Imran Khan, the 65-year-old cricket star-turned-politician has been striving for a better, Naya (newer) Pakistan for the last 22 years. Layering his speeches with witty jokes, the leader of one of Pakistan’s strongest political parties has mastered the art of mesmerizing his crowd but has yet to translate that crowd into a majority of votes.
Today, Imran Khan’s religious inclination is evident in all his activities, a contrast to his past playboy status. Verses from the Quran and teachings of the Prophet are used as anecdotes during his rallies. The twice-divorced Khan recently married Bushra Maneka, a spiritual leader who belongs to a well-to-do political family from southern Punjab. In contrast to both Khan’s previous wives, Maneka is a devoutly religious woman who wears a headscarf.
Alongside Khan’s demonstrations of faith, his victories as a cricketer, his accomplishments as a philanthropist, and of course his strong denunciations of corruption and corrupt Pakistani leaders have become his selling points. The crowd at his rallies seems to increase every time he calls upon them.
Now, Khan is closer than ever to translating his popularity to the ultimate success: becoming Pakistan’s prime minister. Pakistan is set to conduct its second consecutive democratic transition of power on July 25, and Khan sees his party as a major contender.
During an April press meet-up in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, Khan recalled his early days as a politician. He would travel to rural areas to ask union leaders to contest in elections on behalf of his party, the Pakistan Movement for Justice or Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), but they would refuse.
Today, he has led PTI to become one of the strongest parties in the country. His goal is to win ground in the country’s most populous province of Punjab, which contains the majority of the seats in the National Assembly of Pakistan, making it the battlefield for all political parties.
Khan thinks it is safe to say that there are only two parties seriously contesting in Punjab, the PTI that he leads and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by Nawaz Sharif.
“[I think] the problem was that the election candidates wanted to be on the winning side [back then]. [Today] I see them [the contenders] in contact with us; PML-N has weakened as a party,” he says.
The PTI has received over 4,100 applications this year and the party will field candidates for all 272 seats of the National Assembly, PTI spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry told The Diplomat.
On April 29, at his fourth Minar-e-Pakistan (Pakistan Day Memorial) rally in six years, Khan launched his 2018 election campaign by presenting an 11-point agenda. His plan will help establish “one system of justice, reduce poverty, and elevate the living standards of the poor,” Khan told the crowd.
The agenda called for Pakistan to become a self-sufficient nation by eradicating corruption and paying back international loans; providing equal health and education opportunities to all along with job opportunities for all genders; and nurturing the environment of the country to decrease pollution.
From Cricket Captain to Legislator
Khan first gained international fame as the captain who led Pakistan to its first and only international Cricket World Cup victory in 1992. Later, he took up philanthropy. In 1996, Imran Khan opened the doors to Pakistan’s first cancer hospital, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, named after his mother, which is run with the help of donations.
During his rally speeches, Khan has claimed that receiving donations from around the world and from the poorest of people of Pakistan was an eye-opener for him. This faith in his endeavors by the laymen strengthened his belief in politics as the only way he could bring about real social change in the country.
In 1996, the PTI, a nationalist party, was launched. The first time the PTI contested at the National Elections was in 1997; they failed miserably, acquiring no seats. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Khan’s fame at that point was only due to his background as a cricketer. It took him and his team decades to build a political reputation.
During the next elections, in 2002, under the dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf, the PTI won just one seat, which went to Khan. As a member of the National Assembly, he built his political career by speaking out against dictatorship, corruption and U.S. drone strikes – something not many politicians are able to do to this day. He was even given the moniker “Taliban Khan” for advocating talks with Islamist extremists that infested the northern parts of the country.
“I have protested against armed forces going into the tribal areas, since 2004. Whenever you send your army into civilian areas there are human right abuses,” Khan told the media during a press meet-up.
“What you see in the Pashtun Tahafuz [Protection] Movement is the anger in tribal areas, which was bound to happen,” Khan continued, referencing a protest movement calling for the rights of Pashtuns to be respected. “When I opposed [the violence] I was called Taliban Khan; now some of those people who called me that are sympathizing with these people. At the time they were happy with the drone strikes and bombing. I would have never allowed the army to enter tribal areas.”
