A Kennedy for Pakistan?

Imran Khan.jpg

AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

Imran Khan waves to his supporters during a rally in Lahore, Pakistan, October 30, 2011

This is the eighth in an NYRblog series about the fate of democracy in different parts of the world.

Pakistan is almost unrecognizable from the country I knew a decade ago. In the late 1990s, hotels and religious shrines like Lahore’s Mian Mir tomb weren’t fortified by concentric rings of security, and household chores didn’t need to be planned days in advance because of electricity and gas rationing. Market-baked bread for dinner could be bought for coins instead of notes, and scenic areas like the Swat Valley were still holiday destinations rather than militant hotbeds.

Abroad, such security and economic woes are often ascribed to Pakistan’s challenging geopolitical situation: militancy fanned by the US-led war in Afghanistan, a ruinously expensive and self-damaging rivalry with India, an army tangled up in an embrace with radical jihadists seen as a buffer against external threats. But for many Pakistanis, four years after the end of Pervez Musharraf’s military government and the restoration of meaningful democracy, part of the blame also lies with a feckless civilian leadership.

The long-term problems facing Pakistan were exacerbated by misrule during the Musharraf years. Yet violence and inflation remain high and job creation low under the elected government of President Asif Zardari—whose wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in late 2007, while campaigning for the January, 2008 elections. His administration has been mired in corruption allegations (Zardari is accused of stashing $60 million in kickbacks in one Swiss bank account alone) and continuous sparring with Pakistan’s army and judiciary.

This is all the more troubling because there should reasons to be hopeful about Pakistan’s future. Democracy seems to be taking firmer root. The military’s ability to run roughshod over politicians is under challenge. Over-centralized state power is being devolved to the provinces. Trade with India is finally being liberalized. The war in neighboring Afghanistan may soon begin winding down. Yet it’s hard to find much optimism in daily life.

Young Pakistanis in particular—and two-thirds of the population are thirty or younger—are increasingly disillusioned by the political establishment. Many seem to want a sharp rupture with the status quo: an end to what they regard as the entrenched culture of incompetence and kleptocracy in Islamabad that has left them with little opportunity and dangerous insecurity.

Dozens of private television channels, a hundred million mobile phones, and increased urbanization are connecting Pakistanis as never before. On the popular, and often heated, evening talk shows that have become the country’s electronic equivalent to a vast public square, a prickly new nationalism can be seen. Commentators, including retired generals, spread conspiracy theories (for example, instinctively attributing acts of terrorism in Pakistan to “foreign hands”), and blame the US, the traditional political parties, and sometimes even the army itself.

Most likely to be cast as heroes are the media, the country’s independent-minded Supreme Court, which has recently indicted the Prime Minister on contempt of court charges (related to the corruption investigation of Zardari), and the Pakistani “people.” There is much talk of democratic ideals, but little love for the country’s current crop of politicians, and so there seems to be a yearning for a new kind of leader able to break the cycle of weakness and mediocrity.

Into this situation has surged the former cricket superstar Imran Khan, who in recent months has suddenly become the country’s most popular political figure. My first intimation that people might be taking Khan seriously as a politician came in February 2011, in Karachi, when I asked the driver of a car belonging to my publisher whom he’d vote for if elections were held today.

“Imran Khan,” he replied without hesitation.

I was surprised. Khan’s fifteen-year-old party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan Movement for Justice, had never managed to win more than a single seat in the country’s 272-member parliament. Yet my publisher’s driver was on to something. By October, well over 100,000 people were thronging a Khan-led PTI rally in Lahore, an event that seemed to change Pakistan’s political landscape. It had been billed as a make-or-break chance for Khan to show, finally, whether he was capable of building a true mass movement.

The size of the support it generated clearly shook Punjab’s traditional power-brokers, the brothers Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N). I know a university professor who went, and he said it was the largest such gathering he had ever seen. He was particularly struck by the socio-economic diversity of those present, by the large numbers of women as well as men, and by the orderliness and unforced enthusiasm of the crowd, in contrast to the rent-a-mob environment typical of big political gatherings.


