Profile: Imran Khan: Mogul on the stump

Pakistan's poor want a saviour. Tim McGirk on a hero with powerful enemies the ruling elite
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The Independent Online
One of Imran Khan's favourite insults is to call somebody a "Brown Sahib". A Brown Sahib is a member of the ruling Pakistani elite who apes the dress, habits and affectations of the former British colonial masters. The trouble is, most of Khan's Lahore friends are Brown Sahibs. So are his family and, though he denies it vigorously, Imran himself is inescapably a Brown Sahib. His English is more polished than his Punjabi.

As a boy from a good Pathan feudal family, Khan played cricket at a Mogul-domed Eton called Aitchison College in Lahore, wore jeans and listened to rock music. Throughout his 21 stellar years in cricket, both in Pakistan and in the UK, Khan never stopped being a Brown Sahib. It was a role he played with arrogant perfection - until he hit his 40th birthday and his faith in Islam was reawakened.

Now he rejects Pakistan's ruling Brown Sahibs, and they in turn brand him an Islamic fundamentalist. Others say that he is a hypocrite or, worse, a pawn of ex-generals who would like to see the overthrow of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Khan, now 42, gives no sign of being an addle-brained zealot or someone particularly easy to dupe. His mane of hair might have thinned slightly, and though he abruptly stopped professional cricket after captaining Pakistan to its 1992 World Cup victory, he still moves with an easy muscular grace. In crowds he is reserved, almost shy. In public with his wife, Jemima (half his age), he is protective, gallant. But when crossed, there's a flash of Pathan warrior steel in his eyes. Khan has never been one to edge away from a confrontation.

Not content with social work since retiring from sport, Imran Khan is attacking Pakistan's corrupt politicians. Someone is taking him seriously; last Sunday, an 11lb bomb exploded in the waiting lounge of his Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust Hospital, killing seven and critically injuring at least 36 others. The victims were all cancer patients and their relatives, but the bomb's intended target was probably Khan.

"This was meant to frighten us, but we will fight on. This kind of action cannot stop us," Khan said angrily, while standing amid the charred debris of his cancer hospital. The traditional white Kurta pyjamas he wears (Khan now ignores his wardrobe of Western designer clothes) were torn and soiled as he helped drag the injured from the blast wreckage.

Imran Khan has always displayed a fierce single-mindedness, a marksman's ability to focus on a ball amid the roar of 70,000 spectators. A consummate all-rounder on the cricket pitch, Khan in the 1992 World Cup took a gaggle of bitchy prima donnas and turned them into a winning side; then, retiring from the game, he built a $9m hospital for poor Pakistanis. Now, Khan embarks on his most difficult challenge so far: staying alive in the gladiatorial arena of Pakistani politics.

Today in Lahore, Khan, probably the most popular figure in Pakistan, is expected to launch a new Islamic "reform movement", one which will clean up corruption and improve the country's abysmal health and education systems. His decision has worried both Bhutto, and the conservative opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.

Khan's abundance of gifts and good looks has always attracted jealousy and controversy. At the start of his cricketing career in Pakistan, Khan had to fend off rumours that he secured his place on various teams through nepotism (eight of his cousins played first-class cricket and two relatives, Javid Burki and Majid Khan, captained the Pakistan side). His confessions of his ball-tampering provoked huge publicity, as did his playboy reputation. Throughout the Seventies, Eighties and early Nineties, Khan squired around some of the Western world's most desirable women.

Then, after declaring that he would never marry a Westerner, he wed Jemima, daughter of Sir James Goldsmith, one of Britain's 10 richest men. The outcry was shrill and, in the UK, often racist. British tabloids portrayed "Our Jemima" as the sweet, blonde innocent bowled over and ravished by a marauding Genghis Khan. The gossips in Lahore and London, from their different cultural perspectives, arrived at the same conclusions: that she was pregnant (wrong, it transpired), and that he must be after her father's loot. Jemima's friends say that she has inherited her father's intelligence and tempestuousness. It was she, they say, who lured Khan into marriage, to the disappointment of his hundreds of ex-girlfriends in Pakistan.

