First cricket, now pol­i­tics: Imran seeks glory

PTI chief says that un­like the 2013 elec­tion, his party is pre­pared for polls this year

Gulf News - - Pakistan -

Clad in a track­suit and an­kle weights, Imran Khan lounges in a plush chair and an­nounces this is his po­lit­i­cal mo­ment: the World Cup cricket cham­pion be­lieves power in Pak­istan is his for the tak­ing.

Af­ter years in the wilder­ness the for­mer all-rounder is rid­ing a wave of pop­ulism as ri­val par­ties stum­ble, de­cry­ing the ve­nal­ity of Pak­istan’s po­lit­i­cal elite and promis­ing an end to ram­pant cor­rup­tion if he can win a gen­eral elec­tion due this year.

Of­ten likened to US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump for his pop­ulist flair and Twit­ter tirades, he prefers to draw par­al­lels with for­mer US pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Bernie San­ders or Bri­tish op­po­si­tion leader Jeremy Cor­byn.

“It is one of the most ridicu­lous com­par­isons,” he sighs, when asked about Trump dur­ing an in­ter­view with AFP at his hill­side home near Islamabad.

But de­spite once de­scrib­ing a po­ten­tial meet­ing with the US pres­i­dent as a “bit­ter pill”, Khan says he would be pre­pared to work with Trump to stop the “in­san­ity” in Afghanistan.

“This war will only end through talks,” he says. “The so­lu­tion does not lie in more bombs and guns.”

In the West, the man who led Pak­istan’s 1992 World Cup cham­pion cricket team is typ­i­cally seen through the prism of celebrity, with mem­o­ries of his head­line-grab­bing ro­mances and play­boy rep­u­ta­tion stand­ing out.

Back home, the 65-year-old cuts a more con­ser­va­tive per­sona as a de­vout Mus­lim, of­ten car­ry­ing prayer beads and nur­tur­ing be­liefs in liv­ing saints.

To his le­gions of fans, Khan is un­cor­rupted and gen­er­ous, spend­ing his years off the pitch build­ing hos­pi­tals and a uni­ver­sity.

“[He] de­serves a chance over all the other leeches,” says sup­porter Shahid Khan, a 26-yearold en­gi­neer.

But Khan is also de­scribed as im­pul­sive and brash, too tol­er­ant of mil­i­tancy and fos­ter­ing close links to Is­lamists, amid spec­u­la­tion over his ties to Pak­istan’s pow­er­ful mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment.

‘Take the knocks’

Khan en­tered Pak­istan’s chaotic pol­i­tics more than two decades ago promis­ing to fight graft and build a wel­fare state in the na­tion of more than 200 mil­lion.

But for his first 15 years as a politi­cian he sput­tered, his Pak­istan Tehreek-e-In­saf (PTI) party never se­cur­ing more than a few seats in the na­tional assem­bly.

“Sports teaches you that life is not in a straight line,” he says. “You take the knocks. You learn from your mis­takes.”

In 2012 PTI’s pop­u­lar­ity surged with hordes of young Pak­ista­nis who grew up idol­is­ing Khan as a cricket icon reach­ing vot­ing age.

The wave of youth sup­port ac­com­pa­nied fes­ter­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion among the mid­dle class with the coun­try’s cor­rupt and dy­nas­tic po­lit­i­cal elite.

Khan ad­mits his party was ill-pre­pared to cap­i­talise on the gains in time for the 2013 elec­tion.

But that was then. “For the first time, we’ll be go­ing into elec­tions pre­pared,” he says of 2018.

He points to his party’s gov­er­nance of north­west­ern Khy­ber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) prov­ince as a blue­print for na­tion­wide pro­grammes fo­cus­ing on hu­man de­vel­op­ment.

Rahimul­lah Yusufzai, a vet­eran jour­nal­ist based in KP’s cap­i­tal Pe­shawar, says the party has done well on leg­is­la­tion — but im­ple­men­ta­tion has been slow.

Oth­ers fear Khan’s mer­cu­rial na­ture is un­suited to be­ing prime min­is­ter.

Last month he made head­lines af­ter ask­ing his sup­port­ers in a tweet to pray he finds “per­sonal hap­pi­ness which, ex­cept for a few years, I have been de­prived of”, fol­low­ing still un­ver­i­fied claims he had mar­ried his spir­i­tual ad­viser.

“Imran Khan is very, very im­pul­sive — a trait lead­ers score low on,” says Har­ris Chaudhry, a 23-year-old stu­dent.

Stand on mil­i­tants

De­trac­tors have also at­tacked Khan for his re­peated calls to hold talks with mil­i­tants and for his party’s al­liance with Sami ul Haq, the so-called Fa­ther of the Tal­iban whose madrasas once ed­u­cated mil­i­tant supre­mos Mul­lah Omar and Jalalud­din Haqqani.

Khan de­fends the part­ner­ship, say­ing Haq is in­stru­men­tal to re­form and help­ing poor stu­dents at risk of be­ing rad­i­calised in Pak­istan’s long war on ex­trem­ism.

Many be­lieve this is the best po­lit­i­cal op­por­tu­nity Khan will ever have.

His arch neme­sis Nawaz Sharif was ousted from the premier­ship in July, leav­ing the rul­ing Pak­istan Mus­lim League-Nawaz in dis­ar­ray; while the once mighty Pak­istan Peo­ple’s Party has wilted into a shell of its for­mer self.

This elec­tion, Khan says, is PTI’s “big­gest chance” at vic­tory, even as doubts re­ver­ber­ate af­ter his party lost a by-elec­tion this week.


PTI chief Imran Khan is rid­ing a wave of pop­ulism as the coun­try pre­pares for gen­eral elec­tions this year.

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