I’ll Be Your Mirror

What Pakistan sees in Imran Khan

01 January, 2012

SEX, OR ATLEAST THE IDEA of it, is never far from Imran Khan. It reveals itself in the casual remark of an urbane 20-something friend, a well-educated and usually sensible woman who turned to me and said that she would “do Imran”. “You know,” she further explained, “as a feather in my cap.” It sometimes hangs in the air, almost visible, and as thick as the cloying perfume of the “aunties”—well-heeled middle-aged housewives clutching their fading youth as desperately as they do the last yard of cloth at designer lawn sales—who thrash and push and shove, banging lesser folk with their bulky handbags so they can rub shoulders with Imran, if only for a furtive moment.

Heterosexual boys also desire Imran in their own way. They queue up impatiently, jostling each other among coils of barbed wire, shouting their passions to Imran’s security team from behind the protest stage where the Great Khan is seated—wanting to be let inside, to see him up close, to be near him.

It seems safe to say that Khan is the only major politician in Pakistan presently capable of exuding this kind of appeal: this was how one sociologist summed up to me why Imran’s party, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI), or Movement for Justice, might pose a serious threat to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) in the latter’s traditional stronghold of Punjab. “I mean, he’s Imran Khan—he’s not ganju,” she said, using the word for “bald” to refer to the rotund and balding Sharif. A report in the Christian Science Monitor echoed the point: “With his good looks and seeming willingness to speak plainly,” wrote Issam Ahmed, “Khan is to Pakistan what Sarah Palin is to the US.” For his part, Khan would probably prefer to be Pakistan’s second Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—the fiery populist founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

For a long time after he entered politics, there was little reason to believe Khan posed a threat to anything other than his own status as a national hero. But that’s no longer the case: after uneven turnouts at PTI demonstrations for the better part of this year, the party defied predictions by rallying roughly 200,000 supporters in a roaring gathering in Punjab’s capital city, Lahore, on 30 October 2011. It’s too soon to tell whether that turnout will translate into votes in the elections scheduled for 2013, but it may well mark the moment that PTI went from being ridiculous to respectable in the mainstream.

Imran Khan, on 30 October 2011, addressing a rally in Lahore where a crowd of roughly 200,000 supporters had gathered. ARIF ALI / AFP PHOTO

The turnout in Lahore was a dismaying signal for Khan’s many critics, some of whom churlishly declared that the massive demonstration held by Benazir Bhutto in Lahore after her return from exile in 1986 had been many times larger. It’s a plausible argument, but it overlooks one significant fact: nearly 70 percent of Pakistanis are now below age 30. They aren’t likely to remember Benazir’s homecoming rally—and even if they did, it’s hardly self-evident that their passions would be stirred by the recollection.

For a politician so marginal that his party has only managed to win one seat so far—his own from Mianwali—Imran summons scathing, fierce, passionate criticism from his detractors, the most passionate of whom tend to be urban liberals. He has been called “dangerous” and “naïve”, and described as a man whose supporters “feed his delusion of being the messiah that Pakistanis await”. The influential Friday Times editor-in-chief Najam Sethi, during an appearance on Pakistan’s largest private Urdu channel, Geo TV, put it this way: “Some people learn too much and go crazy; others learn nothing at all and go crazy. Imran is half in each camp, and that makes him half-baked.” For some time now, The Friday Times has even published a parody column written in Khan’s voice, which is credited to “Im the Dim”.

Public figures who are revered by their followers and hated by their ideological opponents are invariably called “polarising”. But this lazy appellation fails to capture the puzzle of Imran Khan, or the question of what he represents in Pakistan today—of what makes the very idea of the man so powerful for so many people and in so many conflicting ways across a wide spectrum of desire.

The night before I met Khan at his hilltop farmhouse just outside Islamabad, I had dinner with Shane Brady, a jocular Irish aid worker who was wrapping up five years in Pakistan. When I told him that I was going to interview Imran the next day, Brady exclaimed that one of our mutual friends was “going to be so jealous”. The friend in question had once heard a rumour that Khan enjoyed the occasional puff of marijuana; ever since, he had been determined to find some way to meet Khan so they could smoke a joint together. Everyone dreamt of Imran in his own way.

The next morning, I headed to Imran’s home in Bani Gala, a bucolic hilly neighbourhood on the outskirts of Islamabad. As I neared his estate, the regimented grid and broad avenues of Islamabad’s suburbs gave way to a bumpy road, winding along pastoral vistas.

Imran has lived here since 2005, but he’s not the area’s most notorious resident: Abdul Qadeer Khan, the controversial former head of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, also lives nearby. As the car climbed higher, the late afternoon sunlight shattered into trembling beads across the surface of Rawal Lake, the main water source for Rawalpindi, which has been heavily polluted by runoff from the area’s many poultry farms.

Ochre-skinned young boys splashed playfully in the lake. Further on, a herd of white and brown speckled cows blocked the narrow road, halting car traffic till they had sauntered lazily on. Still higher, I passed an odd collection of objects and buildings, the result of a neighbourhood that’s quickly expanding: a diminutive plain white mosque, half-built mud and brick hovels, a row of grimy shops, a row of freshly painted shops, red bricks heaped on a truck, water pipes piled by the side of the road, an inexplicable tent in a green field, a phone tower, a donkey cart.

