Interview with Imran Khan
Khan the man
THE road in, from the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, at first seems unlikely to lead to the home of a rising political figure and cricket star. A country lane winds through fields, beside a lake, then twists and turns through half-finished houses and up a steep hillside. Only when you pass through a pair of tall, metal gates, along a drive of neatly trimmed conifers, do you come across a large hacienda-style home of courtyards, a tiled roof and high ceilings. Imran Khan is fond of mirrors and keeps three hunting rifles mounted above one fireplace. The view from his terrace, over sloping garden where large, friendly dogs roam, is tremendous.
For all its charm, it is a large, echoing sort of place, in which a single man might rattle around. Perhaps that is why Mr Khan prefers to spend his time elsewhere, campaigning, raising funds for his philanthropic deeds (a cancer hospital for the poor; a university) or travelling abroad for cricket punditry.
Pakistani politicians tend to be peculiarly isolated. Mr Khan, to his credit, has relatively little security and is more willing than most to plunge in among supporters. This stands in sharp contrast to the leading political figures of the two main parties. Asif Zardari, the president and leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, almost never leaves his presidential home, other than to take a helicopter to the airport when leaving the country. The danger of assassination is real in Pakistan, and the more cunning politicians have concluded that paying for strong party structures is the way to win elections—much more so than risking the style of personal campaigning that exposed Benazir Bhutto to her murderer in 2007.
Many of Pakistan’s richest people—including its obscenely wealthy politicians—in any case choose to party, marry and holiday abroad (Dubai is a favourite destination). Mr Khan, who is charming, confident and relaxed in international company, could fit easily into such activity. Yet at the same time he is rather earnest, determined, he says, to bring about a near revolution in Pakistan: to make politicians (and others) into honest taxpayers, to strike deals with extremists to end violence, and to break Pakistan’s unhealthy dependence on foreign (mostly American) aid.
It may be hard to conclude that Mr Khan is simply an idealist. Some of his stances, such as his explicit refusal to condemn a blasphemy law that is used to persecute religious minorities, smack of political calculation or worse. Mr Khan is also ready to associate himself with some dubiously conservative, even extreme, religious figures. Yet his aspirations—to improve the lot of ordinary Pakistanis and to strengthen the country’s institutions—go far beyond the usual desire of political figures who seek to grab and hold power for the sheer sake of looting funds. That is one reason why many Pakistanis (around 20%, say the polls) are ready to vote for his party. And many more are fond of Mr Khan the man.