Love him or hate him, you can no longer ignore him. Following the Lahore rally, Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf have emerged as a force on the field of Pakistani politics.
But to many he is still a mystery: is he a superstar, a philanthropist, a politician, or all three? Who is he really, and what does he stand for?
Q: Some call you Taliban Khan, and some call you Inqilab Khan. So the first question I want to ask is: will the real Imran Khan please stand up?
Imran Khan (IK): (laughs) … You missed out one thing… I’m also part of the Jewish lobby.
Q: And of course you’re a slave of the US and Europe, according to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
IK: And according to PML-N, there is also a Jewish conspiracy going on.
Q: So we need the real Imran to tell us who he is. First, let’s talk about Shah Mahmood Qureshi. After his resignation, he can either go for the Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz (PML-N) or the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), and now you’re going to tell us which one it is.
IK: I’m hoping he joins PTI because he fits the profile of what I expect a PTI office bearer to be. He’s honest, a clean politician who is educated and is a bit of an anomaly in this system. He has a vote bank and has a lot of political experience which our party lacks because we’ve got new people. Here is someone who started from the union council level and has been contesting elections for years and so he brings in a lot of experience.
Q: On the point of new people joining the party, one of the statements you made recently is that PTI will not award tickets to corrupt people and opportunists…but can those corrupt people and opportunists still join your party?
IK: If someone is a known crook then they can’t join the party, but there are a lot of shades of grey. This is a society where it is difficult to be honest, and even if you try to be honest, society forces you to be dishonest. For example, I was trying to transfer land from my ex-wife’s name to mine and it took me one year just to have a simple transfer done. I kept asking my lawyer why it’s taking so long and, without telling me, he eventually bribed the patwari because otherwise it would have gone on forever! So to say that we will find angels here is not possible. But we will try and sift through relatively better politicians. For instance, Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Mian Azhar are clear-cut choices.
Q: Why is Mian Azhar a clear-cut option? A lot of people are criticising that decision because Mian Azhar was the head of the PML-Q under Pervez Musharraf and he lost the elections in 2002 so why him?
IK: Because he is honest and nobody has accused him of corruption. If we exclude everyone who has changed parties or is of a slightly different ideology then it will be impossible to get anyone. So we have decided that it is financial corruption we’ll concentrate on, which is the biggest reason why we are in the state we are today. If we can fight corruption in Pakistan then the country becomes viable.
Q: But don’t you see a contradiction there when you have somebody like Mian Azhar who represents the old status quo politics and you say you are representing ‘new’ politics?
IK: It’s not a contradiction and I’ll tell you why. It’s because revolutions are not brought about by political workers. It’s the leadership that comes up with a certain ideology. I remember Fidel Castro saying that he started the Cuban Revolution with 16 people who formed his ideological core. The most invaluable part of the PTI are the core workers and office bearers who have survived 15 years in the wilderness. I mean, we have passed through the most difficult test where everyone wrote us off. So those people who stuck it out were the ideological workers and office bearers. Everyone can join and there are a lot of people joining but the ideology of PTI will be protected by this old guard.
Q: Is the real Imran Khan a risk taker?
IK: Imran Khan was always a risk taker. Everyone said “Minar-e-Pakistan! Oh you’re doomed now” and of course Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif had their own rally in quite a small venue, despite full administrative support, so everyone said you’re taking a huge risk with Minar-e-Pakistan. But anyone who has achieved anything in life has always been a risk taker.
Q: So what happened that day on October 30th when you arrived at the venue and saw all those people? What was your instant reaction?
IK: You know I had four interviews before the 30th and in each interview I said that there will be over a hundred thousand people at the rally. When I said that we will sweep the elections, people laughed! And I actually made a bet with Talat Hussain on Kashif Abbasi’s programme saying that we will sweep the elections. He was very cynical about it and then on another programme I gave him in writing that the PTI will sweep the elections. The reason was…and I’ve never said this before…the reason was in the past year I’ve seen the people change. That’s because I’m probably the only politician who was going around holding public rallies because others were too scared. I could see that the youth had suddenly woken up and decided that there was only one party that stood for the change they wanted. So each rally was larger than the last. So when it came to the Lahore rally, I felt it would be a big success and I was very relaxed. My party workers were worried but I was relaxed about it.