Past all this, the road widened out and then came to an end in front of a set of imposing and fabulously fantastical wrought iron gates: the entrance to Khan’s home, nestled in a lush expanse of manicured lawn and wilderness.

Inside, pink flowering vines creep along the pale walls of the courtyard. The house mimics Pashtun architecture, and doors on all sides of the courtyard lead to other rooms. A slim man appeared and directed me to an impressively oversized but tastefully furnished drawing room with cream-coloured sofas offset by colourful cushions. I thought for a moment about a photo I’d once seen of Khan’s London home, which one visitor had described to his biographer as “a Sixties art gallery crossed with a Sultan’s harem”.

Just as I began to notice and become unsettled by the uncanny, impeccable symmetry of the room—each object in one half of the room was duplicated in the other, with the exception of a photo of Imran bowling signed by someone “To Skipper”—a door I hadn’t noticed in a corner of the room burst open.

“Why don’t you come in here.” It was Imran, and it was only grammatically a question.

He was holding the door handle, leaning into the room, taller than I had imagined, wearing a stark white collared kameez-shalwaar. I followed him to a sitting area in his expansive bedroom. The floor-to-ceiling windows were pitch dark now, but I could hear his dog barking just outside. He collapsed onto a sofa looking tired and scruffy, bags under his eyes, his leonine mane appearing finger-riven.

While he ordered chai, I wondered how he would receive the news that the interview was for an Indian magazine. I never found out the answer, because he didn’t ask where the piece would appear. Later, I recalled the one revelation about Khan that had come out in the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks: that the man says in private exactly what he says in public. At that point in our interview, it was too early to determine whether this was a sign of honesty or simply hubris, but I was temporarily relieved either way.

“So,” he said, finally turning to me, “what do you want to ask?”

In this iconic photo, Imran Khan, then captain of Pakistan’s cricket team, holds aloft the 1992 World Cup trophy. ADRIAN MUREL / GETY IMAGES

THE ICONIC IMAGE OF IMRAN KHAN—the one everyone still remembers—is the photograph of him wearing a lime-green uniform and holding the 1992 World Cup trophy aloft, arms above his head and a wide grin on his face—the last and greatest triumph of a spectacular career. Over the years, he had proven himself as a disciplined, persistent athlete with a dogged work ethic. During his on-and-off tenure as Pakistan’s captain, he was regarded as an honest leader, though according to some accounts, a dictatorial one as well. According to Christopher Sandford’s biography of Khan, a former teammate had once described his leadership style by comparing him to Stalin. When I put this observation to Khan, he came back with a quick retort. “Whoever it is neither understood Stalin nor understands me,” he quipped. “I mean he probably couldn’t even spell Stalin if he described my style as him.” He laughed. “He probably means Churchill not Stalin. He probably confused the two.”

When Imran first stepped onto a pitch in Lahore in 1969 to launch his career in first-class cricket at the age of 16, his performance was erratic—out of line with the legend he was to become, but par for the course given the state of Pakistani cricket in that era. The country had made its international cricketing debut in 1952, the year Imran was born, and since then, had led a mercurial, fraught existence. Broader national politics consistently overshadowed the game. Only a few weeks before Imran’s trial for first-class cricket, a three-Test match series between England and Pakistan had to be abandoned when spectators demonstrating in support of a teachers’ strike for better wages and working conditions spilled onto the field in Karachi en masse. It was the last year of military dictator General Ayub Khan’s rule, and the country was restless, wracked by labour and student strikes. The tourists, still unbeaten, fled the country as quickly as they could. For Khan, it marked the beginning of a political education in a game that was itself political.

In Pakistan, cricket belonged to the elite. As a youngster from a wealthy, urban Pashtun family, Imran represented the rule and not the exception among cricketers in his day. Like his cousin, Javed Burki, who had briefly held the captaincy in the early 1960s, Imran also attended Aitchison College, the upper-crust English medium school in Lahore skilled at teaching Pakistani boys how to mimic—and perhaps desire—white British manhood.

If cricket represented class politics at home, it was embroiled in race politics abroad, a fact that was not lost on Imran. Schooled at Aitchison and then Oxford, and trained in British morality and values, Khan realised the limits of his educational capital against the grim reality of racism in Britain. “At no point in my life did I ever, ever think that I was not going to live in Pakistan. Never,” he told me. And then added, emphatically in his booming voice: “Although, you know, England became a second home to me, but I never ever thought that it would be the place where I would live because I was always a second class citizen there. And that was against my self esteem: to live as a second class citizen.”

For a boy who grew up rich and educated in English schools, the cultural components of colonialism reverberated far more powerfully than the material exploitation. In his recently published memoir, Pakistan: A Personal History, Khan writes:

In my opinion the greatest damage done to the people of the Indian subcontinent was in the humiliation of slavery and the consequent loss of self-esteem. The inferiority complex that is ingrained in a conquered nation results in its imitation of some of the worst aspects of the conquerors, while at the same time neglecting its own great traditions. It destroys originality as the occupied people strive only to imitate the occupiers.

