when he married, "a Jewish conspiracy" bent on undermining Islam and Pakistan.

Then in April a bomb wrecked Imran's hospital, killing seven people. The prime minister rushed to inspect the damage, but when her limousine pulled up, Imran walked away in the rubble. Later he insinuated that some elements of her government might have planted it.

Imran then decided that he would challenge Ms Bhutto politically. The 30m rupees (pounds 750,000) that she promised to repair the hospital after the blast has never materialised. While the building can be mended, the enmity between Pakistan's two most prominent international figures seems irreparable.

Chronicle of an epic quarrel

Early 1994: Imran launches "pressure group" along with retired spymaster Gen Hamid Gul. Bhutto attacks him as duped by conspiracy of coup plotters.

Nov 1995: Imran starts Justice Movement to clean up Pakistan's corrupt politics. Bhutto's aides stop all advertisements for his charity hospital in state-run media. He accuses Bhutto of having his telephones tapped and putting him under surveillance. As Pakistan hosts World Cup, all images of Imran's 1992 World Cup victory are erased.

29 April: Bomb explodes in Imran's hospital, killing seven and wounding 35. He hints Bhutto's agencies might have planted it to keep him out of politics

5 November: Bhutto's government dismissed, suspected of corruption and interfering with police and courts.

8 November: After years of refusing to be drawn into Pakistan's politics, Imran announces his Justice Movement will stand in parliamentary elections.