Q: When I first interviewed you in Lahore in 1997, the PTI was quite new. It was your first time in politics and I remember quite clearly at that time you had said corruption is the most serious problem affecting this country and that all corrupt people should be hanged. There was a certain naivety that you had at that time. The Imran Khan sitting in front of me here today…how has he changed?
IK: This is a country where thousands of children die from waterborne diseases, where over 1,600 people have committed suicide because they can’t feed their families and here are these criminals siphoning off billions of dollars. My instinct is against capital punishment, but these people are taking lives and I do believe that to stop the plunder of this country, for a while there should be capital punishment above a certain level of corruption. I was in China recently and they had a huge problem with corruption but then 150 state ministers were imprisoned and some were even executed and the problem has been largely controlled.
As for the other question, yes I was completely naive! I’d approach politicians with all sincerity and say ‘you should join me because we want to change this country’ and now when I look back I realise they must have thought what an idiot I was! Because I was being sincere and thought they’d all join me just because of that. But now of course, they’re all joining but they don’t join simply because you are sincere.
Q: Then why do they join?
IK: They join because they have invested a lot in their constituencies. Some of them will join because they are total opportunists and think you are going to win. Others (I think) want to join you but feel you’re not viable. They feel they’ve done a lot of work and built a vote bank and don’t want to join someone who is sincere but unviable.
Q: You say corruption causes billions of dollars in losses and that you want to bring back the money and assets that are in the Swiss banks. How are you going to do this? What is your game plan?
IK: Firstly it is important to know that only a government that is clean can bring that money back. I don’t know if you saw Rehman Malik’s comment after Shahbaz Sharif’s rally on the 28th where Shahbaz said “We’ll bring back the Swiss money,” so Rehman Malik the next day said, “the Sharifs better be careful because we know where all their foreign assets are and we know all the corruption cases against them so they better not cross this line.” In other words they are saying, “let’s keep sparring but let’s not cross a certain point” because they know that once an accountability process starts, both of them will be affected. So you need a clean government to do this. Secondly, the world has changed. Once you start corruption proceedings against anyone with foreign assets, as with (former Tunisian president) Zine Abedin Ben Ali, (former Egyptian president) Hosni Mubarak and Qaddafi, all their foreign assets are immediately frozen. We are no longer in the old days where you could hide your money in Swiss banks. Now there is a money trail, so if a government has the will and there are people who cannot explain their assets, it can get this done. That’s why our main campaign is to have politicians declare their assets.
Q: But all these politicians declare their assets before the Election Commission. You don’t consider that viable?
IK: It is so obvious that they have concealed their real assets. That is why someone as rich as Nawaz Sharif will only pay Rs5,000 in tax. Then there’s me, a politician who was a professional cricketer for 18 years and I earned most of my money abroad. And all my money is in Pakistan and declared in my name. So how is it that these people, who only earned or plundered money from Pakistan, have assets abroad? They even sent the money abroad through hawala and other channels and laundered it. That’s why we insist that politicians must declare their assets.
Q: Do you seriously think they will?
IK: We have now set up a cell to bring out the real assets. So we will see what they have concealed even if they want to hide it.
Q: Leader of the opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan of the PML-N says if you have proof you should go to the courts.
IK: We might do that, but the problem is that it is the duty of the state to stop corrupt people. Instead here is a state which protects criminals. Here the judgments of the Supreme Court are ignored by all. When the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) was annulled, why did the PML-N not do anything in the assemblies? Why did they sit around? If they are a genuine opposition, they should have stood up. But the problem is that the PML-N leadership has a number of corruption cases against it so it’s a “you scratch my back I scratch yours” situation. It became the friendliest opposition which is why now you’re seeing them panicking and going for a “Go Zardari Go” campaign because they have suddenly realised that the PTI has now taken over as the main opposition and they are trying to reoccupy that space which they have lost.
Q: Why is the PTI opening up multiple fronts simultaneously? With the PML-N, the PPP and the MQM. The only people you haven’t attacked yet are the ANP and I suspect that is not too far in the list at this point.
