PANKAJ MISHRA -I had heard similar complaints from other members of the party: that the PTI was a one-man show, with a superstar chairman self-absorbedly pied-pipering a gaggle of squabbling egos and craven flatterers. For the moment, however, any anxieties about lack of internal democracy were balanced by the routinely renewed spectacle of mass support for the PTI In between tweeting from Khan’s account (“Such beautiful scenery!”), Khawaja pointed excitedly to the crowds of young men on motorcycles that awaited us at the approaches to small towns along our route; waving the green-and-red flag of the PTI, they raced Khan’s car at dangerous speeds, trying to catch his eye.
Talking to the young fans, I discovered an almost-mystical reverence for Khan. Many of them were cricket enthusiasts who recalled Khan’s exploits with awe, especially his captaincy of the team that won Pakistan the Cricket World Cup in 1992 - the country’s greatest sporting success. They also knew of his philanthropic work - the cancer hospital in Lahore and a university near Mianwali. Pressed on policy specifics, they went blank, claiming that an honest leader like Khan was all that was needed to turn Pakistan around, and it could be done in 90 days.
For many in this new generation of Pakistanis - more than 60 percent of the population is below age 25 - there is little choice between the untried and evidently incorruptible Khan and such repeatedly discredited leaders as Zardari and Sharif.
Like all populist politicians, Khan appears to offer something to everyone. Yet the great differences between his constituencies - socially liberal, upper-middle-class Pakistanis and the deeply conservative residents of Pakistan’s tribal areas - seem irreconcilable. The only women I could see during the Sialkot rally were on the remote stage, wives of local politicians and businessmen. At the rally in Mianwali, huge clouds of dust kicked up by tens of thousands of men bleached the reds and greens of the flags and banners, and the speeches alternated with earsplitting eruptions of PTI’s theme music, Dil Nek Ho Neeyat Saaf To Ho Insaf Kahay Imran Khan (“A good heart and pure intentions will deliver justice, says Imran Khan”). Reports later emerged of many women at the rally, but I could only see one, on the overcrowded stage. She was a PTI activist, another recent convert, belonging to one of the feudal and clan networks that still largely determine who will vote for whom in Pakistan’s elections. There were many such local impresarios of bloc voting: the uncle of one politician I spoke to defeated Khan in his very first election in 1997; he had now brought, he claimed, a 25-kilometer-long convoy of supporters from his tribe to the rally. There was another small explosion of anger when I asked him about his stance on women’s rights. Khan refused in 2006 to support reforms to the so-called Hudood Ordinance, which exposes rape victims to charges of adultery unless they can produce four males who witnessed their violation. Khan claims he voted against the reform bill as a protest against Musharraf and would repeal the Hudood law altogether if elected. Many liberal-minded Pakistanis still worried about his positions, I told Khan.
“Morons!” he exclaimed. “First you have to guarantee basic social and economic rights before you get to gender rights! What is the point of these NGO workers showing up in conservative tribal areas wearing bluejeans?!”
He then turned to his party’s prospects. The conspiracies against him were mounting, he said. In Lahore, he had received extensive live coverage; the Sialkot and Mianwali rallies were shown only briefly on the private television channels. Both Zardari and Sharif were putting pressure on the media. “They are getting scared,” Khan said. “They can see that the tsunami is coming.”
Fortunately, he did not need to rely so much on the compromised TV channels. “The social media is changing Pakistan,” Khan said. Most Pakistanis had a mobile phone. They were signing up for Twitter and Facebook in the millions. Direct access to voters meant that the PTI could ignore the old constituency politics of appeasing the middlemen. “I always knew,” Khan said, “that a mass movement would take the PTI to power, not wheeling and dealing with power brokers.”
Still, could he dispense with their help entirely? The newspapers were full of stories of discord between Hashmi and Qureshi and of discontent among older members of the PTI Khan pondered the question and then said: “Today in the party meeting we made a breakthrough. We are going to have a membership drive and then elections through mobile phones. The youth want new faces. They can elect their own from the ground up. There has to be democracy in our own party before we bring it to the country. This is what we decided in the meeting today, and I feel liberated.”
The next time I saw Khan, it was April and he had just returned from a trip to Turkey, where he met Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Khan’s tweets, with their characteristic exclamation marks, kept me informed about his progress. “Turkey today has embraced its past & moved forward as a confident nation proud of its history & present achievements. We can learn so much!” He seemed more pumped up than usual, his pre-big-game go-get-’em zeal spilling over into repetitive praise for the Turkish leadership.
“Abdullah Gul and Erdogan - they are such impressive people. I last went to Turkey on my honeymoon. In 15 years, they have totally transformed the country! The most interesting thing,” he added later “is how they have controlled the army which ruled Turkey for such a long time. You can of course do that if you have moral authority invested in you by the people.”
Khan chortled over the fact that the previous week, President Zardari’s son, Bilawal Bhutto, the 23-year-old chairman of the PPP, had apparently made a speech in English to his party members. “The poor guy doesn’t know any Urdu.” Khan took a few swipes at various “Westoxified” Pakistanis sought after by deluded Westerners: the editor Najam Sethi (“State Department’s man”); the journalist Ahmed Rashid (“totally bogus”). He then gossiped with Qureshi and Hashmi about the wealth of various politicians, like the former interior minister, Rehman Malik, a “frontman for Zardari,” who, they said, had a personal fortune of $300 million.
Khan tittered when I told him that many people thought of him as an ISI frontman. “The ISI,” he said, “was unable to muster up an audience for even Pervez Musharraf’s rally when he was in power. They cannot manufacture people’s enthusiasm for change.” As he spoke, three boys at a slow turn in the road ran toward his car, and Khan, gesturing to them, drawled, “You can see the tsunami coming. It cannot be stopped. –NYT (concluded)