26 Jan 2012

Imran Khan: saying what Pakistan wants to hear

John Sparks on his meeting with Imran Khan, whose political star is rising despite his party currently having no seats in Pakistan’s parliament.

Most politicians will give you five minutes if you ask nicely enough – but Imran Khan is no ordinary politician.

The former Pakistan cricket captain and philanthropist is a man in high demand. When we drove up to his Tuscan-style villa, overlooking the suburbs of the nation’s capital Islamabad, I thought he would probably turn up to meet us. I was wrong.

Just a few months ago, something happened in Pakistan that astounded the country’s political pundits. Mr Khan’s ‘Movement for Justice Party’ (PTI) held a rally his home town of Lahore. Organisers secured a roomy venue and booked a couple popular singers to supplement the bill. The end result staggered everyone.  150,000 people turned up – one the largest political gatherings in the country’s history.

Watch John Sparks’ film from the campaign trail here

Strange really when you consider the former cricketer has spent fifteen years in the wilderness, chasing the voters with little success. His party doesn’t even have a seat in parliament. But something’s changed in Pakistan and Mr Khan is reaping the benefit.

We’d come to the nation’s capital, Islamabad, to find out exactly what that was, but when we got through the gates of his home we were told we’d have to wait a few days. His personal assistant said “Imran’s exhausted. He’s been on the go for months. Please understand.”

A list of challenges

Still, that gave us time to reflect on Pakistan’s current difficulties – which include rampant inflation, an electricity and gas shortage, the failure of the vast majority to pay any tax, mass disillusionment in the current coalition government and the threat of militant attacks. I should add that is not a definitive list.

It’s even worse in Karachi – Pakistan’s fractious mega-city of 18 million. Ethnic turf wars and vicious street battles between supporters of the city’s main political grouping left more than a thousand people dead last year. It’s not surprising then, that many of the city’s residents we spoke to were desperate for a change.

In a badly lit basement we found a team of young PTI volunteers, banging away at computers – some editing campaign videos, others posting snaps. There I found Imran Ghazali firing off tweets – at least when the power was working.  I asked him why he supported Imran Khan: “Well the main thing is change – and hope too. Change and hope.” It sounded like a certain American politician we all know – and yes, they’ve rolled out a ‘yes we Khan’ logo.

Campaign backed by ‘urbanites’

It’s younger urbanites like this bunch that have helped power Mr Khan’s campaign. An Ohio State graduate, Mr Ghazali has brought American-style electioneering to the city – despite some initial bemusement. “People used to joke about us,” said Mr Ghazali. “You can’t do anything with a ‘Facebook party’ they said. But we gave them a big surprise when we got hundreds of thousands to the rally,” he added.

When we got back to Islamabad, we found our luck had changed. A chat with the party’s charming, British-born media chief had smoothed the way. We’d attend a rally with Mr Khan and get the chance to do an interview a few days later.

So it was off to Bhalwal, a rural town in seat-rich Punjab. We travelled in convoy with Imran Khan’s brand new armoured car in the lead. We were soon surrounded by supporters with vehicles decked out in party flags, their drivers weaving in and out at speed. We double-checked our seat-belts and hoped for the best.

Further on, we were halted by hundreds of supporters equipped with placards and rose petals, flung in the armoured car’s general direction. Was this a political movement or a personality cult I wondered as we tried to keep up.

Tens of thousands turned up to the rally – an enraptured mass which greeted him with gusto – and if there’s a campaign pledge that really resonates, it’s Mr Khan’s promise to ‘rid the country of corruption in 90 days’. It sounded hopelessly optimistic to me – but devotees in the crowd told us it would happen, ‘because Imran said so’.


Later I got a chance to ask him about it. In ‘Khan’s world’ corruption starts at the top and trickles down below; “the big corruption (in this country) is the prime minister and his cabinet. The moment you have a prime minister and cabinet that is honest, most of your corruption is gone.”

The solution is simple he argues – appoint the right people at the top and the rest will follow: “You basically need 200 people in Pakistan, clean people who are good managers. You select them from the police – get the best police officers – get your high court judges right… you need 200 clean people in Pakistan.”

Getting the right people has worked at the highly respected charity hospital which Mr Khan founded in 1996. But the government of Pakistan will prove a tougher nut than the ‘Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Centre.’ I asked Mr Khan whether he wasn’t raising unrealistic expectations but we waved me off. This is a man who thinks he can do it.

He’s got rippling self-confidence on his side – but his chief advantage may amount to this – he’s never been in government before. Pakistanis are sick of the usual suspects and who knows – they might be about to give him a shot.