Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have been in the eye of almost every political storm to engulf the country in recent times. The Panama Papers, detailing offshore accounts and their beneficiaries, brought the party back onto the streets and in direct conflict with the ruling government in a dramatic – and anticlimactic – showdown. It is this state of constant agitation, among numerous other beguiling intricacies, that is forging a new identity for the PTI.
To find meaning in the ideology behind Khan’s enigmatic politics, the Herald met up with him at his residence in Bani Gala on a cool October day, as the PTI was preparing for its ‘lockdown’ of the federal capital — which later turned into a ‘celebration’. The following are excerpts from the conversation:
Herald. If seeking justice is the goal, why does the PTI still feel the need to bring its protest to the streets, when the Supreme Court has begun proceedings on the Panama leaks? Do you not think it will add to your image that you lack faith in the judiciary — or that you are self-righteous, where you speak highly of the courts if a decision is given in your favour and completely discredit them otherwise?
Imran Khan. Do people trust the democratic institutions in Pakistan? The answer is no. Nobody has faith in them. A recent survey at the World Economic Forum revealed that our state institutions have deteriorated further since the time of General Pervez Musharraf and, most alarmingly, that the independence of the judiciary has gone down. Imagine a military dictator having better functioning institutions than eight years of democracy under Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari.
We have higher rates of corruption and lower rates of human development than the whole of the subcontinent. Bear in mind that 20 years ago, we were ahead of them in every way — our per capita income was higher and our human development figures were higher. Today, we are even lagging behind Bangladesh.
Any prosperous country must have strong institutions. The reason for such poverty in Pakistan is not a lack of resources; it is the systematic destruction of our institutions due to corruption. We don’t have any money to run the country, even though we have broken all records in borrowing. Eight years ago, the total debt of Pakistan was 6.1 trillion rupees, but between Sharif and Zardari, this figure has now gone up to almost 23 trillion rupees. That is almost four times an increase — it is a frightening statistic.
Performing in the National Assembly is like winning a poker game on the Titanic — the ship is going down, but you are winning your cards.
Herald. So you are saying that if someone wants justice, the courts are not the place to go?
Khan. Our protest is not about the Supreme Court, it is against all those institutions who were supposed to act once Sharif was caught red-handed in the Panama leaks: the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the Federal Board of Revenue, the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan, Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the Federal Investigation Agency. Above all, the Parliament should have acted. The Public Accounts Committee asked the heads of these institutions to appear and each of them made excuses as to why they could not act against the prime minister. Then the speaker, who is supposed to be neutral, sent my reference to the ECP, even though it was Sharif who had been caught.
So, this protest is against all the institutions which have failed us, and the criminal who has no right to be our prime minister; no constitution of any land would allow it.
Herald. Are you not simultaneously trampling that right for anyone who is not a part of your protest, by wanting to “lock down” the capital?
Khan. All I have said was that I am coming out to protest. Islamabad will be locked down automatically when a million people are out on the streets; activity will cease and it will practically be impossible for the government to function because of it. We will obviously make passages for ambulances, hospitals and the Supreme Court, but it will be physically impossible for them to carry out governance. That is what I mean by a lockdown.
Herald. You are receiving criticism from both outside and inside the PTI by observers who are saying you should be spending more time in the National Assembly and less time on the streets. A report on good governance published recently by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency ranks you, along with Faryal Talpur and Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, as the worst-performing MNAs, although Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been ranked equal to Punjab in terms of governance as a whole. What would you say about that?
Khan. Performing in the National Assembly is like winning a poker game on the Titanic — the ship is going down, but you are winning your cards. The assembly has become meaningless to the people of Pakistan. It is the most boring place on earth. Anyone who values their time goes to the National Assembly and realises it is a sheer waste because no argument of significance takes place. The two main issues are never discussed: corruption and tax evasion.
