Will Imran Khan deliver on his promise of a new Pakistan?

The former cricketer brings an enthusiasm for welfare and eliminating corruption.

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Some years ago I interviewed Imran Khan for a newspaper story. The charismatic Pakistani politician was on one of his frequent trips to the UK, where he has many supporters. At the end of a half-hour conversation, I asked Khan if he would grant me another interview if he became prime minister.

“Okay, okay, I will Hamad,” he said.    

I don’t know if he honestly believed the day would ever arrive, but since the former cricket star declared victory in the country’s election this week, I am thinking about reminding him of his promise.

The idea of Khan as leader of the South Asian country had for many years felt as unreal as Santa Claus or the tooth-fairy. When in the Nineties he set up his own party, Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice), Khan was an idealist cut-off from the murky world of politics. For many Pakistanis his image remained that of the legendary sportsman who had led the country to victory in the 1992 cricket world cup.

But Khan was always a maverick. As a cricketer he called for the introduction of neutral umpires and got a lot of flak for it. Later it became widely accepted.

But his most important achievement in the eyes of many in Pakistan was not in cricket. After his mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1984, Khan took her to Britain for treatment. After watching her suffer in the last few months of her life, he decided to build a hospital offering free cancer treatment to the poor. Many were sceptical, but an outpouring of donations from ordinary people made the ambitious project turn into a reality. In 1994 Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre was established. In a country without an NHS-like system, it was a small miracle for people who otherwise could not afford treatment.     

Khan is an admirer of the welfare state in Britain, as he told me: “The founding fathers wanted Pakistan to become a welfare state. I reckon this is the ideal, well certainly my party would strive for [it]. I really believe that a humane society was why Pakistan was made. But that can only happen if we tax the rich. I don’t mean increase taxes, I mean tax the rich and help the poor. At the moment the opposite is happening. The rich all have money stashed abroad and poor people are left with the brunt of taxes which causes inflation.”  

I asked him if he was left-wing. “I call myself a liberal,” he told me. “You know a liberal means someone who believes in democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression and a welfare state.”

Beyond admiration for the welfare state, Khan also has more personal connections with the UK: his ex-wife Jemima Goldsmith and their two sons. He also has many followers among sections of the British Pakistani community, who have lent support for his hospital and political activities.    

My first meeting with Khan was some ten years ago in 2008 for an interview that ran in the New Statesman. I had been invited to come to the Bank of England Sports Club in Roehampton, London. In those days the country’s media had recently been liberalised and there had been a flourishing of news channels. As it turned out, there were a few other journalists invited to a small round-table with Khan. I asked for a separate meeting with Khan.

My impression of Khan, as he politely answered my questions, was of someone who talked without filters. No obfuscation. It was like chatting with a campaigner holding a placard on the street, not a smooth-talking politico saddled with PR minders.

The year before Pakistan's former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, had been assassinated in Rawalpindi. The news had sent shock waves through the country. Her unpopular and widely alleged to be corrupt widower, Asif Ali Zardari (known as “Mr Ten Per Cent”), became president in September 2008 after his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won the elections. 

To understand who Khan is, it is helpful to understand his rivals. “Corruption has broken all records,” Khan told me when Zardari was in power. ”Almost every senior post in Pakistan is filled by a crook. Criminals who should be in jail are occupying key positions.”

In the 2013 national elections there were a lot of expectations from supporters that Khan would finally sweep the elections on the back of his anti-corruption manifesto. But his party lost to another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). Although Khan alleged widespread rigging, he was able to form a regional government in the north western province of Kyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Sharif’s five years were marred by economic mismanagement and record debts. The former premier’s troubles began after his family’s name popped-up in the Panama Papers. In a remarkable development, Sharif and his daughter were arrested this month on corruption-related charges. They were sentenced to ten and seven years in prison. He was unable to accurately show the source of his wealth used to purchases luxury flats in London. The naked corruption and the large number of young voters harking for tabdeli (change) have been important factors in helping Khan secure crucial votes.

So what can we expect from a Prime Minister Imran Khan? His political ideals bear similarities to those of the late Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, as well as Malaysia’s 93-year-old leader Mahathir Muhammad. These are leaders he has frequently mentioned in his speeches and interviews. The challenge for a revolutionary leader is to visualise for the masses what change can mean, particularly when the old ways are so ingrained in the older generations.

Yew's role in transforming Singapore from an Asian backwater to one of the leading economies holds much appeal in a developing country like Pakistan. When Mahatir came back from retirement this year, Khan tweeted: "Corruption of Malaysian PM Najib Razak was the major reason Mahatir came out of a 15-year retirement to win elections despite attempts by Najib govt to manipulate the same. Congratulations to Mahatir & the people of Malaysia." He was in an indirect way drawing parallels between Razak and his own rivals Sharif and Zardari. 

The stock market has already been rallying after the election results, and the Pakistani rupee has picked up against the US dollar. Unlike his predecessors, Khan is expected to steer a more independent policy in his dealings with the United States. He has also expressed a desire to improve relations with India and Afghanistan. Finally his supporters hope he will focus on more welfare related projects such as public sector education and health care, in what Khan calls his naya (new) Pakistan.