Published August 27, 2017
Photos by Tanveer Shehzad/White Star
Photos by Tanveer Shehzad/White Star

Imran Khan achieved his greatest success in 20 years of political life when he managed to convince the country’s Supreme Court to knock out his main rival Nawaz Sharif from the political arena. The 64-year-old chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has often been accused of a number of things — a naïve understanding of politics, of being a closet right-winger, of constant reversals on public statements, of an inability to accept his mistakes and personal weaknesses — but even his staunchest critics admit that it was primarily his relentless pursuit of the Panama Papers scandal that resulted in the greatest political upheaval in recent times. And there is also no denying the adulation he inspires among his supporters, comprised largely of the youth who feel he represents the best option for a change in an antiquated system they are not invested in.

How Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification plays out in the politics of Pakistan remains to be seen but already many observers are predicting that ‘Khan Saab’ — as he is known among his supporters — has the best opportunity he has ever had to achieve his goal of power in the next general elections.

There is many a slip between the cup and the lip, however. Even in his moment of triumph, the former cricketer-turned-politician must contend with an uncertain political environment, a party that is often in the news for all the wrong reasons, a highly vitriolic campaigning season and accusations of personal impropriety. Will the Supreme Court sanction other politicians after the sitting prime minister? Can PTI actually overcome its internal rifts and build its electoral support outside Khyber Pakhtunkhwa [KP] where it governs? How will voters take the constant mud-slinging between political opponents? What will Pakistanis make of the most recent allegations of sexual harassment being made against Imran Khan?

Eos sat down with the most public and yet notoriously reclusive leader in his Bani Gala residence to elicit answers to some of these questions. Excerpts of the interview follow…

So the Panamagate case has finally ousted the prime minister from power. Arguably that’s one of your greatest political wins, wouldn’t you say?

Imran Khan: Hmmm, I don’t know if it was a political win...

Well, even your critics admit that it was you who kept it alive in the public consciousness through your single-mindedness…

You only succeed if you have single-mindedness, if you have focus. This is from my training in cricket. Whatever I have done, you have to have that tunnel vision, that’s the only way you achieve anything. That’s what sports teaches you, by the way. But don’t forget that corruption has been a 21-year-old struggle. All of them [now] say what I have been saying for 21 years that corruption is the main reason why a country remains backwards. It stops the progress of a human society. You just don’t have enough money to spend on your people because that money gets siphoned off. But in our case corruption is even deadlier than in say corruption in America or Europe. Because the money made from corruption leaves the country. It’s money laundered. So if I can just give people the example of when the East India Company came to India in 1757, at the [time of the] Battle of Plassey which the East India Co. won, the GDP of India was 24 percent of the world GDP. It was one of the richest countries in the world. What the United States is now, India was that rich. And when the British left it, it was three percent. What happened? Basically, they siphoned off all the surplus of this country and invested it in England. This is exactly what corruption does to countries. It is criminal what corruption is doing to the Third World. Therefore, this was a big milestone against the fight against corruption. The first time a sitting PM has been hauled out in a corruption case.

But corruption is also widespread in the region. What do you think of how Bangladesh and India have dealt with this issue?

They’ve all gone ahead of us. But I don’t think that’s the model I want. I want the Chinese model. Because what they have done is incredible. The way they have hit poverty, it has never happened in history. I give the example of the Madina riyasat after the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him. Because it was a welfare state and the state went out of its way to take responsibility for its poor, educating them and these complexes were built where there was a dispensary and there was a school and there was a madrassah. And there was a point when you couldn’t find people to give zakat. They have shown us what can be done and all our policies will be geared towards that. Now everyone realises that the Chinese development model has been [a success], because China managed to get so many people out of poverty. When you raise people out of poverty, they have buying power, when they have buying power, investors come in and that’s how you progress. China is this example. We need to focus, just like I focused on corruption, on how to lift people out of poverty and we’ve got a delegation going to China to study what model they follow and developed to achieve this.

Do you think you have the momentum to win the elections next year? Do you think the blow to Nawaz Sharif is enough or do you need to do more to convince voters to take PTI to victory?

