People & Society

Citizen Khan: Leading the party with no track record but a great soundtrack

Updated 13 Aug, 2018 04:36pm
Imran Khan delivers an address in 2013 | M Arif, White Star
Imran Khan delivers an address in 2013 | M Arif, White Star

Imran Khan has reached Renala Khurd by helicopter but won’t enter the campaign trailer until the roof has been cleared of unauthorised figures. Amidst a flurry of acrimony, some local dignitaries, more comfortable on the roof than among the crowd, are made to get down. The trailer door finally swings wide open and the party chairman springs on board, bringing along a shower of rose petals that he proceeds to brush off his person.

Seeing some unfamiliar faces on board, he looks a trifle self-conscious, then squares his shoulders and gazes straight ahead and away. Disappearing into the back of the trailer, he reemerges a few minutes later, looking like someone who has just dunked his head under water, and proceeds upstairs to address the rally.

“He is a man of very simple tastes,” supporters emphasise to me in his hometown of Lahore. “They say that he can just throw a blanket on the floor and go to sleep, and that he relishes sitting down to meals at the roadside dhaabas where truck drivers eat.” A cosmopolitan man, and yet a simple one — no better combination than that. That minimalist, almost ascetic quality certainly seems to be in evidence on a visibly thinner and older-looking Khan’s campaign trail. The inside of his trailer is stark white, picked out in lime green. Lunch is served in styrofoam boxes, with cans of warm Coke, and senior party officials use crumbling plastic spoons to ladle biryani on to paper plates adorned with birthday clowns.

Birthday clowns are quite in keeping with the prevailing atmosphere in the trailer. What ensues feels more like an alfresco picnic for the local branch of a multinational corporation than a meeting of local politicians to smoothen out points of the campaign agenda. Observers used to seeing far greater protocol and a hierarchy of fetching and carrying at such political meets can be left somewhat bemused by the lack of miyaans, saahabs, mohtarmas,and even bhaa’is and bahans in this setting where junior and senior members – though not staff – address the chairman and each other by first name, and do the fetching and carrying themselves without great fanfare. Are these even serious politicians? It is a question that has haunted Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) for at least 15 of the past 17 years that it has been around.

Serious enough, many might argue, seeing the number and kinds of people who have flocked to join the party in recent months. To come out of the political wilderness with such a bang, PTI must have done something right. The overwhelming association of the party with one man and his cricketing world is being offset now to a certain degree as Khan surrounds himself with leading technocrats and professionals, many first-time politicians, and some less jaded-looking members of the traditional political class (amidst plenty of controversy over the jadedness of the last).

Given the rapid influx of so many new faces, a certain nervousness can be sensed among the party’s old – or let us say older– guard each time an unfamiliar name is mentioned. Who will responsibilities be assigned to now – to good, old-time supporters and party workers,or to more high-profile opportunists? While fascist discipline or even slavish obedience seems to form little part in PTI’s internal structure, its politicians do appear to distinguish themselves by carrying their hearts on their sleeves, opinions about fellow members on their faces, and have been known to tweet their mildly dusty linen in public. As faces come and go, and then comeback, whatever the policy dissensions within the party,there appears to be consensus on one point — the personal incorruptibility of a single man.

Khan reclines at an awkward angle in a deep brown leather chair, a rare concession to comfort in an otherwise spartan-looking trailer, and offers measured,thoughtful and tireless responses to journalists’ queries. However pointed a question, his tone remains even while he seeks to explain his point of view. This appears to be a far different Khan from the cricketer known to be quick to take offense and cut those who displeased him. In his 2011 book, Pakistan: A Personal History, an introspective account of the country as he has experienced it, he paints his past life as one of selfish heedlessness and thoughtless disregard towards the underprivileged of the country. This is before his evolution and transformation into a better human being.

Being so readily accepting of past mistakes and political miscalculations can be a disarming quality in a leading political figure. Many of Khan’s failures can, in fact, be interpreted as his strengths. They prove to his supporters that he is not a wily, scheming politician, but rather a simple, clean-living, ordinary citizen. Even if the failure involves not always backing democratic processes to the hilt due to having too keen an eye on end results and the‘good of the country’. A one-time admirer of the former general, when faced with the true nature of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s government, Khan and his party“realise(d) that in future never again would we support anything unconstitutional,” as he artlessly confides in his book.