In the arc of Khan’s post-cricket public life, which has carried him into the thicket of Pakistan’s cultural and religious politics—toward an embrace of Pashtun identity and Islamic piety—the signs of his search for that missing originality seem clear, visible as a yearning for something of the authentic.

“I never live in my past,” Imran told me when I asked him whether he missed his life in London. “The past is only to learn from. My life was always controlled by my passions,” he continued, stressing the final word heavily. “I was quite rootless in that sense that, you know, my passion was cricket so it took me everywhere. Then it became the hospital, so I came here.”

Imran Khan speaking at a campaign rally in the northwestern town of Mingora prior to the 1997 general elections. The elections proved to be a disappointment for his newly formed party, the Tehrik-i-Insaaf. STR OLD / REUTERS

Among younger Pakistanis, Khan is arguably better known and loved for his hospital in Lahore—formally, the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre—than for his cricket career. The red-bricked state-of-the-art medical centre, which opened in December 1994, stands as an awe-inspiring testament to Imran’s dogged persistence and, in a country shattered by cruel class divides, thrilling evidence for what can be built. The hospital, which provides cancer treatment irrespective of a patient’s ability to pay, was built with World Cup earnings as well as tireless fundraising. In stories that have quickly passed into folklore, as Imran ventured forth into Pakistan to fundraise for the hospital, his reputation for honesty was such that women tossed their gold bangles and other jewellery at him. But if the public was behind him, the Nawaz Sharif-led government was not.

When Sharif’s government created yet more obstacles for the new hospital, Imran penned a lengthy article in the Frontier Post voicing his criticism in religious terms. “For me,” he wrote, “the greatest feeling of satisfaction was that despite the curse of the un-Islamic VIP culture in the country, our staff made no distinction between the paying and non-paying patients.”

By then, Imran had taken a distinctly pious turn. “I met a man who was a very spiritual man and had powers like Ibn Arabi, that great 13th-century mystic who saw with double vision.” He paused and corrected himself, then started again. “It wasn’t that. It was just the wisdom of the man.” Imran began to read the Qur’an, and he told me that he now regards the Prophet Muhammad as his role model. “Leave alone that he was a prophet of God. Let’s say he was an ordinary man. No man has achieved what he’s achieved,” Khan argued. “No man has created a civilisation. No man has been a lawgiver. No man was a leader as a leader, just purely as a leader.” He made an emphatic gesture with his hands. “No man has achieved what he’s done. I mean, he created leaders. When he left this world, everyone around him became a leader. Even if you look on him as a leader, no one has achieved as much. The civilisation he created was the greatest civilisation for 700 years.”

It was around this time that Khan published Warrior Race: A Journey Through the Land of the Tribal Pathans, a book-length depiction, in deeply romanticised terms, of Pashtun tribal culture. He started to speak publicly against what he described as a bankrupt Pakistani elite—whose corruption he attributed to a lack of morals and religion. In a challenge to Pakistan’s secularists, who argued that religion was a private matter and responded squeamishly to public mentions of piety, Khan came to embrace the idea that Islam provided a political and moral framework for living—a complete order that embodied the essence of universal human rights and justice. He began to draw inspiration from Muhammad Iqbal, the early 20th-century poet and philosopher—and particularly from Iqbal’s critique of western rationalism and his efforts to retool Islam as a comprehensive and modern moral and political philosophy. For Imran, Iqbal’s thinking seemed to provide an answer to the question he believed plagued all former colonies: how to be simultaneously modern and authentic to one’s own cultural traditions.

In the wake of Imran’s self-reinvention as a preacher of national pride—and his stated promise to marry a Pakistani girl—the announcement that he was to wed Jemima Goldsmith, the daughter of a British businessman and philanthropist who was 22 years his junior, met with a cold reaction in Pakistan.

One English-language newspaper ran a column titled ‘Imran Meri Jaan!’ (Imran, My Love), which sarcastically weighed the possible shortcomings of Pakistani women in an attempt to determine why Khan might have chosen a foreign bride. A few columnists in the Urdu press argued sincerely that the marriage was to be applauded, because Imran had saved Jemima from hell by converting her to Islam. The Nation, an English-language daily, ran a tongue-in-cheek column satirising this argument, which read: “I have a hunch and a good one too that the great Khan has a deep strategy in his mind to serve Islam and arrest the expansion of Zionism. It has been revealed that that lady was of Jewish origin but now has been converted to our religion with conviction through the body-chemistry of our great cricketer. In one go, he has denied many children of Israel to be conceived and come to this world.”

The marriage did not last. “Put it this way,” Imran told me. “Marriage and politics are very hard to sustain together. One would have to suffer.” Jemima and Imran still remain close; indeed, she’s the source of much of his continued circulation through the western press circuit.

Imran has pressed on with his model of politics, a brand that draws connections between the religious and the political. Indeed, that is how he explains his entrée into politics. “You have to ask two questions if you’re a thinking person,” he said. “Some people blissfully never ask themselves these questions: What is the purpose of existence? What will happen to us when we die? These two questions, and only religion can answer. No science can answer that question.” Imran’s answer to the first question provides his rationale for having entered politics. “The purpose of existence is so simple,” he said, with the tone of his voice rising as if to stress that this was self-evident. “The more the Almighty gives us, the more responsibility on us what we need to do for others. That’s it. No rocket science. It’s being a good human being,” he continued, and then moved to a more openly political interpretation of the question. “In our society, people like us, who have an option of not doing anything—do we sit on our backside and watch our country go down the drain or do we stand up to this corrupt mafia who, in the name of politics and democracy, are plundering the country. Is anyone going to stand up to them or not?”