The disqualification of Nawaz Sharif through the courts in line with all the legal, constitutional provisions is indeed a great victory, not only for PTI per se, but for the whole nation. It’s the first time that the chief executive of the country has been brought to account by purely constitutional means. The enormity of this cannot be overestimated. It is how the founder of the nation, Jinnah, envisaged the nation to function. Now that this process has started we expect to see this continue and expand. [But] we also need the various agencies within the state accountability apparatus to operate independently and embed this process so that it does not need the political pressure from PTI or Imran Khan to see justice delivered to all those taking the oath of office to serve the country. This is what happens in robust well-functioning democracies and that is what we hope to achieve in Pakistan — something which Jinnah would be proud of if he were here to witness. However, I would like to add that’s not the only success. It’s particularly encouraging to see the Pakistani people’s level of awareness and engagement dramatically increase in the last few years that PTI has been fighting for this cause. I’m not sure if we would be here if the people had not responded in their thousands to our plea to see accountability as constitutionally required. I believe PTI can take credit for bringing that type of awareness and engagement by the people. Free and transparent elections to ensure truly representative assemblies, a robust and independent judiciary, a non-politicised and effective bureau­cracy and police, working for an aware and actively engaged public is, I believe, the greatest guarantor of a prosperous democratic Pakistan.

Would you favour early elections or does it suit your party better for the elections to take place on time next year?

Both suit us.

Your philanthropy work as well as your politics both started out as a grassroots movement. Have those two branches of your life combined now or do they contradict each other?

Actually I only came into politics after I made the hospital and realised I can only make one hospital and I made a university which is again 90 percent for children who cannot afford degrees and enroll on scholarship, and then realized that for a country this big, then 140 million people, that this was never going to be enough. I realized that the only way I can serve the poor people in this country was by building a welfare state. And for that you have to be in power. So from day one, that was to be the objective.

Coming back to your focus on the Chinese model, the Chinese are here amongst us already.

They are here with us and if we can take advantage of that. But we can only take advantage if our governance is fixed…

How do you think CPEC is going to affect our prosperity?

It opens up great opportunities.

You think it’ll really benefit Balochistan?

It will benefit the whole of Pakistan. The western route, which I think has always been a priority, it is the poorest part of Pakistan. I think that it will help develop that whole western route, Balochistan, DI Khan, tribal areas, all those places. CPEC is an opportunity. It will give opportunities for overseas investors to invest here, other investors to come in. Because Pakistan is probably the best strategically placed country in the world right now. If things get better with India, there will be a huge market on that side. Already we’re linked to China, we have Afghanistan in Central Asia, if things will get better there, Iran another energy-rich place. We can only take advantage of it if we fix the governance.

What is your stance on Indian Prime Minister Modi? Do you think any progress can be made with India while he is in power?

I think we are very unfortunate that we have an Indian prime minister who has not gotten out of a communal Hindu mindset. You expected that like Mr Vajpayee when he became prime minister he would become moderate and would move towards the centre. Vajpayee actually initiated peace talks. Modi on the other hand, is totally all aggression, his whole job he’s tried to isolate Pakistan. He’s left no stone unturned to try and declare Pakistan a terrorist state. Therefore, it’s very unfortunate, I do not see things improving until Modi is there.

Not even if you’re in power?

Well, we should always try, it doesn’t mean we should stop trying, but I just think that because of what’s happening in Kashmir — it is now an indigenous, independent movement through and through, people of Kashmir after 25 years of oppression by Indian army want independence, full stop. Now to blame Pakistan for that, which is what he is doing, and then to isolate Pakistan hoping that if Pak somehow goes under… This is what his policy looks like. He’s helping terrorists in Balochistan, in Karachi we already know the links of [Indian intelligence agency] RAW with MQM [Muttaheda Qaumi Movement] in the past and in Fata with the TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan], all that is coming from Afghanistan. So I think unless there is a change in his mindset I do not see our relationship improving with Modi.

And what about our relationship with the superpower, what do you think of Trump?

Trump could go two ways: One, their main interest now is because of Afghanistan, and if he now decides that Afghanistan is a trillion dollars down the drain and 60 percent of Afghanistan is still under Taliban, if he decides to hold dialogue with the Taliban and at the same time gives a withdrawal plan, I see it as the only hope of peace in Afghanistan. And actually then peace in Pakistan. On the other hand, if he takes the other route which is a surge of troops then I see a lot of trouble for us. Another failed policy by the Americans and trouble for us. I think the bottom-line should worry him because what’s the point of sending the troops if at the end of the day the result is the same? If 140,000 of the best equipped army of the world could not finish the war, what chance has he got with another 500 troops? How is that going to make a big difference? I can’t say that I know the ground realities of Afghanistan, but I’m just going by the history. I just do not see any prospect of peace if they use more military.

And what would be the repercussions on Pakistan?

Well, they’ll just put more pressure on Pakistan, just like Narendra Modi. We’ll just be blamed for policy failures of both governments.

Since our relations with both India and the US are often dependent on how the military perceives them, if elected as PM, how do you see the issue of civil-military relations? Do you think there is an imbalance in Pakistan that needs to be set right? 