“What’s the difference between social justice and Islamic social justice?” I ask him, thinking to catch him out on the wrong foot. “No difference,” he replies promptly. “Don’t you think there might be a massive vote in favour of Awami National Party in reaction to the Taliban’s recent targeting of their campaign activities?” “You know, people will surprise you,” he muses.“Sympathy alone doesn’t motivate people to vote a certain way. People have a wider concern for their future.”

Khan appears relaxed, calmly expectant, prepared to calmly await the realisation of his destiny and dream to lead Pakistan to a better future. Some of his reflections on Iqbal’s poetry and its emphasis on individual willpower take on an almost intellectual turn as he strives to explain to a British journalist the full import of a she’r about wider horizons and ever-expanding possibilities.

Only to spoil the entire effect by giving way to a display of laddish humour while criticising a rival politician. This is the inevitable alternate side of Khan. His particular brand of political critique often takes him into politically incorrect territory. He will, for instance, react to a low shot directed at his personal life by comparing the dark complexion of the speaker, a rival politician, to the population of the African continent. Such can be Khan’s idea of clever repartee. Not that this necessarily does his politics a great deal of harm.

Imran Khan after the World Cup victory in 1992 |
Imran Khan after the World Cup victory in 1992 |

His youthful supporters for the most part do not appear overly concerned with political correctness, as evidenced by the loud guffaw that greets these infelicitous remarks in a university auditorium. Even where his intentions may be sincere, Khan’s speech can be characterised by a lamentable turn of the phrase. “Hungry and naked people can hardly be expected to do much good as politicians,” he declared in a television talk show some years ago, expounding on his ideal of a party of “clean people” who are untrammelled by greed and have “the time and money to work in politics.”

Khan sees himself as a principled campaigner for the rights of his people in the same tradition as Jinnah,Gandhi and Nehru, who all, he writes, had the “opportunity to see Western democratic societies in action.”

However, if anyone hoped that the Oxford-educated Khan would model himself in the image of a certain Lincoln’s Inn lawyer, they would soon know otherwise.There is a world of difference between the precise,rights-based discourse of the Gujarati barrister of the spiffy suits and two-toned shoes, and the glib, wrongs-based discourse of the Mianwali cricketer who professes to have little patience for colonial relics. As far as the colonial sport is concerned, the gentlemen have long since traded in their cricket whites for a bit of colour.

Addressing a crowd of people in Sheikhupura’s Company Bagh, Khan waves a cricket bat, vowing that it will hit sixers as well sinners. Those of the fiscal variety. And, of course, circus lions. With his arch-rival retaliating by displaying in his own rallies a stuffed lion chewing a bat, campaign speeches in this election season exhibit all the wit of a block of wood.

What Khan fails to understand, critics argue, is that corruption is not the most major issue in a developing country. Tell that to his supporters. While a national work environment where talent and merit is the sole rule for success may not be the Pakistani dream of very many citizens who have not had or taken the opportunity to achieve competitive skills, Khan’s basic agenda of erasing corruption and strengthening democracy and meritocracy is creating reverberations strong enough to surprise a good number of electoral analysts. Often aggravatingly quick to claim sole credit for things to which his contribution may not have been central, Khan’s claim to have transformed electoral politics by mobilising the youth and placing corruption at the centre of the agenda may not be so exagerrated.

His electoral rivals certainly seem to be jumping on to the youth and corruption bandwagon with speed. The point where Khan’s speech gets the loudest cheers from a less than electrified crowd in Sheikhupura is where he promises to ‘computerise’ the administrative machinery so that there can be no stealing.

“Mr Khan is a leader of not only national but interna-tional stature,” a PTI member is happy to inform a sour-looking politician from the rival party during a television talk show. “How can merely having been prime minister contribute to a leader’s stature?"