In December, Khan proved his appeal was not limited to Punjab, drawing perhaps 200,000 people to a PTI rally in Karachi, a figure rivaling in size some of the biggest recent events held by Sindh’s ruling parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the United National Movement (MQM). Karachi is divided into communities that tend to vote on ethno-linguistic lines, and has been beset in recent years by frequent violence among different groups. Yet an artist friend of mine who attended said the crowd was ethnically mixed. Nor, she told me, was it composed solely of the middle-class citizens thought to be Khan’s core supporters; poorer Karachiites were very much in attendance. In a nation-wide poll conducted around this time, 81 percent of respondents picked Khan as the person best suited to run the country. (By contrast, only 2 percent chose Zardari, head of the PPP.)

Khan now plans to stage rallies in Quetta, capital of the conflict-ridden province of Balochistan, where some ethnic Baloch, angered by years of mistreatment, are pushing for independence and fighting an insurgency against Islamabad. He also has said he will take his movement to second-tier cities around the country. Meanwhile he is building a party machine: signing up supporters, establishing steering committees and think-tanks, poaching experienced politicians from his competitors, and launching outreach campaigns through television appearances, text messages, and also online. His stated goal is victory in the upcoming national elections, presently scheduled for early next year.

What accounts for Khan’s sudden rise? His policies, while evidently popular, offer at best only a partial explanation. The key planks of his platform are speedy ends to corruption and to terrorism. But all mainstream political parties in Pakistan say they want these things (though none have been so brazen as to offer a deadline of 90 days to achieve them, as Khan has done, though without saying much about how he would do it).

Khan further promises to reject foreign aid and US interference, saying he will require the US to treat Pakistan as an equal rather than as a client. Such rhetoric may distinguish him from President Zardari and the PPP, widely thought to be soft on America, but not from the Sharif brothers of the PML-N, who similarly call for more Pakistani independence and doing without US aid. Meanwhile, Khan’s talk of Pakistan as an “Islamic welfare state” – think Sweden, but Muslim and with nukes—is straight from the playbook of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Zardari’s father-in-law and founder of the PPP, who was the country’s leader for most of the 1970s. (As with much of what Khan proposes, the term “Islamic Welfare State” could mean just about anything: an egalitarian redistributive society to liberals, a religion-based theocracy to conservatives.)

It’s also hard to credit the PTI’s party organization for Khan’s remarkable upsurge. Khan’s team seems to be building on the back of his popularity, not the other way around. While I know several very talented people in their 30s and 40s who have joined his party, often entering competitive politics for the first time, the bulk of the electoral heavy-hitters with whom Imran is increasingly surrounded are familiar faces on the political scene, established former members of the various PMLs and the PPP. Many of them appear to be following the longstanding Pakistani tradition of switching sides to back whomever looks most likely to win.

The military, as rumored, may well be tacitly supporting Khan; his unwillingness to distance himself from the country’s coup-prone security forces or to publicly take a hard line against Pakistan’s sectarian and Taliban militants have been striking. But I have seen no direct evidence of such backing. (Then again, I wouldn’t; that’s the point of tacit support.) In any case, being backed by the military and being politically popular are by no means the same thing in Pakistan, as Musharraf discovered just a few years ago.

Instead, it seems to me, Imran Khan’s popularity is owed in very large part not to what he is saying but to the fact that he is saying it. When I asked my publisher’s driver, a Karachi Pashtun, why he supported Khan, his answer was straightforward. “He says what he means,” he told me. “He visited my neighborhood with no big entourage. No team of guards.” He added: “He’s a real man. He’s different from the others.”

Khan cuts a telegenic figure, a handsome Kennedy juxtaposed with the various Nixons of Zardari and the Sharifs. When he rails against the political establishment, crowds roar. He has not, they know, been part of that establishment. When he says that he wants to live in a Pakistan where even Presidents and Prime Ministers are pulled over for speeding, or that he wants to end “family rule” of political parties and hold internal elections for all posts in the PTI, including his own, there is thunderous applause. His fans relish these jabs at his dynastic rivals. More importantly, they believe him: unlike other politicians, they think he is speaking the truth.