There’s no imbalance any more. The army has categorically stated that it stands to protect our constitution and democracy. If there has been any imbalance in the past, that is no longer the case. It is worth noting that the ex-PM directly appointed both the previous two COASes [army chiefs] and therefore cannot accuse others of imposing hostile army chiefs on him. If a PM is unable to work effectively with the heads of a major institution whom he himself has appointed, then the issue is not with the institution. I strongly believe that parliament is the sovereign representative of the people, and the law of the land and overall strategic and economic policies are in its domain. The cabinet and PM ensure that the law is adhered to and policies executed. But this does not mean direct political interference in the various state functions. Strong democracies ensure that state institutions have operational independence, as we have demonstrated with the police in KP. It is critical in healthy democracies that the day-to-day operations of all arms of bureaucracy and security forces are apolitical.

How do you think Gen Musharraf tackled the war on terror?

He took the most disastrous route. We should have stayed out, it was not our war. And I’m sad to say that we went into the war because of dollars. When 9/11 happened there were no militants living in Pakistan. Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan. After Tora Bora some 200 Al Qaeda had come into Pakistan, Taliban were not an issue then. Al Qaeda had come into Pakistan, and for that reason the Americans forced Gen Musharraf, they paid him money and he sent his troops into Waziristan. That was in my opinion the biggest blunder in Pakistan. It’s one of the most painful parts of our history. Bombing villages. Drones killing people in villages. Artillery shells. It was the most inhuman thing we ever did. People in tribal areas had nothing to do with the war and the whole tribal area was destroyed. At one point 80 percent of the tribal people were IDPs. The damage done to their properties was in billions of dollars. Which we’ll never be able to give them. I think the tribal areas will take years to recover from this. It was a big blunder. In the end how do you justify 70,000 people dead, over a hundred million dollars lost to the economy in a country that had nothing to do with the whole thing? And then the radicalisation of our society. It was unforgivable. We should have stayed neutral – either we should have stayed neutral at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or we should have stayed neutral now. We could not first participate in the jihad, with the CIA organizing jihadi groups like Al Qaeda, then turn around a decade later and start killing them as terrorists. We’d indoctrinated them about foreign invasions as jihad, and suddenly when the Americans invaded we said it was terrorism [to fight them]. You couldn’t do both. We had to do one.

Is there a distinction between the good and bad Taliban?

In my opinion, there were only five percent ideological Taliban who were fighting for some ideology. 95 percent of the people were people in our tribal areas reacting to the moment, reacting to the damage. And the anti-Americanism. They were also reacting to the anti Americanism because there’s no border, the Durand Line is no border. Fellow Pashtuns had half their tribes over there so they were reacting to it. They were not ideological Taliban. And in my opinion our own tribal people should have won them over. Only the irreconcilable ideological ones should have been taken out. Unfortunately everyone was treated the same, collateral damage bred more Taliban militants. You were bombing villages, killing people’s children, what did you expect? People picked up arms. So we just created this mess for us.

How would you say we will stem this?

Now that the American footprint has decreased, it’s different. We know clearly that TTP is being backed by India, they are terrorists, the tribal people have dissociated themselves from it. That’s why we’re winning the war. If you clumped them together we were going to lose the war. If you separated them, between the ideological and the non-ideological, which is what I had said, we would win the war. It’s happening already. The moment you would have dialogue with them, you would be able to win over the ones who were only reacting.

You really have that much faith in dialogue with militants?

Of course! Americans are craving for a dialogue with the Taliban right now. Americans and the Afghan government have been pressurising Pakistan, pressurising the Afghan Taliban to hold dialogue which they [the Taliban] are refusing. In 2010, when there was Holbrooke, they were willing to have dialogue. But then they faced a [American military] surge and now they think they don’t need dialogue. Dialogue is always the way around. All terrorism struggles end up on the political table. Whether the IRA, whether the Moros in Philippines…all struggles end up in a dialogue.

And yet you often dismiss the idea of dialogue with other political parties in Pakistan. If you believe in dialogue, would you be willing to go into coalition with any of the other political parties such as MQM, PPP, ANP, etc?

Look you hold dialogue with people with different ideologies, whether it’s the right-wing, the left-wing, or communists, socialists or capitalists. I think you should be able to hold dialogue with all of them. But holding dialogue with criminals is not on. You know in other words, if someone is a crook, someone has made money and you hold accountability, how are you going to hold dialogue?

Is that why you don’t attend the National Assembly [NA] sessions?