In November 2007, an inter-college meeting of students from all over the city takes place at a private residence in Lahore. Students from a variety of private and public universities meet to discuss steps to organ-ise further protests against Musharraf’s emergency. “Well, one thing is settled. All of us here are secular,” states a student from an elite arts college. Another student, this time from an elite management school,argues against assuming any such thing, stating that people from all walks of life and associated with all kinds of belief systems are welcome to join the students’ movement in support of democracy.

At this juncture, some Punjab University students interject to beg that students from Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), be excluded from the plans and meetings of the students’ movement, arguing that IJT members couldn’t be trusted not to play a double game and side with the agencies to deliberately spark a riot in students’ protest rallies. A tough debate follows regarding the possibilities and limitations of pluralism and inclusiveness, with public university students having first-hand experience of living day in and day outwith IJT’s activities trying to explain their point of view to students from more elite universities who haven’t had this experience, and who feel that it would be unfair(and illiberal) to deliberately exclude a particular group of students on account of their religious connections.

It would take first-hand experience to make Khan properly aware of IJT’s activities as well. On November 14, 2007, having dodged the police for days after an arrest warrant was issued for him on the eve of the emergency, Khan arrives at Punjab University with the intent of leading a students’ movement and, he says, to publicly give himself up before the international media.Things do not go according to plan. Students welcome the arrival of a victorious, smiling Khan by hoisting him up on their shoulders, but very soon some IJT members take over. They surround Khan and roughly bundle him up into a van, handing him over into police custody. All this while, a shell-shocked Khan, trying to figure out the students’ genuine motivation, keeps asking them, “What do you want? Do you know what you are doing?"

Interestingly enough, Khan’s book begins with this chaotic incident, an indelible memory of indignity inflicted on a celebrity of international stature.

“Although I had heard tales about the IJT,” he writes, “I had not fully realised the kind of people they were.” It would take a personal encounter to reveal to him that IJT members can behave “like a gang of street thugs”. Just like the students at the emergency meeting, Khan wanted to keep an open mind and was, it appears,unwilling to condemn such groups out of hand, merely on the basis of their bearded image.

Imran Khan's sister, Aleema Khan, speaks to PTI workers after the killing of its member, Zahra Shahid Hussain on May 20, 2013, in Karachi | White Star
Imran Khan's sister, Aleema Khan, speaks to PTI workers after the killing of its member, Zahra Shahid Hussain on May 20, 2013, in Karachi | White Star

It is an interesting fact about Pakistan today that many of the people whose life experiences are furthest removed – in terms of geography or lifestyle – from the world inhabited by the Taliban (or other groups that believe in enforcing a faith-based agenda) are least enthusiastic about action taken against such groups,tending to favour pacifist policies, if not passivist ones.While operations against the Taliban have largely failed to garner unequivocal support from the general public, it may sometimes be observed that lower middle-class political forces can display greater alacrity in con-fronting such groups than upper middle-class ones.While religion continues to pervade all aspects of personal and public life, much of the Pakistani youth growiing up in the post-Zia era can be said to have experienced a greater degree of personal freedom in certain respects, such as the intermingling of the sexes in educational institutions and in the workplace.

In the major urban centres of Pakistan, despite loud cries of ‘Talibanisation’ and ‘radicalisation’, and the regular trauma of suicide bombings, the prospect of being forced to carry out a major transformation of one’s lifestyle hardly seems imminent, particularly in more upper middle-class areas. A sense of oppression maybe felt more keenly in other areas, unless people’s own links with particular religious groups and sympathy with their world view serves to preclude such a sense. And often enough, except over the use and export of terror tactics, worldviews may not radically differ.

Hence, while it may be easy to distinguish between terrorist and non-terrorist, it is extremely difficult to draw lines of liberal vs conservative, moderate vs Islamist, progressive vs reactionary, rightist vs leftist,and even traditional vs Westernised in today's Pakistan. An upper-class woman who is allowed to dress just as she likes may not be encouraged to drive a car or go out to work; by contrast, a lower middle-class woman may be allowed to make use of public transport to travel to work or university, while being encouraged to wear the chaadar or abaaya to guard against her unaccompanied state.

Malala Yousafzai,shining beacon of progressive principles in Pakistan and the world over, wears a chaadar (and now a hijab),and her father, who has been lauded by so many for championing the right to progress and education of his own daughter and those of others, is accused by some of keeping his wife in parda(hidden from public view).Does that make his family liberal or conservative?

