Imran Khan's taking centre stage on the national scene with his 100,000 strong gathering in Lahore has raised questions about what he represents and his chances in the next national elections.
Being up with Khan and former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto at Oxford in the 70s has given me some insights into both. The first factor in Khan's favour is that success has never spoiled him. As captain of the university's cricket team and his striking looks he was already the object of much undergraduate attention — I for one would invite him to my college for tea parties where one smitten friend or another would request introductions, as when he visited the Oxford Union. He remained easygoing, likeable and hospitable. I still have a hand-drawn diagram he stuck on my door describing his address for a tea-party invite. He socialised with his compatriots and the ‘locals' both; and he and Benazir got along perfectly well as students, whatever their latter differences as politicians. At my farewell party he appeared unaware he was the cynosure of all eyes, instead courteously chatting with my parents who had flown specially from Moscow — my father being ambassador there — to host it.
In the decades since -— featuring his World Cup win, the founding of Shaukat Khanum Hospital, publicised marriage and his political debut — his demeanour, like Benazir's, has remained constant. At the Turkish National Day two weeks ago he asked about my son, and told me his own boys were teenagers now.
Another testimonial to Khan's character and capability is his shining monument to his mother — Shaukat Khanum Hospital, with its world-class capacity for cancer care and cure, where patients who can afford to pay and charitable contributions fund and free care for the less well off. His foreign policy agenda represents a radical — and refreshing — departure from passive, pro-western orientation. Other players have tied hands — he alone stands for a truly independent Pakistan. Those who sanctioned foreign bases and the launching of drone attacks on our population cannot disengage. In this crucial context too, Khan is uncorrupt.
Poverty of politics
How will he fare in the elections and has he any hope of forming and leading the next government? The Lahore rally commenced a process; which more such rallies would accelerate. While critics remain, youth and other growing segments of society feel no politician has been above criticism and given the poverty of Pakistan's political landscape, Khan deserves his chance.
Success depends on his taking certain steps. He must clarify his position on extremism and terrorism and on the Taliban. He is correct that western occupations have spawned these scourges, but now clarity is needed on how to deal with them.
He must declare his position on women and their role in Pakistan. Many condemn him as a protagonist of conservatism, which, given his personal life, appears hypocritical. Knowing him, his able party colleague Dr Shirin Mazari, and of his working relationship with his ex-wife, one believes he is an advocate of women's participation in Pakistan's progress. But he must make this crystal clear.
He has pitched his appeal against the corruption of the traditional political system and its parties. If he now compromises this concept by allying with his major opponents in the Punjab, Nawaz Sharif's PML-N, whose supporters he would divide, he would lose much support. Politics remains the art of the possible and electoral seat adjustments rather than actual alliances that may well result. Nonetheless he must "raise the bar" of Pakistan's polluted politics by instituting party elections at every level; and by ensuring that other-party entrants he takes aboard live up to what he expects of all politicians, and conduct themselves with propriety and principle. Khan needs to bring out a coherent manifesto, and depute experts to prepare action plans on implementation should his party, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, come to power. Observers tend to forget that Khan would likely gain the support of the religious parties, who have been unable to modernise themselves as has the AKA in Turkey. He represents a voice closer to their aspirations than any other Pakistani politician.
Khan has captured the imagination of the youth — 30 per cent of the votebank — much as US President Barack Obama before him. Just as Obama's supporters built up a formidable party machine, using social media and bringing out otherwise uncommitted voters, Khan needs to quickly attract highly skilled organizational managers. Charisma only goes so far. Khan's emergence on Pakistan's political scene represents the aspiration for change that dominates the day. These winds of change have already transformed expectations of leadership, and put popular pressure on the major parties, constituting an achievement in itself. I wish him victory.
Rehana Hyder is the CEO of the Islamabad-based Environment, Energy and Development Associates.