No, national assembly sessions had degenerated into meaningless sessions. There’s no debate.

But you have a seat in the National Assembly and you have a constituency that needs to have a voice on the floor…

Yes, but the point is I’m in opposition. I don’t have any executive [powers], I don’t make any decisions, I’m only opposition. When you feel as opposition, you do not have a voice in parliament, you should be able to take your voice outside. So… when there was rigging in the elections, all the parties wanted to protest. We tried in the parliament to open up four constituencies to have an audit, just four as a sample. They refused. In parliament I tried my best. When they refused, I went out. We tried for about four months for the TOR things in parliament for the Panama case. When we realized, when Khawaja Asif said people will forget about TORs [chuckles], that’s when I went on the street. The point is, I have to do opposition. What is the best way to do that? I try my best in parliament, if I think I’m not being heard, you end up on the streets.

But if you talk about sticking to laws and the constitution, why do you shrug off the responsibility of NA sittings?

Parliament is not like a school you have to attend.

It’s a floor for discussion, which you think is the answer to everything.

There’s a role for a government. There’s a role for the opposition. And the opposition’s role is to make sure that the government stays in line. Now if you realize that in the parliament that is not happening, everywhere in the world, there are protests on the streets. Everywhere. The beauty of democracy is that people protest for their rights. You have to admit, no one gives the credit to people in parliament for both the things – the electoral reforms that took place, it was because of us and now Panama because of us coming out on the streets. No one says that Peoples Party or Khursheed Shah is the opposition leader. He doesn’t get the credit for that. Actually he should have forced that. As the opposition leader he should have forced the government to do the things we forced it to do outside the parliament. Look, people judge you by your actions. They don’t judge you by your speeches. Or you might fool them for some time. But actually they judge you, what have you actually done for the poor people? Has anyone ever done anything for poor people in politics? Name one person. In terms of the amount of philanthropy, the biggest charitable institution is Shaukat Khanum. No other institution in the history of Pakistan spends 500 million rupees on charity a year. No one spends that much. Namal is an international standard university and 90 percent [of its students] are from poor households. No other politician, not even philanthropists, spend so much on charity per year. So that’s what counts. Nawaz Sharif, every day he starts sobbing and talking about the poor people. And what has he done for them? Even the Ittefaq Hospital is a commercial hospital.

If we talk about money coming from abroad, you had a lot of donations for Shaukat Khanum coming from abroad. You say in your autobiography [which came out in 2011] the hospital was breaking even easily and covering the costs, about 36 billion is the amount you quote in the book. So what happens to the influx of donations, they go into expanding the hospital facilities I assume and does not go into the party budget.

[Clicks tongue in disgust] How can you say that?

No, I’m just asking so that it can be put on paper clearly.

Shaukat Khanum has the best financial control and audit. It has been called the best run institution, as an NGO, in terms of financial control everything, it is always tops. Every year we publish our audit report, it’s on our website. And every time they have attacked our hospital we have told them to come to our hospital and point out one bit of irregularity. It was only one thing that they picked up which was from our own audit report, that there were three million dollars invested in an endowment fund which was in trouble and they made a big song and dance about it, Khawaja Asif did. They didn’t realize that a year later the same money came back. So we never lost any money.

Speaking of money, how do you think it is perceived when your party leadership, the people seen flanking you on your left and right, are wealthy people who are obviously financing the party. Does that affect your policymaking?

They do not finance the party.

Jahangir Tareen?

No, he doesn’t finance the party. We collect donations. Our overseas chapters send us money. Like they took me to the Supreme Court, they have taken Jahangir Tareen to the court. I have mercifully been able to give all of my money trail of the flat which I bought 33 years ago and so has Jahangir. He’s got a house in England, he has given all the money trail, how the money went through the banking channels, all the tax paid, all declared. So anyway, Jahangir Tareen or no rich person finances our party. Again our case is in the Supreme Court and we are very confident, we are the only party that has such financial control. We have provided them the names of 40,000 donors. No party has this.

Do you ever feel alone leading the party? Sometimes it seems like PTI is just you. Do you think there is a successor after you?

It happens when you’re leading a movement initially, it always is led by one person. It’s your vision where you have first few people and then it grows. So I think PTI is one of the most exciting experiences in Pakistan. It’s the first time that, it’s become a mass movement, and especially among the young and women, it is very interesting and satisfying to see this movement grow. And it’s in all the four provinces. And it will become… [chuckles] we have tried twice, tried to hold elections twice. But when we get the electorate process right this will become the only political party which is an institution in Pakistan. Because it will then have a strong institution which will mean a leader will come through the party. And through elections.