IK: We are not attacking parties, but the status quo as represented by the PML-N and the PPP. In sports we learn that you have to know your enemy and then go for them. Who is destroying this country? It’s the two main parties and their interests are the same. They have been in this coalition for almost all the time since 2008 and now they are trying to pretend they are actually in opposition with each other because they are threatened by us. Threatened by the tsunami that is coming. When they attack each other, it’s like watching a fixed match!
Q: You have always strongly opposed drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. You have declared the war on terror an American war and vowed to hang all those responsible for the deaths of the over 35,000 people killed in terror attacks as well as drone strikes. This will probably confuse a lot of people. Who exactly do you hold responsible?
IK: First, let me make it clear that I never used the word hang. I said we would bring them to justice. The reason is this country has had 35,000 to 40,000 people dead and more are dying every day. Zardari says the country has lost $70 billion, which means the people have lost this money. The government has got $20 billion, but we don’t know where it went because the people are getting poorer and there are three and a half million people who have been displaced and the entire tribal belt has been devastated. People have been devastated; you cannot imagine the way they are living because no one is allowed to go in there and see. Life is hell for them. So, why did we get into this? We were not involved in 9/11, no Pakistani was involved. Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan, there were no militant Taliban in Pakistan and in any case the Taliban were not terrorists, but fundamentalists. We went in for dollars. Our ruling elite have always sold us for dollars. Some 20 years ago we were in this for dollars again, acting as a frontline state. We were creating jihadis for dollars then and now we are taking dollars to kill the same people. After 9/11 we should have helped the US, just as we should help any country suffering from terrorism, but not like this. We have created terrorists at home.
Q: What kind of help would you have offered?
IK: If there was any information about the plot, about the plotters, then we should have provided it to them. But help doesn’t mean that we should have handed over our civilians for bounty and have them end up in Guantanamo. We did a U-turn, we turned people who were our allies into our enemies. The Afghan Taliban government, as far as I am concerned, was a pro-Pakistan government.
Q: The Taliban government in Afghanistan was a pro-Pakistan government?
IK: They were not giving us any problems and Pakistan had recognised them. Now if the US had an issue with them, we should have stayed neutral. Why did we have to get into this mess? The reason we are in these top ten failed states lists is because the ruling elite has sold us for dollars.
Q: Let’s get specific. You say that there are one million armed people in the tribal areas who, if the drone attacks stopped, would happily remove terrorists living in their areas. Isn’t that a little unrealistic? We know that these people have been taking money [from militants], we know that they have been supporting militancy in many ways. The general perception is that withdrawing the Pakistani army from the tribal areas would allow militants to regroup.
IK: The general perception is there because of total ignorance, people have absolutely no idea about the tribal areas. The politicians don’t know about it, and no one knows the history of the tribal areas. When the great Quaid-e-Azam withdrew the Pakistani army from the tribal areas in 1948, the politicians said, “Don’t withdraw the Pakistani army, we will have problems.” What happened? We never had one problem in the tribal areas ever since we withdrew the army although we deprived [the tribals], we never helped them, never spent any money on them. We kept them backwards but still there was never any problem for Pakistan. If anything, they helped us and were always ready to help Pakistan. The number one question is: why was the whole tribal belt not on fire before? Do you know that we started military operations in early 2004 and it took three years of collateral damage to produce what are called the Pakistan Taliban. This was a reaction to the military operations.
Q: So what is your counter-narrative?
IK: There is only one way to understand, we have to get people on board who know the area. There are generals and diplomats, like Rustam Shah Mohmand, people who know the tribal area. Ask them what the answer is. The politicians have completely sublet the whole war to the army, and which civilian government allows the army to run a war? If I was prime minister, would I allow the army to make all the decisions? No. I am a politician and politicians look for political solutions, not military solutions. Especially if those solutions have failed for seven years. What have we achieved in seven years? What has the US achieved in 10 years in Afghanistan? Nothing. If anything, radicalisation in Pakistan has grown. So we have actually made the situation much worse. So if you speak to anyone who has any understanding of the tribal areas, there is only one solution: win the people of the tribal areas to your side, start truth and reconciliation, say that we are no longer a part of this American war on terror. They consider the Pakistan army to be fighting on behalf of the Americans as a mercenary army.
Q: I want to throw one word into the equation: Swat.