Firstly, we have the lowest tax-GDP ratio in the world. Secondly, when NAB says the total loss to our economy due to corruption is four trillion rupees – which is higher than our tax collection – it shows that you are clearly wasting your time in the Parliament. Sadly, we never end up talking about these issues because we have a corrupt prime minister and an equally corrupt leader of the opposition, who control the house and do not allow these issues to come forward. Hence, the house is meaningless.
Herald. Despite your estimates of the number of people who would have attended this dharna, is it true that there are still those in your party who are not on the same page or are suffering from “dharna fatigue”? If yes, how do you handle it? A frequent criticism from such quarters is that the PTI should spend more time and energy into making Khyber Pakhtunkhwa a model province as opposed to protesting in Punjab.
Khan. I feel that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the best-performing province in Pakistan because, for the first time, a province is doing what needs to be done: strengthening its institutions. Our police system is the best in the country because it is completely de-politicised and [people are] selected on merit. I challenge any independent analyst of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to disagree with this. Remember that people have to deal with the police directly, and if the institution functions properly, a lot of the public’s problems are solved.
We have brought in a local government system that has never been seen in Pakistan before, where 30 per cent of development funds are going to the districts and people are being empowered right down to the village level. For the first time in two years, the Bank of Khyber has paid off dividends and earned record profits because it runs professionally on merit. If you go to Nathiagali now, you will think you are in Europe, because the system behind it is entirely non-political. We have made the hospitals autonomous and fixed the structure so independent boards are running them, while 60 per cent of Khyber Pakhtunkwa’s population has health insurance now. Our focus in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has remained on human development and the uplifting of institutions.
All I have said was that I am coming out to protest. Islamabad will be locked down automatically when a million people are out on the streets.
Coming back to dharna fatigue, if there are any people in my party who suffer from it, they should not be in the PTI, because that means they are part of the status quo. And the status quo does not like dharnas because they are comfortable with the arrangement where a tiny rich [member of the] elite, like Imran Khan, can live very happily. What they do not realise is that there is chaos in the life of the ordinary man in Pakistan: the small farmers, the contract labourers, the students.
Believe me, there is a very tiny minority in the PTI that does not believe in the dharna. I have never in my 20 years of politics seen such fervour in my party as I have now.
Herald. But this is after the Raiwind March took place. Before that, a large amount of people were reportedly against the move. Would you say this is just speculation?
Khan. There are usually two types of people to be found in political parties: revolutionaries and conservatives. This is a good thing, because it encourages debate and all our decisions are taken after all these opinions are brought forward. Before the Raiwind march, I was saying that we will break all records of attendance, but the sceptics were afraid because they watch too much television, where, sadly, the ruling party’s narrative dominates.
Herald. How much room would you say is there in the PTI for disagreement? If a party member comes to you and says the dharna should not take place, do you accommodate that dissent?
Khan. No decision is taken unilaterally. We debate extensively over everything before reaching a decision. Many people asked, “what if it does not work out?” and I would respond with “what if it does?”
Most of them are usually scared of failure, and my life experience tells me that whoever makes decisions based on that [fear] will never achieve anything great, because they are unwilling to take risks.
For example, in the 1992 World Cup final, we were standing around during the water break discussing how to break England’s partnership. I said that Wasim Akram will bowl next and the entire team disagreed. They said, “What if he fails?” and I said “Well, what if he succeeds?” You have to take these risks. My whole life has been spent taking them. I am not afraid of failure.
Herald. During your last dharna back in 2014, you managed to mobilise a lot of people and sat on the streets for months. When it was eventually called off, there was a sense of disappointment among your workers over the fact that nothing was achieved. Do you not think there will be a level of frustration in your workers if you call it off again without achieving your exact demand?