But this is ultimately a moral issue—who will stand up to the bad guys?—rather than a political one: in a similar vein, Khan typically argues that the problem in Pakistani politics today has to do with the personal ethical failures of politicians rather than the system that encourages, nourishes, buttresses and supports them, or the forms of capitalism that reproduce that system. Breaking down that system will require land reform, wealth redistribution and other wholesale structural changes about which Imran speaks little, if at all. It is Imran’s displacement of political questions onto a moral framework—and not merely his resistance to political favour-trading, as some have claimed—which turns his political vision into a kind of “anti-politics”.

Imran’s moral orientation can yield trenchant critiques of sociopolitical issues, but it also walks him into a narrow politics that is often questionable in its particulars. Take, for example, his reply to my question about the Hudood Ordinance—a set of draconian laws enacted by Zia ul-Haq that enforce severe punishments for extramarital sex, including rape: “Had it been debated properly by a proper Parliament rather than a dictator, using Islam, had that not been done, this would’ve been a well-framed law, but as it happened, this was not debated.”

And this is what he said when I asked him about the so-called “blasphemy law”, whose abuses had been widely chronicled even before Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was murdered for opposing it: “Blasphemy is the same thing. You see blasphemy, as I told you, was a British-made law, and it was to create harmony in the society.” Pakistan’s current law bears little resemblance to that intention, but Imran continued. “So what you’ve seen in Pakistan is a breakdown of rule of law. There is no law in Pakistan!”

I pressed him, asking whether he really thought the problem was simply the way the laws were applied, rather than the laws themselves. “If you did not have a blasphemy law in Pakistan,” he said, “you will have bloodshed in villages and communities because when someone will say someone has said this about the Prophet, and then you will see fanatics going and killing people.” But that’s happening right now, I insisted. “No,” he countered. “What happens now is that they hand them over to the law. At least these people then have a law to protect them. You would have lynching crowds otherwise.”

So, I asked him, would you say the law right now is fine?

“No, the law—if it is implemented properly—it gives plenty of time for someone. Only a mad person can abuse the Prophet. Only a mad person can do it. And so they will get a reprieve by the court anyway.”

“It’s implementation,” he continued. “It is a law that is open to abuse like every other law. So, in my opinion the law you need to pass is for perjury, false witnesses, because there is no law against that. A false witness can get away. So if you had a law against false witnesses, which is perjury, then you would immediately see these cases decreasing because people who wrongfully accuse would be going to jail.”

Arguments like these demonstrate why Khan has become a target for many urban, secular liberals, even though he has sometimes—as was the case after Salmaan Taseer’s murder—demonstrated more willingness than ostensibly secular politicians to condemn religious extremism.

Princess Diana talks to Jemima Khan (centre), Imran Khan’s British wife, during a three-day visit to Lahore in 1996 to help raise funds for Khan’s cancer hospital. REUTERS

WHEN I WENT TO SEE MARVI SIRMED, one of Khan’s most unyielding liberal critics and the author of more than a few acerbic columns about him, she described the beginnings of her suspicions about Imran, dating back to the moment of his political reinvention. “I used to respect him for living the life he wants for himself and for living it openly,” she said, referring to his younger days, when he was often linked romantically with various London socialites in the press. Though he was a fixture on the social circuit, Khan claims he never smoke or drank; he did, however, father a child out of wedlock with the daughter of a wealthy British industrialist. (Khan only acknowledged his daughter after the mother won a paternity suit in 1997.)

“He did not used to be secretive about these”—she paused, hunting for the right word—“these scars. They’re considered scars in our society. I respected him for that. But, when he comes into politics, he just forgets everything. His life starts from the 1990s, when he started advocating jirgas and these Islamic Republic of Pakistan type of things.”

Sirmed and I spoke in her capacious office in a manicured Islamabad suburb at the UNDP’s Programme for Parliamentary Development. She also moonlights as a columnist in the English language dailies and appears sporadically on Urdu talk-shows to go toe-to-toe with right-wing tele-evangelists like Zaid Hamid. She’s blunt and gutsy. Before we began talking, she made a point of noting that her comments were not a reflection of the UNDP.

For Sirmed and many others, it is in part—though not exclusively—Khan’s turn away from his socially liberal lifestyle that makes him worthy of suspicion. Perusing through the enormous quantity of biting opinion columns, blogs and tweets produced by this particular demographic, one can distinctly sense a bitter hot anger, born of a sense of betrayal. The tone of these pieces tends to be more than merely critical; it is often emotionally wrought. The subject of these articles is varied—Imran’s brand of politics, his stance on the drones, his alleged anti-Americanism—but at the core of these essays beats the pulse of the same question: et tu Brutus?

