Imran Khan, the colorful cricket legend now topping polls as Pakistan’s most popular politician, never misses a chance to bash his rivals as “stooges” and “puppets” of the United States. Given his sympathy for the Taliban, condemnation of U.S. drone strikes and dim view of American foreign policy — “All they want is obedient slaves,” he’s said — you might just get the impression that he’s anti-American.
Well, of course. But that merely constitutes a Pakistani politician’s version of running against Washington, of playing to the disgruntled base. In his relentless campaign to become the next prime minister — in 2013 or earlier, if a snap election is called — Khan has taken an approach that would ring familiar on the U.S. presidential primary corn-dog circuit.
“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.
For further enlightenment, he recommends his forthcoming book, “My Pakistan: A Personal History,” to be published in a couple of weeks in Britain. It sounds suspiciously like one of those promotional bios often cranked out by American presidential hopefuls. (The publisher declined to provide an advance copy.)
The product of a wealthy family in Lahore, Khan straddles the line between the secular Western and devout Muslim worlds. The other day he welcomed a group of fact-finding U.S. senators to his home. He may oppose U.S. policy in the region, but no hard feelings — have some fruit.
The Oxford-educated Khan developed a reputation as an international playboy during his cricket years. In 1995, he married a socialite half his age — Jemima Goldsmith, the daughter of James Goldsmith, a British billionaire. She converted to Islam; they had two sons before divorcing after nine years.
Khan candidly attributed their breakup to his political ambitions. Life in Pakistan did not suit Jemima, but he would not relocate. “My home and future are in Pakistan,” he said at the time.
Jemima Khan forcefully rallied to her ex’s aid in 2007 after Musharraf declared emergency rule and cracked down on political foes. Tipped off that police were coming for him, Khan famously leapt over garden walls at his Lahore home and went on the lam for three weeks. After he turned himself in, Jemima organized protests outside the prison and called on Musharraf to resign.
Khan’s farm includes a cricket pitch where he and his sons play when they visit. He’s taken some hits for living large while promoting himself as a candidate dedicated to the interests of the poor, but he brushes them off.
As one of his three sheepdogs lumbers into the room, Khan points out that he got the land on the cheap, when the area was jungle, using proceeds from selling his London flat.
“The money I made I brought into this country,” he says.
Khan also is acclaimed for his charitable works, including building the nation’s only cancer hospital, which treats 75 percent of its patients at no charge. In a country known for a lack of transparency, he has made his finances an open book.
By contrast, he says, the shameless tax evasion and the “mega-corruption” of status-quo leaders, past and present, have strangled Pakistan’s economy.
“The system is destroying the people,” he says, “but the politicians are getting richer than ever before.”
And now Khan exhibits all the moves required for combat on newsmaker shows: the hand chop, the balled fist, the flinging arms that dominate the territory within the camera’s eye. And then, the perfect sound bite:
“The government is protecting the criminals because the criminals are sitting in the government!”
When he was a cricket star, Khan was known as an “all-rounder,” both a batsman and a bowler, and perhaps that could serve as a metaphor for his appeal. He offers something for everyone. And he brings to the race advantages that may translate here even though they seem, well, remarkably American.
Consider: He is a big-brained sports hero in the mold of a Jack Kemp or Bill Bradley. He exhibits the swagger of a George W. Bush, along with the built-in fame. “I’ve always had an easy option because of my name,” Khan says.
Shaggy-haired and craggily handsome, he could be taken for a boomer-era rocker. And the onetime international playboy still maintains a rakish appeal to female voters — “the weak-in-the-knees club,” as one female columnist here put it.
Then there’s the underdog outsider narrative.
“He strikes me as sort of a Ron Paul figure,” says Karachi author H.M. Naqvi, who spent several years in Washington. Like the Republican Texas congressman and presidential candidate, Khan “is very principled,” Naqvi says. “There is no taint of corruption. And there is his anti-establishment message.”
But none of that may matter in Pakistan. The basic rap against Khan is that he’s a one-man show, a grandstander with no constituency beyond the urban elite, including the Facebookers who promote his movement and attend his sit-ins, staged regularly this summer outside Parliament.
“He is a good pressure group. He screams and cries,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a political commentator who describes herself as a liberal secularist. “I am not underestimating the desperation of the people for an alternative, but he is not a capable politician. . . . He is still far, far away from his popularity getting votes. Young people don’t vote.”
Since 1996, Khan and his tiny party have held only one seat in Parliament — his. He won it in 2002 and gave up it up in protest in 2008, boycotting the election. So he lacks the practical vote-hustling experience of the big parties’ retail politicians – the ruling Pakistan People’s Party or the still-powerful opposition party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Seventy percent of the elected seats in Parliament represent rural areas, and, just as in the U.S. Congress, Pakistani MPs must service their districts to placate constituents.
“They want jobs. They want gas. They want electricity,” Siddiqa says.
Other analysts point out that the majority of Pakistani voters tend to follow the recommendations of tribal leaders and feudal bosses. And tens of millions are illiterate.
There could be another path to power. Some observers say the military establishment is glad to have Khan waiting in the wings and would be content to install him as the next prime minister if the weak civilian government implodes.
But publicly, at least, Khan has been unsparing in his criticism. He called for army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani’s resignation after the secret U.S. operation that killed Osama bin Laden. As for the army’s ongoing efforts to root out militants in the tribal areas, he says, “They haven’t achieved anything. In point of fact, because of the military action, there’s been an increase in militants and extremism in our country.”
Rather than be anointed from above, Khan sees himself surfing into office on a youth wave that shares some of the characteristics of the Arab Spring revolts.
Comparisons are not entirely fitting, but Pakistan also has a large percentage of young people who are well educated, unemployed and unhappy.
“Some spark among them could happen in this country,” says political analyst Farukh Saleem. “Could it move in Imran Khan’s favor? I don’t know.”
But candidate Khan knows. He feels something in his core, he says, just as he did before the 1992 World Cup final, which ended with Pakistan defeating England.
He had played in four previous unsuccessful World Cup bids, and the oddsmakers were laying down 50-1 against Pakistan.
Khan started calling friends, telling them victory was certain: “I told them to put money on it. Nobody did.”
A cocky smile. “They wish they did.”