IK: Please understand that Swat has nothing to do with the tribal areas. Swat was a mess we created and it could have been solved in a month. Swat is a totally different thing and unfortunately people did not understand the difference between Swat and the tribal areas and they confused the solutions of the two. The solution to the tribal areas is to get out of the US war, pull out the Pakistani army and tell the people of the tribal area, after truth and reconciliation, that it is your job to finish terrorism.
Q: Let me present an argument here.
IK: Let me give the solution here. If you empower the people of the tribal areas, get the Pakistan army out and no longer be considered a hired gun of the US, I promise you we will win this war. Otherwise, this is a never-ending war. For eighty years, the British never had peace in the tribal areas. They were a superpower. We are a country which is bankrupt. For 62 years, the Mughal Empire, which was a global superpower, fought against the tribals and eventually there was a political settlement. There is only a political settlement, and the PPP, the most incompetent and corrupt government in our history, is not going to be able to do anything. We are committing suicide. In the All Party Conference on Sept 29th, there were 50 parties and they all finally came down to what our stance has consistently been, that there is no military solution. All of them accepted that there was only one solution and that was to give peace a chance.
Q: What would you say to American policymakers who are convinced that the Haqqani network operates out of safe havens in the tribal areas? In the regional endgame when it comes to Afghanistan, what is your solution?
IK: I would tell the American policymakers: for God’s sake don’t listen to your generals. You need a political settlement, you don’t need more troops, you don’t need a surge. The surge has failed in Afghanistan. And I would ask the American politicians , is it plausible that five or six thousand Haqqani men, these fighters, these Rambos, are the reason one hundred and forty thousand soldiers of the greatest military machine in history are facing defeat? The Americans are fighting an entire population and they’ll never win the war because they don’t understand Afghan history. Read the Russian accounts; they killed a million Afghans out of a population of 60 million. They said that eventually they were fighting women, and children. The whole population was fighting.
Q: So here we come back to the same question, is Imran Khan a conservative, a fundamentalist or a liberal?
IK: You know, people pigeonhole people a lot. The only reason I wrote my book was because I was sick of the question: Are you a liberal? A fundamentalist? A radical? What are you? I wrote this book for the young people of Pakistan because there is so much confusion here. What is Islam? What is religion? What is secularism? So to try and answer all these questions, I thought I better put all of this down in a book and try to make people understand what religion is and what spirituality is. In fact, my conclusion is that the threat to the world is not from religion because all the great religions of the world talk about humanity, justice, and the noble values of human beings. It is naked materialism we should be scared of because it’s going to destroy the globe. It’s this lust for more and more and this unfettered greed. It is this extreme form of capitalism that’s the danger.
Q: But the underpinning of modern civilisation is capitalism.
IK: But if we keep consuming at the rate we are, we are doomed. Imagine if China starts consuming, per capita, at the same rate as the US. It’ll all be over! The real issue is consumption and greed — attacking countries because you want to capture their resources, as has been done throughout history, that’s the real issue. Religion is not the issue. A true religion should make us all humane.
Q: Among many circles, the biggest fear is that Imran Khan will come to power and his coalition partner is going to be the Jamaat-e-Islami.
IK: I don’t know about the Jamaat-e-Islami, you should ask them about their agenda. But my agenda is clear, it is the agenda of Jinnah, and that of my ideological role model Iqbal. As for religion, it is a way of life, a way of being. It is religion which brings out the best in a human being. The only reason I am a politician is because my religion tells me that I have a responsibility to my society. Otherwise, I have everything I want in my life. I don’t need anything. But it’s religion which tells you that the more God gives you, the more responsibility you have towards less privileged human beings. And this is really why it is important to promote religious values and spiritual values as opposed to the materialistic culture which is unfortunately imbibed by our upper classes. This culture of “me” and “I” can only be countered by spirituality.
Q: One of the statements you recently made was that the ISI should be under civilian control. Are you advocating that the country’s military intelligence agencies should be brought under a civilian ministry?
IK: What I am saying is that the military should stay within its constitutional role. In a democratic government, it’s the civilian government that takes responsibility and has authority. No management structure can work if you divide it up so that someone else has the authority and someone else the responsibility. It doesn’t work. In the case of Prime Minister Gilani, he has the responsibility but President Zardari has the authority. It doesn’t work.