PTI activists burn a mock drone aircraft during a rally against drone attacks in Peshawar on 13 May 2011. K. PERVEZ / REUTERS

What seems to motivate this sense of betrayal is a phenomenon whose scope extends far beyond Pakistan: a kind of lifestyle politics that has taken hold among sections of the elite in almost every part of the world. This is a political worldview that eschews matters of class and economic justice in favour of a politics of individual expression: the right to eat, drink, dress, or socialise according to an ethics of one’s choosing. In Pakistan, while lower-middle class urban women have been able to move into the public in greater numbers, aided in part by the hijab, the space for social liberals to express their lifestyles has shrunk. Many liberals ignore the first half of this equation, and blame the second half on the rise of a constellation of disparate phenomena associated with religion—from the rise in public religiosity to Islamist militancy—which are then all lumped under the opaque banner of “Talibanisation”.

This spectre of creeping Talibanisation, according to Sirmed, is what makes Imran “dangerous”.

“He’s a face who could give voice to the youth which is huge in Pakistan,” she said. “It’s a huge segment, and he’s actually radicalising the youth, God forbid they become recruits for jihadi organisations”.

Those young people, Sirmed continued, will become frustrated when they are unable to find jobs due to a tanking economy. “When this happens, and they are in the lap of Imran Khan, and he’s telling them that those sitting in North Waziristan are our friends actually. They’re just playing with us and killing us because we are fighting with them. He is actually pushing this very dangerous idea that it’s America that’s the root problem.”

When I put this argument to Imran, he looked irritated. “Marvi, this woman,”—he began, pointedly—“she has no understanding about what’s happening in Pakistan. These people, all their assessments are from reading articles, and these articles are written by journalists who don’t know what is going on. These people seem to think there’s some chance of ‘Talibanisation’ in Pakistan. They don’t know Pakistan.” He cocked his head sideways and emphatically gestured with his hands out, fingers splayed as though he were carrying a large, invisible box.

“These militant groups were created to fight America’s war. I mean, it was basically a cold war we got into for dollars, and these jihadi groups were not a threat to Pakistan. These groups were used by the intelligence agencies as assets and they did these sectarian bombings at mosques. That was child’s play to what’s going on now! Pakistan is fighting for its existence!” Imran had hit his stride now, and his words were flecked with exasperated notes while his booming voice rose in pitch. In his telling, the rise of bomb blasts and suicide attacks inside Pakistan were a direct consequence of the country’s involvement in the American “war on terror”. His frustration continued to mount. “So what is she talking about? I mean, which world is she living in! These people should not even be allowed to write because these people are not equipped to understand what’s happening in Pakistan.”

He paused, and after a few moments I began to ask my next question, but he jumped back in before I got very far, thrusting forward to the next point in his argument. “There were no militant Taliban in Pakistan until 2006,” he said. “It took two years of military operations to create the Taliban.”

For Imran, the situation in Pakistan’s tribal areas essentially resembles a rebellion against colonial occupation. “The same people fought the British,” he said, “and won. They were all called ‘fanatics’ by the British.” The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the semiautonomous tribal region in Pakistan’s northwest, does have a long history of occupation and resistance. In fact, the British also subjected FATA to sustained bombing campaigns starting in 1919 in a failed attempt to subdue the local populace.

Sirmed, however, rejected that characterisation. “Imran Khan’s view that there are no Taliban and that these are indigenous groups is simply”—she stopped, almost at a loss for words. “I cannot even call it moronic because even morons have some sense. This is completely insane.”

Khan has long been adamant that the Pashtuns are now being demonised simply for resisting, but in our interview he also drew a more contemporary parallel, to the plight of Bengalis in the former East Pakistan. He recalled that he had been on the last flight out of Dhaka before the Pakistani army’s assault began: then only 18, he had gone there to play a cricket match. Until he visited, he told me, he had believed the Pakistani state propaganda of the time—which painted the rebellion as the work of a few Indian-backed militants. “That was the first time I realised that there was a separatist movement going on,” he said. “We knew nothing about what was going on in East Pakistan.”

“There was the same sort of demonisation of Bengalis which I still remember,” he continued. “These ears heard people saying, ‘Small and dark. Kill them. Teach them a lesson.’ I heard it with my own ears. It’s exactly the same language which I hear this time.” Today, it is Pashtuns, he said, who are ill-treated. “In Pindi, in Lahore, in Karachi, they’ve been picked up and thrown into jail because they are Pashtun. This is a sad legacy.” For Imran, the events of 1971 provided another lesson about the rule of law. “Had people been punished, we would not be going through this again.”

A few implications follow naturally from Imran’s account of the FATA conflict: he maintains there can be no military solution, and he supports the creation a truth and reconciliation commission for the people of FATA—the sort of stances that earned him the nickname “Taliban Khan” among hardline secularists who claim that he supports the Taliban outright. He has also argued on occasion for negotiations with militant fighters.

For many, his position seems like a facile response to a situation that calls for more nuance. After all, negotiation with fighters isn’t entirely new: the Pakistan Army has tried it repeatedly. In April 2004, it signed the Shakai Agreement with Waziristan militant leader Nek Muhammad Wazir, but that broke down almost immediately when the parties disagreed on the meaning of the terms. In February 2005, the army again signed the Sararogha peace accord, this time with Baitullah Mehsud, followed by another agreement in 2006. Yet, at each turn, the conflict ballooned and by late 2007, local fighters had formed the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Even as recently as last month, the Haqqani network’s ally, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, threatened to abandon his truce with the army.