The PTI boycotted the 2008 elections, which brought to power the Asif Ali Zardari-led Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which ruled from 2008 to 2013. Under the PPP, the country’s economy was left in shambles. Corruption, terrorism, and inflation grew considerably.
Khan saw his chance. His anti-corruption statements finally made sense to the public and he drew thousands to his rallies – in part because the PTI made its first effective use of social media, targeting the youth of the country. In 2013 his party secured 35 seats in the National Assembly and a majority in the war-ravaged Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.
After the elections of 2013, as the PTI formed a government in KP, Khan organized a 126-day sit-in in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. His target was Nawaz Sharif, head of the winning PML-N. Khan accused Sharif of being a corrupt politician, who won by rigging the elections. His efforts died in vain after almost a year of protests.
But Khan had the last laugh, thanks to the Panama Papers leaks in April 2016. The leaked documents revealed that Sharif’s sons owned offshore companies and assets which were not stated on his family’s wealth statement. In July 2017, Sharif, then the prime minister of Pakistan was disqualified from holding public office. While Sharif claims that the disqualification is part of a conspiracy against him, Khan gained leverage as his corruption allegations were proven right.
Khan, while talking to the press, brushed off the allegations that he and his party are in favor of the military establishment. Instead, he said that the party that the establishment created and supported is the PML-N.
“When Nawaz says the army is being biased it means it is neutral. Because he has always played with his own umpires,” he said.
Khan claimed that the Sharifs were made into political leaders by the army. According to Khan, Nawaz Sharif was a product of General Zia, which led to his first term as prime minister. In 1996, the establishment and then-President Farooq Leghari dismissed Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government, and brought the PML-N to power through rigged elections. (It’s worth nothing that both these stints as prime minister ended in Sharif being ousted by military coups.)
In addition to Khan’s role as national opposition leader, the PTI’s leadership in KP provides a hint of what the country could expect if Khan becomes prime minister.
Apart from striving for justice and anti-corruption in the country, the PTI government in KP has passed over 150 bills, enacting 168 new laws for the protection of people’s rights. One notable example is the Right to Information Act, which allows citizens to get government information and become watchdogs. KP also claims to have depoliticized its police and introduced a complaint registration system, which assures responses within 24 hours. The Provincial High Court has also introduced a system for immediate and just deliverance of justice to the marginalized.
Khan’s anti-corruption stance has also blossomed in the province. According to a survey conducted by Herald in 2014, 52 percent of the people in KP felt corruption had decreased, 39 percent said it remained the same, while only 8 percent said it increased. This stands in stark contrast to the responses from other provinces.
In a significant move, the party accused 20 of its own assembly members of selling their votes, for 40 million Pakistani rupees ($345,000) each, in recent Senate elections and issued them show-cause notices.
“One-third of the parliament who sold their votes were our ideological leaders, but these weren’t even electables. For 30 years people have been selling their tickets at elections why hasn’t anyone ever taken any action against them?” Imran said during the press meet-up, asserting that PTI is the only party capable of taking such groundbreaking steps.
The internationally acclaimed Billion Tree Tsunami Project, which is recognized by the Bonn Challenge, was also initiated under the PTI. Through forestation, the KP government is committed to improving the environment and preserving natural resources.
The government had doubled the health budget compared to its predecessor. The province faced serious challenges when they began their drive against polio. Extremist organizations termed the drive as anti-Islamic and targeted polio workers in broad daylight. Even then, the PTI claims to have reduced the virus in the province. The party also raised funds for another Shaukat Khanum hospital in KP which will be functional by 2019.
However, according to an Independent Monitoring Unit (IMU) survey, out of 27,350 functional schools in KP, 7,182 still do not have electricity — even though Rs 36 billion was spent to provide basic facilities to schools between 2013-2018.
In one of the last bills to be passed before the interim ministry takes over, the KP assembly passed the FATA reforms bill. Under this bill, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) will now be part of KP, warranting equal civil rights for tribal people.
The current political tide might be favoring Khan’s boat, but will his anti-corruption narrative be implemented on a larger scale once he comes to power? Will his rhetoric be sufficient to run Pakistan, a country that is clearly led by the intelligence agencies for which he has continuously shown distaste? And can his fundraising tactics help Pakistan, which is knee-deep in international loans?
The match may just have begun, if we are to trust this captain.
Annam Lodhi is a freelance Pakistani journalist.