Putting Khan and his party in a box presents similar difficulties. “The Taliban see me as a liberal and the liberals see me as a fundamentalist,” he tells me. He doesn’t appear overly perturbed about the confusion being created. His politics since 9/11 have maddened a section of the class seen as the traditional liberal elite of the country, a section Khan labels ‘liberal fascists’ because of their support of the war against the Taliban. Khan, on the other hand, is another kind of liberal — one of pro-found proportions. A sort of spiritual Arundhati Roy of Pakistani politics, except not nearly so articulate and rather less cosmopolitan in focus. More than any other local issue,

Khan’s book is dominated by anxieties about the ‘war on terror’, particularly its impact on the tribal areas to which he traces his own familial roots. On all other matters of governance, he may be content to listen to and follow the lead of experts within and without his party. The issue of the tribal areas, though, is clearly a more personal quest.He attributes this quest to his own more Western background: “Muslims who have grownup and been educated in the West have a greater awareness of the ways in which human rights laws are broken in the name of ‘war in terror’ than many of those living in Muslim countries.” Khan is,in fact, a very Western sort of liberal.

If the primary concern of the Pakistani liberal of the traditional kind is striving to reverse the damage done by Bhutto and Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ drive, and to keep at bay forces of religious oppression and a blind hatred of all things non-Islamic or Western,Khan’s primary concern is to argue against a blind imitation of all things Western and to work to ensure fair treatment of Muslims in global affairs.He is concerned about Malala Yousafzai; yet this is not his pet peeve. For playing up the Malala issue won’t help his primary concern of building a positive, civilised image of Islam in the West, and compelling the West to give greater respect to practicing Muslims, while encouraging those same Muslims to also value their own culture.

Hence the emphasis on pride in his slogan ‘Justice, Humanity, Self-Esteem’. Between the local liberal and the Western liberal, the difference, it would appear, is one of geography. And yet no longer one of geography. Much of the youth in Pakistan today follows the foreign news –particularly where it pertains to the wider Muslim world – more closely than they follow strictly local events.

For many young Pakistani reporters,whether they belong to the English press or the Urdu, the topic of Af-Pak offers far greater glamour and excitement than devolution and the 18th Amendment or issues affecting agricultural policy. For the new liberal Pakistani, the agenda is often set by international papers. As far as Khan’s own reading habits are concerned, he reads Mohammad Abduh, Michael Scheuer, Mullah Zaeef, Malalai Joya, Graham Fuller, and George Makdisi; and when I ask about the local scholars and writers he admires, he readily admits that he reads hardly any Urdu, and hasn’t read much in the way of local English scholarship either.

On the Coke Studio set, in the middle of a Punjabi song by the Chakwaal Group, the hoodie-clad Pakistani American rapper, and international star,Bohemia makes a dramatic entrance. He touches the feet of the eldest and lead singer of the group in respect before proceeding to do his own gig.

There is a new appreciation of Eastern cultures and practices in the post-colonial West, a new appreciation of local traditions amongst the rapidly Westernising classes in countries like Pakistan. There is a call for harmony,synthesis, balance, respect for plurality. And there is nothing as attractive and inspiring as a man who has seen the West, and seen it well, and who then returns to value the East. The same may or may not apply to a woman who returns.

Khan’s critics find it difficult to forgive him for what they see as an incomprehensible betrayal. Here is aman, educated at Oxford, and before that at Aitchison, who has lived (and in many ways still lives) a less than‘traditional’ life. So why does he persist in hanging outwith groups like JI?

A Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf protest in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
A Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf protest in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

On the subject of the war in the Pakhtun lands, when Khan hunches forward, with earnest, expansive gesticulations, to begin his explanation, “Main aap ko yih batadoon (Allow me to tell you)”, the counter-terrorism analyst – whether Pakhtun or non-Pakthun – bristles in irritation at being on the receiving end of yet another simplistic history lesson. Not withstanding his – and other people's – genuine heartbreak at the conditions prevailing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and neighbouring areas, Khan fancies himself as something of a native expert on the tribal lands, partly due to his long-time interest in the region and also his maternal connection with Kaniguram, Waziristan.