While peace deals, ceasefires and temporary truces have done little to improve the situation, neither have the ruthless military incursions by an army whose ostensible responsibility is the protection of its own citizens. In response to army attacks in 2004 that killed scores, some tribes turned to local rebels for help and formed strategic alliances with them. “The actual hardcore terrorists that we need to deal with are basically five to six percent of this whole,” Imran said.

But Imran’s version of the tribal conflict also involves rhetorically minimising the army’s continued support for elements of the militancy—and embracing a narrative in which the US is the sole culprit. “What is the difference between what is happening in FATA and what is happening in Afghanistan? Hamid Karzai is calling, today, the Americans an occupation force. An American puppet is calling the Americans an occupation force!” Imran exclaimed. “And what is happening in FATA? Our army is acting as an occupation force. They went in on the behest of the Americans. I mean they get monthly salaries from the Americans.”

This is as close as Imran comes to criticising the Pakistani establishment, that opaque and unaccountable nexus between the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which remains the ultimate arbiter of Pakistani politics. Imran’s reticence on this front represents yet another bright red flag for his critics: a few insist that he and his party are secretly funded by the establishment; others simply contend that his political career has been propped up by the forces running the country, whether Khan knows it or not.

Certainly, Imran has been uncomfortably close to various military figures. General Zia called him out of his retirement from cricket. It was General Hamid Gul, the former ISI chief often dubbed the “father of the Taliban”, and Mohammad Ali Durrani, then the head of the Jamaat-e-Islami youth wing, who encouraged Imran to enter politics and assisted him. When General Pervez Musharraf took power in a coup, Imran supported him—although many of Imran’s critics did so as well. And when the US launched a raid to assassinate Osama bin Laden, Imran blasted the civilian government and demanded Zardari’s resignation—rather than asking what might seem a more pertinent question, about how Bin Laden managed to take refuge in an army garrison town to begin with.

Among Khan’s urban and middle-class base—historically, the recruiting ground for the army’s officer cadre—his proximity, real or alleged, to powerful military figures is hardly cause for concern. Imbued with a strong nationalist sentiment, this class opposes the army’s involvement in the American-led war, particularly inside Pakistan’s own territory. Pakistani secular liberals, meanwhile, motivated by the fear of what they call ‘Talibanisation’, criticise the army’s engagement with militants but support its collaboration with the Americans.

People cheer during a PTI rally in Islamabad on Pakistan’s Independence Day in 2011. It was likely the largest party event prior to the October rally in Lahore. FAROQ NAEEM / AFP PHOTO

FOR THE BETTER PART OF 2011, Imran has been touring Pakistan—darting into Peshawar, Faisalabad, Karachi, Gujranwala and Islamabad to mine the country’s discontent and breathe scorn on his political rivals. In Peshawar, he told the political workers of opposition parties they should either straighten out their leaders or correct themselves and join his party. In Karachi, he has fought with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) which owns that city. In Islamabad, he wryly noted that the PML-N was worried about the gains his party was making, and then told PML-N workers they had more to fear from Nawaz Sharif’s corruption than from the PTI.

The dharnas—for dharnas they were supposed to be, though as far as I know, the only that could properly be called that was the one in Peshawar—had an air of jubilant male revelry. True, there were women there, girls even, and a sizable portion too, but they remained wherever they had been cornered. The boys, however—they roamed. They made jokes. They exchanged verbal spars. They slapped each others’ backs. They sang to the music bubbling up into the evening from oversized speakers set on either side of the stage. And when they were not singing, they bloated the air with the bombastic notes of young boys engaged in all the bluster and the swagger that is the pageantry of boyhood.

These rallies were not exercises in cultish discipline, as one sees with the MQM; they did not have the tired, stale stench of PPP demonstrations, which invariably dissolve, by the end of the night, into squabbles between party members over swag. And you were less likely to run across the paid-for dazed protestors who are ubiquitous at gatherings of every other major political party. PTI rallies feel more like a disorganised all-night bash, the kind where your favourite rock star might pop in and where the guest of honour, Imran, can show up fashionably late and deliver an hour-long toast. Shehzad Roy showed up at one. Ali Azmat sang at another. For the critical rally at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, the locally famous DJ Butt came to spin and the band Strings performed.

“It was a lot of fun! We ran into families. With kids!” exclaimed Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad, a young Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) IT graduate. “That doesn’t happen a lot at political rallies. I even saw aunties. That’s a strange sight.” The PML-N attempted to constrict the demonstration, blocking off major roads, but droves of people simply came on foot instead.

Ahmad doesn’t support Imran—he wants a candidate who supports separation of religion and state—but he said he understood why others did. “He’s become a beacon of hope for a lot of people.”

Not too long ago, supporting Imran’s party was considered a vaguely embarrassing condition symptomatic of hopeless idealism and naïveté. It was uncool. “Now, he’s in fashion,” Ahmad said. “He’s the new stereotype candidate for the educated. Being a PTI supporter now means being rational and being a good person.”