Q: Now another crucial question. In your rally you said you want to eradicate thana culture, the police structure in this country, and the patwaris. But here is the critical point: politics in Pakistan is very strongly based on biradaris and dharras, clans and community structures that are centuries old. How can you be okay with biradaris and say that that is part of the political process and at the same time be uprooting institutions that are also a part of the same structure?
IK: Well. First of all, if you want to bring about a change in Pakistan, the fundamental change you have to make is to empower your people. You empower your people by having a strong local government system. Western societies give freedom to their people not through a centralised system but through a devolved structure of empowering the people at the grass roots level. Now, before the British came here, under the Mughals and even before that, the village was actually empowered. The village was a self -contained unit. In fact, if you go to the tribal areas today, you will find that the village has its own jury system, it has its own parliament. It’s actually autonomous.
Q: A lot of us believe that it is a parallel judicial structure and you can’t have jirgas meting out their own brand of justice.
IK: In the tribal areas, this is not a parallel structure, it is the only structure. There is only one structure, where every village has its own jury system and it has worked very well for them, which is why they don’t want to become part of Pakistan. In Swat, one of the reasons why they started the Nifaz-e-Shariat movement is because the imposed system did not work. When Swat became part of Pakistan in 1974, Pakistani laws came in and their whole devolved structure of free justice at the village level disappeared. Suddenly they had to hire lawyers and pay fees and still had no guarantee of justice. So the poorer classes all joined this movement to bring their system back. You have to empower people at the grassroots level, in other words at the village level.
Q: But that is the level where these biradaris, powerful clans and feudals continue to dominate the lives of the people.
IK: These braderies existed before the British came but at the village level, people were empowered. Remember that it’s impossible to have a false witness at the village level. In fact, Mirza Ghalib wrote in 1860 that the first time the British introduced sessions courts was the first time [the people] started hearing of false witnesses. Sixty per cent of the issues that clog the rural courts are land issues and they should be resolved at the village level. The schools should be under the village committee, and the same goes for the local health services.
Q: Do you support biradari politics?
IK: How are you going to destroy it?
Q: How are you going to destroy thana culture?
IK: They are not linked. Thana culture is feudal and perpetuates the feudal system. The first thing a politician does when he comes into office is he gets his own thanedar and patwari in place. This is because he wants to control the thana, he wants to control the patwari and therefore he enslaves the people. What I am talking about is empowering the people through local government. One of the greatest Pakistanis was Akhtar Hameed Khan and in the Orangi Pilot Project, he proved to people that the moment you empower the people, the people can lift their own standard of living. They can look after themselves.
Q: And the problem that many people feel that the PTI is going to be mired in the politics of clans and of all of these old structures that exist. Do you think that the PTI can break free of these feudal structures as well as these biradaris?
IK: Look Quatrina, I won the election in one of the most difficult rural areas. I understand about biradari systems. The moment you destroy the oppression in the thana, you will liberate the people. How does a feudal operate? The way the feudal operates is by controlling the thana. If you liberate the people from the thana, you give them justice at the village level, which is the most important thing. That is how you will liberate the people. I went to China and understood how the Chinese got four hundred million people out of poverty in twenty years. There were some interesting ideas that came out, and one of them was how to help the small farmer. If you want to help the small farmer, you must liberate him from the thana and the patwari system.
IK: We have to have e-government. We have a plan through which we can implement a whole system in 90 days and bring in e-government which can not only eliminate corruption but also help people.
Q: That’s for when and if you get into government, what’s your political plan right now?
IK: We are going to have a rally in Karachi on the 25th of December. The whole objective of the rally is reconciliation. We want to bring everyone together, especially the Urdu-speaking community and the Pashtuns. We are probably the only party that can get these two ethnic groups together and not engage in the divisive politics which certain people and parties exploit. They make people fight each other and get votes and power through discord and bloodshed. Our idea is to bring about a grand reconciliation.
Q: Nawaz Sharif has now officially gone on the warpath against the government. Will you ally yourself with Nawaz Sharif for your mutual goal of removing the current administration?
IK: I think after 30 years of seeing power, it is time for Nawaz Sharif to think of retirement. Thirty years is a long time.
This interview has been adapted from the televised interview of Imran Khan by Quatrina Hosain on Witness with Quatrina, which aired on 14th November 2011
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 24th, 2011.