You see that happening in the near future?

Yes. For instance when I was building Shaukat Khanum, people said if something happens to you what’ll happen to Shaukat Khanum? And it’s true that if in the beginning something had happened to me, it was all over. But now Shaukat Khanum is on its own feet. It can do without me. Because it has become an institution. That’s what I envisage PTI to be.

Because of social and electronic media, the rifts that occur especially in PTI or the strains in relationships, everything is put out in the open. I don’t know if anybody can see the party as one whole faction without you.

Laughs No, no. I remember the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Peoples Party. You can’t imagine the sort of infighting that went on over there.

But those were different days, without social media and the kind of electronic media we now have and we consumed news and gossip differently, it was presented differently…

But the dynamics are the same. People are jostling for place. I mean you do not have an electoral process. But once I get that electoral process in place, which will be after the general elections, then it will flow as an institution. Then you will have natural leadership coming up.

We were talking about women supporters. Is there a strong woman’s face associated with PTI? There’s usually an active presence of women parliamentarians in the top leadership in other parties.

Really? I don’t know of any.

I’m just saying we don’t hear of you speaking on women’s issues enough as is crucial to address in this day and age, in our country. Your supporter base seems to find strength from women. If you’re working for the youth and women, then don’t you think you need to be more vocal about empowering these two sections equally?

You see, there are three most important questions…Number one is rule of law, the weak women need protection. For that you need rule of law. Number two, you need education. The most important thing to empower women. So in KP now for every three primary schools built, two are for girls. Out of every hundred colleges that will be built, 70 will be for women. And third is property rights, inheritance rights. Women do not get their inheritance rights. So they are not economically independent. These three things are the most important in my opinion. If we can achieve these… You can go on about all the imported issues which are not relevant here. I’m talking about spending time with the common people, it will narrow down to these three things. If you want to help women, these are the three things to do.

How important do you think are the sexual harrassment allegations against you? Coming so soon after your Panama Papers triumph, do you think they will have any impact on public perception of you or do you believe they are merely a distraction?

I think we are all aware now that this has nothing to do with harassment but everything to do with desperation on the part of the PML-N . They have stooped very low since Panama. They have a history of sinking to such depths. For the record, never in my life have I ever been accused of harassing women.

Why have women party members such as Naz Baloch and Ayesha Gulalai and also Mussarat Ahmedzeb left the party in such rancorous circumstances?

We greatly value all our party workers, each and every one of them. PTI is a party that has grown very dramatically over the last few years. Those who’ve joined have done so because they share the vision of the party to bring about great change for a better Pakistan — a ‘Naya Pakistan’. If a handful of people leave the party for their own reasons, we are saddened, but respect their choice. However, many more are joining. And we hope that those who have left, but still share our vision, will join us back.

Many of your supporters are young people who are very impressionable and can get carried away in your adulation. Recently for example you had to stop them from attacking Ayesha Gulalai’s sister but there have been other similar instances in the past as well. How do you propose to rein in these elements of your party if your party comes to power?

Yes many are young but I have to give them credit for their passion and dedication to bring about real change. Sometimes there can be instances of over-exuberance. Where it is unacceptable, we discipline it. I personally do so, but more importantly the party mechanism and discipline will ensure that those who get ‘carried away’ are made to realise, and where required those who break the rules are penalised. I believe in building institutions. And while in doing this the example of leadership is important, it is equally necessary to have the mechanism and systems within the party to ensure the best ethical standards.

Completely switching topic here. You discuss marriage at length in your book and you admit that your bachelor life could not be reconciled with the life that Islam advises. But you made your decision to settle down later, etc. Are you standing at the same point again right now?

Aaaahh...(thinking) Actually...I have discovered, know life is all about evolution. The more you challenge yourself, the more you evolve. And the more you keep seeking knowledge, and, what’s the word I’m saying, not ‘knowledge’ or, you keep reviewing you keep looking back at your life…

Soul searching?

I’ll give you an example. In cricket I was better than others because I was better at analysing my game better than others. So I’m always analysing, I wouldn’t sleep until I had analysed the day’s plays. And that I’ve done throughout my life. So similarly, I keep analysing my own life. And so hence, my evolutionary process is probably quicker than others or better than others. And so I have always… I believe that the best way, the best life is married life. I believe it is a natural way of living. If you get it right there’s nothing like married life. But at this point in my life, I’ve reached that point the first time in my life that I believe that it is very important also to have solitude. I’ve never had such solitude before. And I actually enjoy it more than ever before. It’s probably because of all the challenges I have faced, I feel that I can focus on everything much better like this.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 27th, 2017



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