From jalopy to juggernaut?

Imran Khan, December 2007

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ISLAMABAD: With much of the political firmament only now beginning to lay down the planks of their next electoral campaigns, one man and his party is already up and running. The question: is the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf a jalopy or a juggernaut?

In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with The News in the run-up to the first of weekly PTI dharnas planned during the month of Ramazan, Chairman Imran Khan, in trademark style, dismissed his critics and talked up the electoral prospects of his PTI.

According to Khan, the PTI’s anti-corruption stance against incumbent politicians and the pro-judiciary platform have converged into a single-point agenda: translating the PTI’s popularity with certain segments of the electorate into votes, and seats, at the next election.

“We are holding this dharna exclusively for the judiciary,” Khan told The News. “The Supreme Court should have been more aggressive in its stance against the government in the latest Hajj scam, as we all expected. But in defence of the court, it is under attack from all sides: from the government’s goons to the ‘friendly’ opposition and the media. What could the Supreme Court have done except back off?”

For Khan, if there is only one force that can actively play a role in ensuring the court’s rules are followed — the Pakistan Army.

“Last year, with the NRO proceedings the army was clearly not willing to go along and that’s why the judges went easy on the corrupt,” Khan explains. “Now the army should use all organs of its power to ensure that the executive falls in line.”

“Today if the SC passes a contempt of court order against Prime Minister Gilani in the Hajj or NICL cases, the army and paramilitary soldiers should be stationed at the Supreme Court building and at the residences of the chief justice and other judges hearing the contempt case so that we don’t see a repeat of the 1997 incident,” Khan said, referring to the infamous storming of the Supreme Court by supporters of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

“It is unfortunate and tragic that the SC has backed down and given an easy ruling on the Sohail Ahmed issue,” Khan said. “But this was because it thinks if it were attacked, there would be no one to protect it. Our judiciary cannot be left feeling helpless.”

Khan, though, maintains that he doesn’t support the army’s intervention in politics per se: “The army is as much responsible for the decline of this country as any other party,” Khan says. “In fact, under this army’s watch, thousands of soldiers and ordinary citizens have been killed. The army is responsible.” In Khan’s reckoning the army needs to play a positive role to support democracy now.

Indeed, Khan insists that he’s always been in favour of taking the army to task for its wrongdoings. “After the Abbottabad raid, I was the first one to say the prime minister, the president, and yes, the army chief should all resign. No matter what comes of the investigations, the fact is that the raid took place and heads should roll.”

Though Khan has come to stand for railing against the corruption of the political class, has he directed similarly harsh criticism at corruption within the army’s ranks? “Of course, I have,” he says. “There are no holy cows. Corruption is everywhere, within civilian and military circles alike. It’s a larger problem that manifests itself in different ways. I am against corruption in every sense, and that includes when it’s done by the army.”

Khan is also suspicious of the PML-N’s stance on the judiciary. “If Nawaz wanted, he could have pulled his 80 MNAs out of the assembly and called for early election. But he also doesn’t want rule of law. How many skeletons are lying in his own closet? How can he truly support the independence of judges?” Khan asks.

Khan claims he is the only politician who has declared his assets. “Last year, I paid Rs18.5 Lakh in taxes,” he said. “The details of all my assets are with the Election Commission — each and everything is in my name.

Tell me, how can Nawaz own that estate in Raiwind and pay Rs5,000 in tax? How can Zardari pay no tax and yet be able to charter planes? Something has to be wrong. These crooks are using the law to break the law.”

But having won one National Assembly seat in over fifteen years of politics, how does Khan plan to sweep the upcoming general election?

“Again, thanks to the push from the apex judiciary the election commission has removed 35 million unverified voters from Nadra’s record while around 36 million new voters have been added to the database,” Khan says.

“If the electoral list had 35 million bogus voters, and the PPP and PML-N are in power with 18 million votes collectively, then you can do the math and figure out whether they deserve to be there.”

At least if polls are to be believed, Khan has made substantial ground in recent months. The US-based PEW survey has ranked the PTI chairman as the most popular politician with 78 percent of the people surveyed.

But the polling data runs counter to conventional wisdom among political analysts, which tends to dismiss Khan as a political lightweight and a ‘spoiler’ politician. “Of course, you can spin this in a negative way if you want, but yes, I am going to get the anti-status quo vote. That is my electorate. And it’s an ever-expanding one.”

Khan explains that there are two models of doing politics in Pakistan. “There is constituency-based politics, or movement-based politics. I am following this second model, the [Zulfikar Ali Bhutto] model. If you want to succeed in politics in this country and have a genuinely successful movement, you have to follow the Bhutto model.”

And while most accuse Khan of not understanding the nature of constituency politics in a first-past-the-post system, Khan is confident about recruiting strong candidates, including political heavyweights like Jahangir Tareen, Sikander Mohsin and Ishaq Khakwani whom Khan is actively courting.

Yet, at the same time Khan insists he is looking for a different kind of candidate. “Most of our mainstream politicians make money through politics and then use politics to protect that money. I’m not interested in those kinds of politicians,” he says.

Curiously, Khan, long a darling of the media, has begun to feel sidelined.

The ‘Save Pakistan’ rally held in Faisalabad on July 25 was attended by at least 30,000 people, Khan claims. Independent observers suggest a turnout of 10,000-15,000, still a significant number for a politician of Khan’s stature and track record. At the June rally in Multan, Khan managed to draw large number of supporters from rural areas, though his party is mostly considered an urban phenomenon.

Political observers suggest, and Khan agrees, that the media, particularly in Punjab, may be actively downplaying the emerging story of Imran Khan and his increasingly popular PTI. “The tentacles of the PML-N permeate deep into the media establishment,” Imran speculates. “And the PML-N is now actively countering the growing influence of the PTI, including trying to influence news coverage of its activities.” But if the Ramazan dharnas are successful, will Khan use the momentum to lead a ‘long march’ to the Capital? The holy month may then be the moment of truth for Khan’s PTI.

(From The News, Pakistan)

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