IN APRIL 2012, the United States announced a bounty of $10 million for information leading to the prosecution of Hafiz Saeed, head of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and believed to be the mastermind of the 26 November 2008 Mumbai terror strike. Saeed, a hero of the Islamist right in Pakistan, claimed he was being victimised due to his anti-American politics. Soon enough, he was adopted by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party. The PTI president, Javed Hashmi, called Saeed “a preacher of peace in the world”.
Hashmi didn’t stop there. Participating in a rally organised in Multan by the Difae-Pakistan Council — an umbrella body of quasi-political religious parties opposing the opening of NATO supply lines to Afghanistan and the Most-Favoured Nation trade status to India — Hashmi vouched for the “piousness” of Saeed. “A social worker,” he said, “can never be a terrorist but all those declaring him a terrorist are the real threat to the peace of the world.”
Contrast this mood with that of the two big interviews Imran Khan gave to Indian television channels in November 2011. His book Pakistan: A Personal History had just been released. One anchor introduced him as the man “many believe could be the next prime minister of Pakistan”. Khan spoke about what he considered the roots of terror and terror groups. “People don’t understand the tribal areas of Pakistan,” he complained.
On anti-India entities like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and its parent, the JuD, Imran was categorical that if he came to office, there would be no militant groups operating in Pakistan. For Imran’s friends and fans in the Indian media, he was telling them what they wanted to hear.
How does reality measure up? In Pakistan itself, even Imran’s closest friends don’t think he is about to become prime minister. “Realistically, I expect the number of PTI seats in the National Assembly to go from zero to 30,” says a confidant. The Pakistan National Assembly has 342 members.
That aside, Imran’s media foray in India this past winter was severely criticised back home for apparently disagreeing with the official Pakistani position on the JuD and Hafiz Saeed. Conservative television commentators had accused him of playing to the gallery for Indian audiences. Today, all that has changed with the PTI’s new position on Saeed. Imran Khan is now the darling of the Pakistani rightwing.
So what happened between November and April? Did Hafiz Saeed actually become pious? Or, in the media hype surrounding his public meetings, did sections of the Indian intelligentsia misread Imran as a liberal?
It’s a sunny afternoon in the late spring. In the posh Kohsar Market of Islamabad — where Salmaan Taseer, then Punjab governor, was shot by his bodyguard for denouncing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws — the elite of the Pakistani capital are enjoying their wine and the day’s special: masala dosa priced at Rs 589. Pakistan’s leading specialist on civilian-military relations, Ayesha Siddiqa, offers her explanation for the Indian obsession with Imran: “He has said those wonderful things that excite a lot of Indians and the unfortunate thing I have learnt from my numerous visits to India is its middle class is as superficial as that of anywhere in the world.”
Siddiqa then refers to another Indian favourite — Pervez Musharraf. “Educated middle-class people in Delhi say he is good for Pakistan,” she says, “without understanding that while he may hold a glass of whisky, he also paved the way for JuD and Jaish-e-Mohammed.”
Many who have known Imran Khan since his cricket days vouch for his liberal credentials. Columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha sees the recent transformation as the case of two Imran Khans. One is the liberal cricketer. And the other the politician who has been around for 15 years with minimal impact, desperate to make a mark.
“The political-liberal Imran is definitely a myth,” says Paracha. The rise of the rightwing Imran goes back to his days of political training under the Jamaat-e-Islami and former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) director-general Hamid Gul. “It is still taking him some time to rub off that influence,” says Paracha.
But a faction of the PTI still believes Imran’s warming up to radical elements is only a way of reaching out. “That’s the beauty of the party,” says Ali Zaidi, member of the central executive committee of the PTI. “Imran Khan has to bridge the gap and create a party for all. I might not agree with a lot of people in the party but that doesn’t mean I go violently against them.” Zaidi, a Shia, has been with Imran for the past 12 years.
Isfundiar Kasuri returned from the US to handle the Imran Khan Foundation. “The same people who attack Imran Khan today for reaching out to radicals,” he says, “call Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a great liberal leader even though he declared Ahmadiyyas non-Muslims.” Kasuri points to the recent rally in Quetta — scene of sectarian violence against the Hazara community— at which Imran Khan met representatives from all sects.
‘Imran goes around thinking local culture is the same as religious fundamentalism,’ says Ayesha Siddiqa
Imran’s position on many issues is quite close to that of the military and the Punjabi establishment, argues Siddiqa. One cannot fail to notice the strong anti-American rhetoric. Indeed PTI’s romance with Saeed and Difa-e-Pakistan aims to tap into the anti-American sentiment rather than any anti-India feeling.
IT IS not just attending religious parties’ gatherings or declaring Saeed a “pious man” that is disturbing the liberals of Pakistan. Imran’s stand on the Taliban too has been criticised. “He wants to bring these extremists into politics,” says senior journalist Kamran Shafi, “but they are already in politics. He is asking them not to take up arms but they already have arms. The question is how to take away those arms!” Shafi feels it is naïve on Imran’s part to think everything will be hunky-dory when the Americans leave Afghanistan: “Nineeleven happened in 2001 but the taking over of Kabul started in 1999. The problem of radicalism existed much before Americans came to this region.”
Imran speaks of the need to engage the local tribal population in the Pakistan- Afghanistan border areas to end the war — a stand Siddiqa believes represents the confusion in his mind about local tribal culture and Talibanisation. “He goes around thinking local culture is the same as religious fundamentalism,” she says, “he doesn’t realise this trend is as recent as the 1980s.” She points out that in areas like south Punjab, Talibanisation has encouraged new social evils like honour killing, not as prevalent earlier.
Paracha agrees with Siddiqa. He worries about a growing narrative in Pakistan that is trying to portray the Taliban as another expression of discontent among the Pashtun population. “This is just ridiculous,” he says. “This is the clear handiwork of [military] agencies. Unfortunately politicians like Imran Khan become propagators of such theories.” Raza Rumi, commissioning editor of The Friday Times, finds Imran’s theory on the Taliban simplistic: “He says the Taliban is present in Afghanistan in reaction to America. This is misleading and dangerous.”
The confusion extends to policy-making. Imran lacks a proper governance agenda. On 9 April in Islamabad, he revealed an alternative model for rural governance — an extension of his narrative of engaging the local population. He sought to revive the jirga local governance system, similar to the khap panchayats in India, all over Pakistan. “It is a tribal idea of justice that even the Supreme Court has declared illegal,” says Omar Qurashi, editor at The Express Tribune.
Yet Pakistani liberals have not entirely lost hope. “Imran is no Bhutto but there is no doubt he is hugely popular,” says Siddiqa, “and he should use his popularity to bring change.”
Paracha stresses Imran is not an extremist himself. “He is a perfect reflection of what is happening to the urban middle class in Pakistan. They want the best of both the worlds. They might want… western consumerism but would have extreme reactionary views when it comes to the West and India,” he says.
Somewhere in that contradiction lies buried the real Imran Khan.
Kunal Majumder is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.