Imran’s anti-corruption message, coupled with a nationalist sensibility that takes the sovereignty of the country seriously, resonates deeply among his young, urban middle-class base: college students, young engineers, accountants, media and IT workers. Among many of them, there’s definitely a sense that Imran is the last man standing. “He’s the only one who can give us justice,” a college student told me as his friends milled around him at a PTI rally. “Without him, the country is useless. No one can save the country except him. The others come and fill their own stomachs. There’s just one leader, Imran Khan, who can save the country.”

“We’re the only party that is now going to take Pakistan out of this, clear the mess that Pakistan is in,” Imran said when I asked him why he believed the PTI would fare better in office than its rivals. “There’s no other party that can get Pakistan out of the mess,” he argued, because it is the only one that isn’t corrupt. “All the major political party heads have their money stashed abroad, in bank accounts which aren’t declared, their properties abroad. They’re in no position to fight corruption, and none of them give taxes so, therefore, the need of the hour is to have clean politics in Pakistan and raise revenue and fight corruption.”

This was the very same message that Imran delivered to packed press conferences in Lahore when he launched the party in 1996: “Today marks the beginning of a battle against corruption and injustice.” He lashed out at government corruption to immediate effect: newspapers quickly followed suit with extensive reporting of government greed, from land-grabbing politicians to the exorbitant perks that parliamentarians were given.

It was a platform that initially attracted urban professionals like Nasim Zehra, now a respected Urdu primetime anchor. The world-renowned environmental lawyer, Parvez Hassan, who has an entire wing at Punjab University named after him, also joined the party, as did Abdul Mateen, vice chancellor of Peshawar University. But, back then, the party wasn’t garnering votes. By 1999, PTI had made little headway and Imran, like a significant segment of Pakistanis, supported General Pervez Musharraf’s coup.

Former President General Pervez Musharraf (left) and Imran Khan talk at a charity fundraising function in Lahore in February 2002. Imran had supported Musharraf when he seized power in a coup in 1999. MOSHIN RAZA / REUTERS

In key respects, Imran’s message remains the same—for better and for worse. “He’s only talking about corruption in politics. He’s not talking about corruption per se,” observed Muhammad Waseem, a political science professor at LUMS and the author of several books on electoral reform and democratisation in Pakistan. “For example, he’s not talking about the one million people who are agents of the state, top bureaucracy down to clerks.”

Nor is he talking about the army. Under civilian government in the 1990s, a public accounting committee was set up to inquire into army accounts. It found that roughly 31 billion rupees had been mislaid: some of it was simply unaccounted for while other money had been spent beyond the legal limit. “One doesn’t even talk about it,” Waseem said, because the army is considered “something sacred”.

Nevertheless, Imran’s anti-corruption rhetoric is attracting supporters—people like Zain ul Abedin, who works at an American communications company in Islamabad, and whose family switched over to the PTI after serving in the ranks of the PPP as politicians and bureaucrats for decades.

Abedin said that his family had left the PPP after an incident at his former workplace, another telecommunications company. A high-ranking PPP official called Abedin demanding to have his phone number—which had been blocked for non-payment—reinstated. After Abedin refused, the official began to abuse him, and when Abedin ended their phone call, it cost him his job.

“Then the very next day, I gathered up all the documents, I went to Bilawal House,” Abedin explained, referring to Benazir Bhutto’s former residence in Karachi. He had hoped, considering his family’s history with the party, that the PPP might help him find another job. “I said I have a masters and four to five years experience with a multinational. Even in the government, give me an 18 or 20 grade job, any small thing. That guy threw my file and said lots of people like you come here.”

Abedin is in some respects the quintessential PTI supporter, angered by corruption and yet simultaneously willing to deploy his family and party connections to secure a job. Indeed, for the middle class, this is how the system works. “In Pakistan’s case—and of course in India—it’s the middle class which talks about corruption more than other classes,” Muhammad Waseem said. But the majority of this class doesn’t vote, he continued, “especially middle class women. You’ll never see them making queues outside the polling stations. The middle class gets its interests articulated through other means, for example, through the bureaucracy, through the army, through those who are very well represented in the power structure.” Its interests belong, in other words, outside the domain of electoral politics.

Imran distinguishes the PTI from other parties by the caliber of its candidates. “Look at these people,” he says, referring to his rivals. “They are all professional politicians.” That’s code for corrupt. “Look down the line, and you will see that they’ve all minted money after entering politics and holding power. Most of the politicians are nothing without power.” There’s more than a touch of elitism to what comes next: “In Tehrik-i-Insaaf, all the top leadership have made their names outside. They don’t need politics.” This is Imran’s vision of politics: an elite, educated vanguard to lead Pakistan.

But many of the luminaries from his early days, like Nasim Zehra and Dr Parvez Hassan, have since left the party. In their place are people like Shireen Mazari, a political scientist and newspaper editor best known for her unsubstantiated public attacks on foreign journalists.

The influx of politicians to the PTI has swelled the party’s ranks, and included a few high-profile public figures: the former foreign minister of Pakistan, Shah Mahmood Qureshi; the renowned squash player Qamar Zaman; Walid Iqbal, the poet’s grandson; and Saleem Jan Khan, whose grandfather was the famous resistance leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

But, the bulk of the people now entering Imran’s party are career politicians, a far cry from the urban professionals he has so long touted as his strength. To use Imran’s terms, these are exactly the sort of people who need politics: second and third-generation politicians carrying on the family business, or careerists and opportunists who flit from party to party seeking advancement, and who seem to regard the PTI as a strategic opportunity to revitalise their flagging political fortunes.

