The Khan who couldn't

Imran Khan offered himself to the Pakistani electorate as a warrior hero who would fight for the masses. So what went wrong? By Jan McGirk

When Imran Khan, the legendary cricket captain and heartthrob, first targeted Pakistan's power elite last April, he vowed to challenge their evil ways on behalf of the masses. Given enough time, his Movement for Justice might have gathered momentum and credibility, but when President Farooq Leghari booted out Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and announced elections two years early, Imran could not resist a go at the top job. He was a Khan, after all, born to be a tribal chief. He had proven his leadership on the cricket field by winning the 1992 World Cup and was already a national hero.

Imran's failure to win a single seat in this week's National Assembly polls, much less become the Prime Minister, was therefore a brutal comedown for his fans. But outside his immediate circle, few Pakistanis were surprised at his poor showing.

"What do we want with this sportsman?" shrugged Hamid, passing out leaflets from the religious Jamaat-e-Islami party, which urged an election boycott. "Imran Khan is just like the others, only his party has all the rejects. He can give us nothing. What we need is a revolution."

Pakistan is ranked the second most corrupt state in the world by an international risk assessment firm. Its political culture is full of backroom intrigue, bluff, and double bluff. Even if bribery or betrayal is rejected outright, as Imran pledged to do, the electorate in Pakistan is accustomed to the politics of patronage and finds other motives suspect. Both former prime ministers who ran against him had been sacked at least once for misusing government funds. Had Imran managed to recruit any experienced insiders to his Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, he might have been forewarned about the early election, or at least better prepared to counter the Zionist conspiracy theories that portrayed him as a pawn being played by his billionaire father-in-law Sir James Goldsmith.

But no one could have anticipated the fury of Sita White, daughter of the late Lord White, when the candidate denied fathering her child, Tyrian. Sita was - and remains - out for Imran's blood as evidence for her paternity suit filed in Beverly Hills, and the resemblance between the little girl and his famous features is startling. Imran's conservative supporters were appalled at his un-Islamic callousness in rejecting a baby; his more sophisticated backers shuddered at his ineptitude for commenting at all on the case. It was difficult for Imran to resume his zealous moral crusading while most of Pakistan sniggered.

When asked about the controversial case on the day before the election, Imran stood upright, flung his shawl over one shoulder, and narrowed his eyes. "I will deal with it," he said curtly. "But we are deliberately waiting until after this election." His spokeswoman Naseem Zehra complained, "We think this whole Sita White business is tacky. The timing is so vicious."

Imran's rants against the pampered "Brown Sahibs" of urban Pakistan, whom he accused of rejecting the genuine culture of the soil while putting on all the decadent trappings of their former colonial masters, soon began to backfire. Even the advice of Mian Bashir, his Sufi mystic, couldn't counteract the popular perception that a hypocrite playboy was posing as a born-again Muslim without facing up to his responsibilities. Like Gary Hart, the American presidential candidate who was forced to withdraw from the Democratic primary when caught lying about an illicit affair with Donna Rice, Imran had blundered badly. Voters did not object so much to the possibility of an illegitimate child - mistakes do happen - it was his outright denial and refusal to back it up with a blood test which gave them doubts about his integrity.

After years of cricket tours and partying, Imran suffered a belated identity crisis following his mother's slow death from cancer. A Pashtun, he recently rediscovered his ethnic roots with the austere tribal clans who originate near the Khyber, and disseminates their conservative world view with almost adolescent fervour. His rival Benazir Bhutto, who presided over the Oxford Union when both were students there, berated him as uncivilised on Pakistani television for threatening to execute all corrupt politicians by public hanging. "The death penalty is the only answer," he maintained. "Religion is a way of life." Newly devout, he pours over the Koran and studies religious texts more carefully than political discourse.

Unwittingly, Imran's simplistic view of Islam tends to alienate a wide spectrum of religious parties, which might otherwise unite with him. He has faith that, given a chance, all the diverse sects could send their elders to a council in Islamabad and hammer out a law code acceptable to all. (He conveniently skips over the Islamic militancy that plagued Karachi in 1995 and the constant bickering which keeps the existing religious parties from becoming a viable political force in Pakistan.)

Imran has called himself a Messiah, come to save Pakistan from corruption. "I am against a secular state because it is an alien structure, not growing out of our own needs but imposed by our colonial rulers," he has said. "Islam stands for tolerance, justice, and equal opportunity. Western-style democracy will not work here."

Spouting this rhetoric, Imran Khan is hardly the ruthless power broker who normally survives the snakepit of subcontinental politics, with its murders of expediency and abrupt changes of alliance. Despite his rejection of Western frivolity, he is more like a telegenic politician from California, with his craggy features, good teeth, and tousled hair.

At Imran's final rally in Lahore, when drizzle kept the crowd down to only 2,500, his followers were ecstatic by the time he appeared on the makeshift dais, two hours behind schedule. Three generations of women crammed on to a balcony, craned their necks and swooned in unison. When he took the microphone, tinsel garlands and rose petals showered down on him and sky rockets streaked above. Since his first halting speeches, Imran's delivery has become impressive, and his powerful voice is instantly recognised, even though the constant references to cricket are a dead giveaway. He spoke in vernacular Punjabi and had the crowd in stitches.

A former friend in Lahore reckoned that Imran's push into national politics was the only way for this middle-aged athlete, now 44, to relive his glory days as a World Cup captain. "You have no idea how much glamour attaches to cricket here. He misses the adulation. He wants to be in the limelight; he needs to be loved by the people."

On election night, Lahore sounded as if it were under siege, but it was just the firecrackers and pistol shots celebrating the Muslim League's landslide. Imran's family mansion in smart Zuman Park was completely dark and the gate was bolted. He had retreated again to the valley of Swat, up near the Northwest Frontier, trying to get a perspective on his defeat. Imran Khan is unlikely to call off his personal moral crusade at this point. Already he says that he expects his party to be the main opposition group at the next polls. "I think that at the next election, God willing, we will be unstoppable"n

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