He presents a portrait of an essential, unchanging, fiercely independent tribal people whose natural reaction to external interference is jihad, and quotes from the experience of colonial administrators to represent how the area should actually be governed. Security analysts gnash their teeth in frustration as, by declaring America’s ‘war on terror’ as‘not our war’, Khan proceeds to undo all their painstaking efforts of establishing a fragile consensus for wide-ranging action against a variety of militants following recent attacks against school girls and minority sects.

Traditional liberal elements also feel aggreived on another point. Now, there are plenty of photos of Bibi Shaheed with her hands raised in thanks and supplication before the Almighty, and Altaf Husain also rocks to his own rather musical Barelvi style of tilaawatas an introduction to one of his interminable lectures. But Imran Khan has committed the ultimate faux pas in acting as if he really means it. He invokes the Quran and the Hadis as impromptu reference points in all sorts of informal con-texts. He is the last person people expected such behaviour from, which earns him the title of rightist and fundamentalist.The last isn’t exactly accurate.

“9/11 changed everything,” Khan tells me in a self-explanatory tone. So, apparently, did 1988. According to his book, Khan’s “need to explore the religion was spurred on by the furore … over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.” Faced on his travels abroad by questions of whether Islam was indeed a violent religion, Khan started reading books on the subject. His inward turn, he writes, had “nothing to do with Pakistan’s ‘Islamisation’ but it had something to do with cricket” (specifically a difficult sports injury). And his spiritual guide and teacher was not the famous wild-eyed malang of ancient tales, but a junior civil servant.

On this journey,Khan found accounts of the experiences of Western converts to Islam particularly germane to his own situation. He also read a lot of Iqbal in translation. If the rather abrupt transformation of Mohsin Hamid’s Princeton-educated Changez into a bearded subversive didn't quite satisfy your sense of credible progression, here is the more prosaic and detailed version. The reconciled non-fundamentalist did not keep a beard. He did not go around with prayer beads wrapped around his wrist. He did not bury himself in a local university to preach interesting ideas to impressionable young students (although there is no lack of people who did).Instead, he “explored the possibility of supporting one of the religious parties”. His interaction with the existing parties convinced him that “faith without wisdom and knowledge could produce bigots completely lacking in compassion and tolerance”, so he launched his own political party to “change the system”.

He also married a Western lady, who is now a London-based journalist and supporter of a counter-insurgency think tank, The Quilliam Foundation. His renewed interest in Islam was accompanied by an apparent absorption of all the most popular ideas of Islam that have developed in the Western academy — that there used to be a Golden Age of Islam where democratic values were privileged; that there is such a thing as Sufi Islam and that it is less puritanical than Deobandi Islam; that ijtihadis an excellent thing for Muslims,and the famous gates of ijtihad,which were shut after the Mongol attack on Baghdad (when in point of fact there were no gates), should now be reopened; and, further, that Iqbal is the greatest Muslim thinker since the medieval age. All these ideas form the core of the most cutting edge curriculum in Pakistan’s top universities today, where students are urged to adopt a more secular orientation at the same time as Arabic quotes of the Prophet and the Imams are utilised to adorn university logos.

Khan is not, in short, a fundamentalist – either reluctant or reconciled. Several prominent female representatives of his party do not cover their head on television, and he himself is neither a mullah nor a maulana. In fact, he represents the new, liberal, ideal,citizen aimed for by Pakistan’s elite education system.If a certain class still persists in calling him a fundamentalist, what can you really say to people who don’t recognise the stated object of their desires – a moderate Muslim - when they see one?

In the meantime, Khan continues to enjoy his ever-increasing photo opportunities with all kinds of political parties and groups, and musicians from across the spectrum – from Esakhelvi to Strings, from Junaid Jamshed to Salman Ahmad – write music for his campaign.

Back in Coke Studio, Meesha Shafi joins Arif Lohar in a chorus. She keeps her style, he keeps his. One day, one of them may find themselves having to apologise for the other. Or perhaps, as Khan hopes, their friendship could actually be the beginning of the sewing together of a fractured nation...

This article was published in the Herald's May 2013 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.