Imran Khan, whose university idols used to be Mick Jagger and Karl Marx, once described himself to me as a “humble sinner” in an interview.
We were sitting in the sylvan surroundings of his Bani Gala residence, a mansion built at the top of a steep hill slope, with an imposing view of Islamabad. Khan, whom I have known for more than two decades, spoke with disarming candor about the many twists and turns of his life’s journey. He was a cricket superstar and a flamboyant Don Juan adored by millions of women in the South Asian subcontinent. He has now transformed into a spiritual, born-again Muslim and a conservative, self-made politician.
For someone who has lived in the public gaze and survived dozens of lurid tabloid headlines about his personal life, he had clearly developed an unflustered response to the microscopic scrutiny he has been subjected to. He had no hesitation in talking about how politics and the pressure of a cross-culture relationship broke up his first marriage to British writer and filmmaker Jemima Goldsmith. In fact, the only time he got agitated in our conversation is when I pointed out that Pakistan’s liberals had always disliked him — calling him “Taliban Khan” for the religious orthodoxy to his political rhetoric and for calling for talks with the Taliban. He was also known for his strident anti-Americanism. In words that would become an international soundbite, he retaliated angrily that these liberals were actually “fascists. … I don’t know these liberals, because these liberals back bombing of villages. They back drone attacks. … They have criticized me because I opposed this war on terror. I opposed this criminal bombing, aerial bombing of villages, women, and children getting killed. And these people were applauding it. These are not liberals. This is the scum of Pakistan who calls themselves liberals.”
For years, the man who appears poised to lead Pakistan’s next government has opposed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the continued presence of its troops in the region. In the same interview, he was extremely critical of the U.S. Navy SEALs’ covert mission that took out Osama bin Laden, arguing that “civilized countries follow due process.” He believed that bin Laden should have gotten a court trial, as Saddam Hussein did.
Though some commentators have likened his political outsider status and populist politics to those of President Trump, his rhetorical criticism of the United States is likely to put him on an early collision course with the administration in Washington. His first public comments after declaring victory reinforced his sharp criticism of the U.S.-Pakistan equation, which he called “a one-sided relationship in which America paid Pakistan to fight its war.”
Of course, not many believe (despite the denials and assertions of autonomy) that Khan would have any significant space to craft his foreign policy independent of Pakistan’s all-powerful military. How he negotiates his relationship with the Pakistani army will be key, especially with the announcement of his victory coming amid allegations by rivals and rights groups of voting manipulation by the Pakistani security establishment. Khan swiftly offered to support investigations into any genuine complaints. But his real test of independence will be how he steers his country’s relationship with India. Ousted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, now in jail in a corruption case, is widely seen to have been punished by the Pakistani army, in part for being too friendly with India. Khan also called Sharif a “security risk” and taunted him for “speaking the language of [Narendra] Modi” after Sharif admitted to Pakistan’s role in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.
Khan responded with wit and humor to Indian apprehensions about him abjectly toeing the line of the Pakistan army. He accused Indian media of casting him in the role of a Bollywood villain. The remark triggered much mirth, even among his detractors in Delhi. He did seem to strike a note of reconciliation with India in contrast to his aggressive remarks from the stumps. This is the paradox and the dilemma for Indians. Khan’s ascendance is probably the first time Indians feels as though they personally know the leader of their country’s most serious adversary. At least two generations of Indians have followed Khan on the cricket field, where he was famous for blistering bowling. His demigod status extended well beyond the borders of Pakistan. He has been a regular in the fashionable drawing rooms of Delhi and Mumbai and has more personal friendships in India than any other Pakistani politicians. There’s no denying it: Khan has been somewhat of a glamorous poster-boy in India.
What flummoxes Indians is how they should reconcile the Khan they have been exposed to — a larger-than-life, easygoing and overtly modern persona — with his new role — a politician who takes hawkish positions against India every election season. I asked Khan about that once: “What does it [your political rise] mean for people in India who love you otherwise but are scared of your politics?” He argued that the binary itself was unfair and a consequence of caricaturing him as an acolyte of the religious right. “I don’t fit in those stereotypes. I’m deeply spiritual. I lead my life with my faith, but I’m totally leftist in my thinking. I’m anti-neoliberal economics. I think there should be compassion in the world. I believe in a welfare state.”
So why does a self-proclaimed leftist and an Oxford-educated politician (Benazir Bhutto was a good friend at Oxford before she became a political rival; her son Bilawal is a key contender in these elections) back a horribly prejudiced blasphemy law that literally endangers the lives of Pakistan’s non-Muslim minorities? Khan’s friends insist in private that he is a moderate Muslim who has been compelled to take more right-wing social and religious positions because of the compulsions of politics. While moderating the launch of Khan’s memoirs in London, his ex-wife Goldsmith later shared that she did not pose any questions to Khan on the blasphemy law because she feared for his life. Khan himself told me that the U.S war on terrorism had polarized his country and made such debates impossible in the present environment.
But after promising a “Naya Pakistan” (a New Pakistan) to his voters, this will be Khan’s main challenge: how to make a break from the dangerous and entrenched patterns that have come to define Pakistan. Will he be able to figure out how to restore authority to the civilian post of prime minister — in a country where the army has always remote-controlled the elected government?