Khan. Saying that our dharna in 2014 failed is inaccurate. I think it succeeded beyond my imagination, because it began as a protest over electoral rigging, but then became a rights movement. The awareness level in the public increased and it took the PTI’s voice to the village level. If you look at our popularity graphs, proven in the by-elections, it soared much higher than during the 2013 general elections. Our objective from the dharna was to open investigations, and a judicial commission was ultimately formed for that purpose. The 40 findings of the judicial commission – even though the ECP did not act on any of them – were a damning indictment for the election.
Herald. The timing of your dharna scheduled early this month has been crucial. Civil-military relations are at a low point right now and a new chief of army staff is set to be nominated by the end of November. Intentionally or unintentionally, do you not think a dharna at this time will undermine the civilian structure and empower the establishment?
Khan. Tell me what undermines democracy more: the fact that a criminal is the prime minister of the country – someone who is refusing to submit himself for accountability even after being caught red-handed, while the state institutions remain helpless – or the fact that people protest against it? Sharif says he is a democrat, but he is actually acting like a dictator who believes everyone is subservient to him. We are merely reacting to a situation and have used all the means in our power to seek justice through state institutions. Having failed in doing that, we have come to the streets.
The stoop in civil-military relations has nothing to do with us; Sharif has always been a disaster in that department. Considering the threatening, belligerent and anti-Pakistan statements constantly coming from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is ridiculous that the prime minister of our country is directly behind leaking the story that damaged the Pakistan Army internationally. He has actually caused Modi’s narrative to prevail, which is that Nawaz wants to reign in non-state actors, but our army is out of control. Given the situation, this was highly damaging and humiliating for the people of Pakistan.
No decision in PTI is taken unilaterally. We debate extensively over everything before reaching a decision.
The army is involved in the tribal areas, Balochistan, Karachi — even the Chhotu Gang can not be cleared without its help. Considering that terrorism levels are down and people are happy with the armed forces, how can the prime minister of the country deliberately do something like this? He also gave a stupid statement recently about how the PTI is doing all of this with the backing of the army.
Herald. Is that statement not lent legitimacy by the fiasco created by Javed Hashmi during the 2014 dharna when he said your protest was being orchestrated by the powers-that-be and your constant references to the “third umpire”?
Khan. Javed Hashmi was always in touch with the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz and we know he was being paid off by them. Do you really think anybody protests for 126 days on the insistence of the army? If people did not show up on the fourth day, what would we have done? Do you think the army can manage all of this? They could not even manage 30,000 people for Musharraf.
Herald. There are many areas in which observers inside and outside the PTI claim they have done a good job with governing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But which areas would you personally think you could have done better in?
Khan. Higher education, for starters. A lot of other things have been accomplished, but this did not get the attention it should have. I believe we need the best brains sitting together to constantly revamp the curriculum. One of the biggest problems we face is that we have three different curriculums in the country: English-medium, Urdu-medium and madrasas. This is highly damaging because we are producing three different cultures. One of the root causes of fundamentalism in our society is that we are consistently marginalising people. I keep repeating that the 2.2 million children studying in madrasas are being kept out of the mainstream and will inevitably be radicalised. I am not equipped for this myself, but we need academics to converge all three curriculums so that the core syllabus is the same.
Herald. What have you done about this issue so far?
Khan. We have begun teaching English as a subject in government schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which led to 34,000 students from the private sector to shift there. But, unfortunately, this issue has not been given enough importance as yet, and I think this is now one of the most crucial steps for Pakistan. It is such an injustice to the people of the country that they are not given an opportunity to showcase their potential.
Herald. Your supporters range from left-wing progressives to right-wing conservatives. Because of your stance on issues such as advocating talks with the Taliban or granting 300 million rupees in funds to Darul Uloom Haqqania, do you think you have lost a chunk of your liberal supporters?
Khan. I do not target any particular vote bank. In Pakistan, we have a tiny privileged class on one side and a much bigger class on the other, which wants their basic rights because they have been excluded by society. That is the class that I represent. And this is not just another political statement, I have proven it. I made a university which takes in 90 per cent of students for free, based on merit, and gives them a foreign degree. On the other hand, the Shaukat Khanum hospital spends four billion rupees every year on the treatment of poor patients, and there is no difference between them and those who are paying.