The swelling crowds at party rallies and the growing volume of politicians switching sides to join the PTI have contributed to the widespread perception that Imran is experiencing a sudden and meteoric political ascent, no matter what happens in the next elections. Many commentators, in fact, have begun to sketch comparisons to the mass movement that accompanied Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rise to power. But the gap between this moment and that one is far more revealing than any similarities: Bhutto rode the tide of a broad outrage at the dictatorships of Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, which crossed demographic lines and stood in opposition to the bureaucracy, the army, the Islamist parties and even feudal landlords.

For reasons that are both complex and unrelated to any comparison between Imran and Bhutto, it seems impossible to imagine a similarly broad movement today, one that could unite broad segments of Pakistani society behind an agenda of social and economic justice. The political worldview of the middle and upper classes—whether it’s the politics of personal expression and individual rights, moral outrage against corruption, or the outspoken embrace of tradition and piety—has almost no point of overlap with the needs and desires of millions of Pakistanis who are too poor to exercise meaningful choice in such matters. Against this backdrop, the measure of Khan’s significance looks to be less about what he does—in terms of attracting supporters and votes—and more about what his exploding popularity says about those who flock to him.

AT THE LAST PTI RALLY I ATTENDED—a big rally in Islamabad on Pakistan’s Independence Day that was likely the largest PTI event prior to the October rally in Lahore—an enormous shipping container served as the stage, and I had managed to secure a spot standing at the back of this improvised dais, with Khan seated almost directly in front of me, right next to Hamid Gul. The party had granted me permission to watch from the stage, but it wasn’t easy to make my way past the sweaty young men crammed on the steel stairs, wrestling with the security staff so they could be closer to their idol.

After I had made it onto the stage, a young man broke free from the stairs and lunged towards Imran. A stocky PTI guard yanked him back by his shirt, shouting “Khuda ki kasam!” and struggling to restrain the man who was flushed, shaking his head, almost senseless. “Is this how you show your love for Khan! You’re wrecking it!” More security quickly appeared and pushed him back down the stairs into the heaving mass.

When I saw Imran later, he said he was surprised to learn I’d managed to made it onstage. As far as I could remember, he hadn’t actually turned around to look at the crush of people clamouring to get up the staircase and be near him—but he knew. He basked in their fervour—junoon, even—and in return, he mirrored back to them their best idea of themselves.

He can do that for many people.

The last time I saw Khan was this autumn in New York. He’d been invited, for the third time, to deliver a talk at Columbia University. Dressed in a dark suit, Imran appeared to be in his natural métier, responding to questions and effusive comments from a mostly expatriate South Asian audience, many of whom appeared to be Indian.

He was in top form, with an almost intuitive ability to reframe the terms of the discussion. In response to a question about whether he would uphold Pakistan as a secular state, Imran responded bluntly. “I’ve been all over Pakistan,” he said. “Never have I ever heard this from the ordinary Pakistani, about Pakistan being secular or Islamist.” Certainly, there’s some truth here: most Pakistanis, consumed by their daily lives, are much more concerned about rolling blackouts and the price of sugar. Khan continued: “This has never been the issue from the common people. They want rule of law. They want education. I have only heard this at dinner table conversations in Islamabad.” The audience clapped wildly even before he was fully finished speaking.

Imran offered more. “Religion is—if it is a true religion—it should make you compassionate. All religion makes you compassionate.”

“This is a theme that runs in every religion, so when Iqbal talked about religion or Jinnah talked about religion or Gandhi talked about religion, they meant the compassion that comes with religion as opposed to materialism, because what is a threat to human kind does not come from religion. It comes from naked materialism. It comes from greed, getting richer and richer and plundering other people’s resources.”

Having delinked religion from violence, he went on to question secular violence. “Just because people kill in  name of religion doesn’t mean anything is wrong with religion. People are killing in the name of communism, democracy, freedom.” The audience was quiet. “The whole of colonialism was in the name of educating the native—you know, the white man’s burden.”

This is Imran at his strongest: delivering a trenchant critique of the often self-satisfied assumptions that underpin secular liberalism. Even as he fails to use that critique to articulate a broad politics, the force of his argument is not lost on significant segments of the diaspora—particularly Muslims—who have become attuned to the realities of lingering racism in a country where right-wing groups are still holding public rallies to condemn the construction of new mosques. For other Pakistanis, who have become accustomed to being embarrassed by the tragicomic coterie of politicians who currently rule Pakistan, Khan offers a welcome respite: urbane, charming, an Oxford-educated icon. For others still—particularly Indians who see Pakistan as a tinderbox of religious fanaticism on the brink of exploding into flames (a vision they share with secularist elites inside Pakistan)—Imran may appear to be the kind of conservative yet reasonable politician with whom dialogue is possible. Everyone dreams of Imran in her own way.

Even Marvi Sirmed, it turns out. I asked her what she thought of him when she was growing up. “I wanted to marry him,” she laughed. “He had won a game, and we were in Qaddafi Stadium, and I was with my parents, and people were garlanding him. He was looking cute, and the media had projected him as a big-time hero. We all wanted to marry him, actually.”