I suspect Khan gets this, and seeks to use his unusual background to his advantage. Khan was born and raised in Lahore, in the heart of Punjab, to a Pashtun family. He is therefore neither entirely Pashtun, nor Punjabi, but a hybrid, which is to say he is Pakistani. Many millions of Pakistanis reside in provinces outside those in which their parents were born; tens of millions reside in provinces where the language they speak is not that spoken by the province’s majority. Nawaz Sharif may be a Punjabi to non-Punjabis. Asif Zardari may be a Sindhi to non-Sindhis. But Imran Khan’s identity is more complicated, and therefore more inclusive. Electorally, in a country riven by inter-ethnic violence, that is likely to be a powerful asset.

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Imran Khan bowling in a cricket match

The second element in the Imran Khan story is success. Though he attended Oxford, it was on the cricket field that his achievements stood out. A player not precociously gifted (in his early years he was dogged by the sobriquet “Imran Can’t”), Khan had to work at his game. And he did, becoming one of the greatest fast bowlers of the modern era, and then, even more remarkably, an outstanding batsman. He was probably the best of a gifted international generation of all-rounders, cricketers who can both bat and bowl well, and he led the Pakistan national side to a famous victory in the 1992 World Cup.

Finally, there is Khan’s remarkable record of philanthropy, in particular his Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital. Set up in Lahore as a charitable organization in 1994, after years of vigorous fund-raising by Khan, the hospital is named after his mother, who died of the disease. It operates on an enormous scale, serving 150,000 patients and conducting 3 million diagnostic tests annually. In a country blighted by poor public health services, and alarmingly deficient in cutting-edge cancer care, Shaukat Khanum is inspiringly efficient and egalitarian, treating patients irrespective of their ability to pay. Plans are underway to build branches in other cities.

Khan was already a post-ethnic, world-cup-winning philanthropist at the time of the 2002 elections, yet his PTI was able to secure just a solitary parliamentary seat. (He resigned in 2007 to protest Musharraf’s running for president while still head of the army.) Since that time he has hung in there and paid his dues, and the PTI mounted an energetic relief operation after the devastating floods of 2010. But the big difference between then and now is that Pakistan itself has changed in the interim.

After a dozen years of disastrous military rule followed by corruption-riddled democracy, the economy has stalled, tens of thousands have been killed in militant violence, and the reputations of the army and the major civilian parties have plummeted to all-time lows. Young, increasingly urbanized, and interconnected as never before, Pakistanis are ready for something new. Many want what Khan is promising—however abstract his ideas are—and with television, the Internet, and above all cell phone text messages liberating him from the need to rely on intermediaries, he is appealing to them directly. He is the only major politician speaking stirringly of national greatness, rhetoric particularly attractive to a younger generation that has grown up amid the country’s apparent decline.

Pakistan is organized according to a parliamentary system, not a winner-take-all presidential one; elections are decided in constituency-by-constituency match-ups. Regardless of his personal popularity, it is by no means clear whether Khan can build a winning party, or cobble one together from pieces of other parties. Nor is it certain, if his party does become a potent electoral force, how different from the current political establishment it will then be.

And there is far from universal agreement that Khan does say what he means. Some of Khan’s detractors accuse him of being a hypocritical former playboy, opposed to elite values now but a regular of exclusive London nightclubs before. Others suggest he is what’s known in Pakistan as a “beard-in-the-stomach,” a closet religious conservative, or an agent of the army and intelligence establishment. But Khan has tapped a powerful new mood at a time when the old order is weak. Such circumstances have, in the past, produced ground-breaking leaders (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto again comes to mind) who shaped the national narrative—often, sadly, to the country’s detriment. Such is the promise of Imran Khan, and possibly the danger.

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