It is my ideological belief that the privileged class of Pakistan has crushed the masses; it is apartheid.
Herald. So you are saying that your ideology is based on justice rather than left-wing or right-wing ideologies?
Khan. I look at it from an Islamic perspective. Why is the Caliphate of Medina acknowledged to be the golden age for Muslims? Because they had socioeconomic justice, where everyone was equal before the law. Two of the caliphs ended up defending themselves in court. Every individual was accountable and there was no privileged class.
If you would prefer a Western perspective, I think the politics of the PTI can be compared most closely to Jeremy Corbyn labour party politics in the UK. Everything he says sounds exactly like the PTI ideal.
Another individual who captures my ideology perfectly is Allama Iqbal. Any Muslim who wants justice and socioeconomic equality has to be left-of-centre. I absolutely disagree with neoliberal economics and naked capitalism — it is nothing more than greed.
The stoop in civil-military relations has nothing to do with us. Sharif has always been a disaster in that department.
Herald. Before the 2013 elections, you had always said you were against “traditional politics” in Pakistan and that you would bring about a new system. However, you were told by many at the time that your mass mobilisation of people would only translate into electoral success if you brought electables on board. After 2011, PTI opened its gates and let in a lot of people, including many traditional political heavyweights. Do you think it has hurt your party's founding principles?
Khan. As I have stated before, I do not make decisions based on fear. Thinking that these people might enter the party and do something not in line with our ideology is impossible. If I am the leader, the philosophy that I began with must prevail, and I have full confidence that only those who agree with our ideology will remain. Many have come and gone because of this.
I looked for 'snow-white' politicians in Pakistan for a long time, but they were nowhere to be found. On the other hand, are 'jet-black' crooks. Then there are many shades of grey in between, which you have to sift through. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing one from the other, because anyone who has stepped into the political arena has their detractors and supporters. If I see something positive in them and feel that they can add to the party, I bring them onboard.
Moreover, when we form the government, the institutions will not be subservient to anyone. Ask anybody if I have ever asked for a personal favour at Shaukat Khanum or Namal College. If I can not do it, neither can anybody else in my party.
Herald. You have largely remained beyond critique of corruption yourself, but some within the top PTI leadership have serious allegations against them. The general impression is that you do not do anything about this because they are close to you and enjoy strategic positions within the party. Should there not be a mechanism within PTI to deal with such allegations?
Khan. It is not the job of a political party to open up investigations against its members. These are just allegations; what tools do we have to explore them? With all the agencies that the government has at its disposal, if they do not have anything on our people, it must mean they are clean. It is the job of the opposition to accuse, but the government does not need to accuse anyone when they can simply open up an investigation and catch hold of them. Otherwise, this means they are incompetent.
They keep naming Jahangir Tareen and Aleem Khan for everything. When you bring somebody into an important position in your party, you have to hire the best man for the job, who is usually the one with the most experience. Now, if I want somebody to organise the party for me, who could be more capable than Tareen to become the secretary general? He has made model farms from scratch and, not being an industrialist, has also built model sugar mills. He must have a certain skill set, right? But all they see is that he has money. What should I do if he has money?
Herald. What lessons in your personal and political life have you taken away in the past five years?
Khan. Those who should step into politics never do. The educated ones on whom society invests their money are not interested in sacrificing their comfort zones, so they take the easy option. The elite of our country are too soft; they do not have the determination or toughness it takes to survive in this political environment, while the ones who do, try to run away soon enough. This is the problem: those who can contribute do not come forward and those who come forward do not contribute.
The more you challenge yourself, the more you evolve. I keep learning all the time, but I think the dharna of 2014 was the greatest education for me: one hundred and twenty-six days of protest was a big learning experience, as I met so many different kinds of people during this time and saw their determination to change the country.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.