“Anti-status quo,” he calls himself. An incorruptible outsider with no ties to special interests. A God-fearing man with grass-roots support, leading a movement for change, desperately trying to save his country from certain doom.
“The whole system has collapsed,” the 58-year-old former parliamentarian says in an interview. “There is no government today.”
Enter Khan, from the left side of the field or the right, depending on which way his rhetoric is running. He often sounds like a pro-democracy liberal but is well-known for his coziness with conservative Islamist parties. (Former president Pervez Musharraf once called Khan “a terrorist without a beard” and briefly jailed him as a threat to the state, which seemed to only enhance Khan’s public stature.)
It’s been nearly 20 years since Khan captained Pakistan’s cricket team to its first and only World Cup victory and 15 years since he founded his own national party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf, or Justice Movement. Now he sees his most opportune moment in a confluence of seething public discontent and hunger for new leadership.
Conventional political wisdom gives him long odds, but Khan, with a confident sportsman’s gleam in his eyes, says, “I’m telling anyone who is a betting person to put money on me.”
In June, a Pew Research Center poll showed Khan scoring a 68 percent approval rating, which crushed Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani (37 percent favorable) and the dismally perceived president, Asif Ali Zardari (11 percent).
He attributes his success to an anti-corruption theme that has finally caught on, and to television. Pakistan had just one electronic media outlet until the government gave up its monopoly in 2003. Now, as Khan points out, “cable has gone everywhere,” promulgating scores of channels and influential anchors reminiscent of — he grasps for the name — “Larry King.”
The chat shows love to book him, and he grants regular audiences to reporters, who travel winding, rutted roads into the Himalayan foothills to reach his 30-acre estate outside Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad. Clad in a traditional white tunic, he opens the huge, heavy wooden doors to his mansion and apologizes for a brief delay.
Khan settles his rangy frame into a sofa in a living room with vaulted ceilings some 30 feet high. Despite his blowtorch oratory, in person he exudes the gentle vibe of a New Age guru — his “spiritual journey,” he notes, was influenced by a Sufi mystic.