What is Imran's game?

Imran Khan is winning support, but can he avoid corruption?
February 22, 2012
Imran Khan: surging in popularity, but winning power involves unsavoury compromises

“Oh God, he’s chewing gum,” a party operative whispers. “That’s not good.” We’re squatting barefoot in a mosque in rural Punjab, craning over a sea of heads as local dignitaries make speeches. In the centre, settled on cushions flanked by party officials, sits Imran Khan: freshly showered, wearing an impeccable shalwar kameez and a look of concentration. The only oversight is the gum.

For 15 years, Pakistan’s greatest living sporting legend languished on the sidelines of Pakistani politics: his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), holds just one seat in parliament, its leader written off by Islamabad’s commentariat as arrogant and naïve. But as things now stand, Imran Khan could become a major political player.

The change came in late 2011. Squeezed by the stagnant economy and corruption, smarting from humiliations doled out by the United States and fed up of the same old political faces—Sharifs, Bhutto minions minus their charismatic leader, Musharraf’s telecasts from London—Pakistan’s middle classes had few other places to look. Untainted by time in power, Imran has become, for many, the least worst option. In particular, his vow to end hereditary politics, his broader message of hope and change and his promise to restore Pakistani pride and “self-respect” resonates with the aspirant and frustrated young: nearly 70 per cent of the population is under 30. Added to this, the army detests President Zardari’s administration and sees in Imran an amenable future partner.

After a rally in Lahore on 31st October drew more than 100,000 people, the media began to take him seriously. Polls show increasing support, and senior figures from other parties have started to flock to the PTI. New political alliances have brought more resources, and Khan’s face now appears almost hourly on Pakistan’s cycle of news and political chat shows. In Pakistan, polls are unreliable and it’s impossible to tell how much of the hyperbole surrounding Khan will translate into votes in the March Senate elections. If Pakistan directly elected its president, it is conceivable that Khan would win, but its parliamentary elections demand many local compromises.

So what does he stand for? During a long, bumpy journey in a convoy of white 4X4s he tells me much that will be music to liberal western ears. “We must invest massively in education—in fact, declare a national education emergency.” He’d pull the army out of Pakistan’s tribal areas (“it’s just red rag to a bull”); before warming to his pet theme: taking out “the criminals running the show.” In other words: boost education, negotiate for peace, fight corruption.

Other views won’t play so well in Washington and London. He insists there were no militant Taliban in Pakistan before 2006: the “immoral, insane” American operations in the northwest tribal regions created them. There will be no long-term solution in Afghanistan without the input of Iran, he adds, and he has no objections to the Taliban running Afghanistan: “It’s not the job of the west to worry about whether a government is fundamentalist or not, it’s up to the people of the country.” Women, he points out, are no “freer” under the current Afghan regime than they were before.

His critics have seized on this, along with his open seriousness about religion, to paint him as “clean-shaven Taliban.” This may be mudslinging from a political elite wrong-footed by his rise (the moniker came from a human rights lawyer close to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Khan’s views on the US are certainly in line with the majority of his countrymen, and a “reset” in disastrous US-Pakistani relations may be no bad thing. But if you assumed that the one-time playboy cricketer who married Jemima Goldsmith automatically represents a west-friendly option, think again.

Others have different reasons for concern. He’s a blank canvas, sceptics tell me, thin on policy detail. During our car journey, I press Khan on his manifesto. Asked about the basics of fiscal policy, he waves them away, insisting that if you eradicate corruption, the rest follows. Asked how he would do this, he says you “only” need about 200 clean people at the top, heading the police, the government, the major institutions. The rest will trickle down. Asked how he and his party can stay clean in a country where politics is so dirty, he glosses once again: it’s just a question of not promising too much to the wrong people, he says.

Yet winning power, inevitably, involves unsavoury political allegiances. In Sindh province, for instance, most rural poor vote for whomever their landlord backs, which explains the PPP’s embedded support. City dwellers largely vote along religious or ethnic lines, which is why the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), with its strong base of Urdu-speaking Muslims, is so powerful in Karachi. If Khan were to come to power, he would need to cut local political deals to shore up support—this would inevitably involve political compromise. Power in Pakistan has generally been available only to those willing to get their hands dirty.

So who can Khan turn to for political support? He has ruled out working with the PPP and PML-N, the two parties that have ruled—in between military dictatorships—since independence. But several Musharraf-era figures have already joined Imran’s PTI, including Khurshid Kasuri, foreign minister from 2002 and 2007, and Imran tells me he’s open to “good candidates” from the more liberal-secular MQM party.

Already, there are mutterings among the party faithful about the calibre of many of the new members. Imran does not seem interested in enriching himself in the manner of so many past rulers. But a politician’s reputation can be strongly affected by the friends he chooses. One of Khan’s new allies is Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who until early 2011 was President Zardari’s foreign minister. He may have quit the government for noble reasons, but having operated as the PPP’s top man in the Punjab for years, he remains closely associated with that party. In a country so used to disappointment, hope can fast fade to cynicism if you’re perceived to be “just like all the rest.”

Khan admits to some major political misjudgments over the years. “At first, I really thought Musharraf was sincere,” he recalls. “But I guess once you fake sincerity, the rest is easy.” Imran is not faking sincerity, but the task ahead may be harder than he thinks. His image as a crusader against the kleptocratic elites is both his most bankable asset—and his biggest problem.