For 15 years, Pakistanis exalted Imran Khan as a cricket legend but largely ignored his politics.
When Khan discussed cricket, the public hung on his every word. But when he campaigned for office, they dismissed him as an outsider.
Now, asPakistan’stopsy-turvy political landscape careens into an election season, Khan the politician has emerged for the first time as a major force, his ascent directly proportionate to the rising tide of frustration Pakistanis feel over woes such as seemingly endemic corruption, poverty and shortages of power and natural gas.
At an Oct. 30 rally in Lahore, he stunned the political establishment by drawing more than 100,000 people. He followed up in December, rallying 100,000 more in Karachi, the country’s biggest city and commercial capital.
Khan’s struggle to be taken seriously has been a long one in a country where political newcomers rarely gain traction. He even had to overcome an affliction that pained him as far back as his cricket career, which ended in 1992.
“When I became the captain of my team, I was only speaking to 11 players, but I used to have trouble speaking to 11 players,” Khan, 59, said during a recent interview at his hilltop residence on the outskirts of Islamabad, a pale goldenrod villa adorned with greenery and a terra-cotta roof that gives it a Southern California feel. “I used to tell the manager, ‘Look, you talk to them.’ ... Public speaking I always found to be a problem.”
Now, he is drawing huge crowds by pledging to end corruption, negotiate with Islamic militants and take a tougher line with Washington.
At a November rally in Chakwal, Khan, who hopes to step into power with a win in upcoming parliamentary elections, revved up a city that once was the sole domain of Nawaz Sharif, whose party governs the Pakistani heartland province of Punjab and has long been a nemesis to President Asif Ali Zardari. Tens of thousands of Khan supporters jammed shoulder to shoulder on a college lawn, swaying to kitschy campaign jingles and flinging handfuls of rose petals at the stage when he rose to speak.
“We want change,” said Sabina Iqbal, a 31-year-old Chakwal archaeologist, shouting above the pounding din of drummers and fireworks. “Look around in this country; every place is on the verge of collapse. I know Imran Khan didn’t do well in previous elections, but now he’s the most popular politician in the country.”
It’s not as though Khan has yet laid out a detailed blueprint of remedies. But analysts say his popularity is skyrocketing because a growing number of Pakistanis cling to a hope that he will conjure up that blueprint soon.
“From despondency to the positivity of hope: He’s already covered that distance,” said Ejaz Haider, a leading Pakistani commentator. “The significance of this moment is that he has finally emerged as a political force to be reckoned with.”
Along the way Khan has assembled an impressive list of defectors from other major parties to his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Justice Movement party, which he founded in 1996.
“I’ve always had the credibility,” Khan, said during the interview. “But I did not have the viability. Oct. 30 broke the viability barrier.”
What hasn’t changed is the veneration of Khan as a cricket supernova in a country where sports heroes have been hard to come by. Khan’s legendary career has served as the foundation for his every endeavor, be it politics or philanthropic achievements that include raising $25 million for the construction of a cancer hospital in Lahore. The capstone on his cricket career came in 1992, when as captain of the Pakistani national team he led a stunning victory over England to win the World Cup.
Khan says his cricket fame spawned offers from Pakistani leaders for ministerial posts, which he says he spurned to chart his own course. He paid a stiff price after entering politics in 1996; his newly created party failed to win a seat in the parliament in 1997 elections, won just one seat in 2002 and did not participate in 2008 elections.
In a country dominated by Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party and Sharif’s PML-N, breaking into the top tier can prove exceedingly difficult, particularly if that third party is led by “someone not from any political family or background,” Khan said.
Khan put his London playboy past behind him when he threw himself into politics. The endless barrage of public appearances that came with it forced him to overcome stage fright, he says.
Khan has a well-oiled team that has been managing his meteoric rise, but some in Pakistan wonder whether his sudden popularity has been nurtured behind the scenes by the country’s powerful security establishment.
The military’s disdain for Zardari’s administration recently has triggered widespread talk of a potential coup, and historically it has had an acrimonious relationship with the country’s other major party, the PML-N. After Khan’s massive October rally in Lahore, PML-N leaders accused the military of sponsoring the event.
Khan dismissed the claim, saying the military has never amassed rallies like the ones he led in Lahore and Karachi. Citing a rally in Islamabad in 2007 that was organized by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president, Khan said, “So here’s the [military] in government, with all of the federal and provincial parliament members with it, and [Musharraf] could barely draw 30,000 people.”
A key to Khan’s success has been his reliance on populist themes. One that resonates strongly with Pakistanis, most of whom are staunchly anti-American, is his promise to be tough on Washington. Although he says he wants ties with the U.S. to remain friendly, he also says he would turn away any economic and military aid and insist on a cessation of the CIA drone missile campaign in the country’s militant-ridden tribal areas along the Afghan border.
“We will say that we will be forced to shoot them down,” Khan said. “It’s neither helping them, and it’s certainly a disaster for us.”
He also has promised to end corruption within 90 days of taking office and overhaul the country’s tax system. A major reason for the government’s inability to shore up the country’s debilitated power grid or provide adequate schooling and healthcare is its poor tax collection rate: Just 2% of Pakistan’s 180 million people pay income taxes.
Khan says he is assembling a team of advisors to produce policy papers on energy, the economy and other issues at a later date. Analysts say he shouldn’t wait.
“He says he wants to free Pakistan from its dependence on the U.S. So, what’s his strategy?” asked Lahore-based political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. “He doesn’t give any answers.”
How far Khan’s momentum takes him remains to be seen. Most analysts doubt his party can win enough seats in the parliamentary elections to take control of the government. That vote is slated for 2013, though it appears increasingly likely that the government will relent amid pressure to hold it this year. Parliamentary elections are crucial in Pakistan, because federal and provincial lawmakers elect a president afterward.
Even if Khan doesn’t win, he could gain enough seats in the parliament to become a major opposition force.
“Calling him a potential threat or something that can upset the political dynamics of the country is a far-fetched thing,” said Fauzia Wahab, a leading lawmaker in Zardari’s ruling party. “But after the rally in Lahore, he has emerged as a force that cannot be ignored.”