At home Khan is more than just a hunk, however. He is something of a national saviour. Farmers halt their ploughing and wave ecstatically when his Toyota Landcruiser roars by. When he ventures into the bazaar he is showered with rupee coins for his hospital.

As for Khan wanting a piece of his father-in-law's fortune, his old friends in Lahore say he is too proud and independent to accept hand-outs. Nor is Khan given to opulence. He and Jemima live without ostentation in the Khan family compound in Lahore with his father, two sisters (a doctor and an economist) and their families; two extra rooms have been built on to accommodate the newly-weds, nothing more. An extra expense for the Khans now, after the blast, will be to hire armed bodyguards.

Jemima's connections have brought some advantages, however. The Princess of Wales made a much-publicised visit to the charity hospital in February and was the star attraction at a $300-per-head fund-raising dinner, to which all of Pakistan's luminaries were invited - except for Bhutto. "For some reason," Khan remarked before the bombing, "the government sees me as a political opponent. The people's awareness of corruption is growing fast. So is the resentment at their suffering. It may reach a stage where there are two options. Get a green card and emigrate or stay here and fight."

Such caustic remarks have stung Bhutto and she has struck back by trying to cripple his fundraising efforts for the hospital. First, she banned Khan's appeals for donations on Pakistan state television. Bank loans to the hospital were suddenly cancelled. At the time of his marriage, Bhutto's aides whispered that Khan had fallen into a Zionist plot against Pakistan (Sir James is Jewish). Then some of Bhutto's officials began a smear campaign accusing the cricket star of pocketing hospital donations to build a glitzy shopping mall in Lahore.

Even at the height of last month's World Cup fever, Bhutto did her best to erase Khan from the picture. Any sight or mention of Khan was cut from the official World Cup publicity. And, after the hospital bombing, Bhutto's aides let it leak out that Khan himself was a suspect. His motive: planting the bomb to gain publicity for his political ambitions.

With typical bluntness, Khan has blamed both Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader, of engaging in theft and petty horse-trading while the country slides into chaos. He warns of a dangerous split in Pakistan: on one side are the ruling feudal landlords and industrialists, on the other, the vast majority of Pakistanis without education, medical care or justice.

A return to Islamic values is catching on with young Pakistanis, and they look upon Khan as their natural leader. If anything, his marriage to Jemima has boosted his popular image. He is their modern-day Mogul. Armed with cricket bat instead of scimitar, Khan has ventured to the West, conquered a princess who is rich and blonde, and, best of all, has converted her to Islam. "Right now, Pakistanis are looking for a saviour. Just because I've built a hospital and led Pakistan to a World Cup win, they think I'm the one. I've delivered. It shows how desperate people are with the current political leaders that they'd even think of me," Khan has said.

The role of saviour may elude Khan, however. His popularity cannot be easily cashed in for political power. To become Prime Minister, he needs a parliamentary majority. To do that, he must strike deals with the feudal landowners and crooked MPs he has vowed to destroy. He cannot compete alone against the party machines of Bhutto or Sharif, who win votes by dishing out favours - or threats.

Probably for the first time in his life, nobody wants to be on Khan's team. He has lobbied social activists, ex-governors and the few good politicians to join his "reform movement" but so far the Khan charisma has attracted the wrong people. He was linked to a militant Muslim youth organisation, Pasban, as well as to an ex-spymaster, Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul. Last year, Khan and Lt-Gen Gul paid a visit in strife-torn Karachi to Abul Sattar Edhi, a saintly social worker, and tried to convince him to join their "pressure group". He refused. What happened next is unclear, but Edhi grew fearful of the "pressure" being applied and fled to London after death threats. Khan's credibility was damaged and he has since tried to distance himself from Lt-Gen Gul, a ruthless manipulator with strong pan-Islamic views.

In Pakistan, army generals have a nasty habit of staging coups. Bhutto is worried that the military might try it again, against her. Many see a scenario unfolding in which the army might coax Khan into running as Prime Minister, giving their regime a handsome and acceptable face to Pakistanis and the West. A populist Brown Sahib, after all, is still a Brown Sahib.