‘Pakistan is a rich, rich country’: Imran Khan

Drawing massive crowds and tipped to be the next big leader, Imran Khan is rocking Pakistan. In a free-wheeling interview he describes his political vision, radical transformation from below, end of the feudal and VIP culture, and his deep love for India. Exclusive interview with Imran Khan

Kiran Nazish Lahore

In 1995, when Imran Khan started his political career, he was not taken seriously. In fact, he was not taken seriously for the next 15 years of his political career. He was hardly ever scandalized due to corruption scams like other politicians were; but that was mostly because he was hardly ever noticed. Throughout his career, he has spent most of his time doing two things: criticising other politicians and struggling to gain real political popularity. He has always been called the ‘cricketer’ turned politician -- until October 30, 2010, when he created some significant seismic waves amidst the sea of people in Pakistan.

In 2002, he won his first seat in Mianwali. Later, he was offered a slot in another party but he declined and went on boycotting elections. If there is anything constant in his rather rocky career, then that would be (a) his TV appearances bashing other politicians -- many of whom have now joined his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI); and (b) his stance on the need for ‘change’.

There are many celebrities in the PTI list -- one of whom joined the day I went to meet Imran at his Lahore residence; the next day two more had joined. PTI is famous for welcoming discredited politicians from other parties. There is a rising ‘join the-PTI’ craze among the ‘Lotas’ as they say on twitter. Imran says, “They say funny things on twitter.” (Lota is a toilet utensil and symbol of PML-Q.)

A  rickshaw puller told me, “I was going to vote for Imran, but I can’t anymore.” Why not? “He has too many Lotas now. I would still vote for him, if he lets go of the Lotas, and takes real people on board.”

This makes me ponder: how can we politicise a nation that has yet to conclude the chapter on dynasty versus democracy? Politics in Pakistan is only for people who are born in feudal families or have families in politics. De-politicisation of people has been implemented throughout the history of Pakistan; this has been done deliberately by politicians to keep people secluded. This has led to the illusion of so-called democratically elected governments in Pakistan, which, in reality, have never been democratic.

 

In a cosmopolitan city like Karachi, it’s an anomaly to find a Sindhi vote away from People’s Party of Pakistan (PPP), or a Muhajir vote away from Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). The ‘awam’ votes on the basis of favoritism, selective alliance, community faithfulness, caste, creed and provincial allegiance.

The ‘value’ of a vote is as insignificant to the doodhwala (milk man), as it is to the banker. It is lost in the dirty game of politics, with people kept away. Therefore, this effectively disables the awam from any possibility to cognitively select and choose their leaders, on the basis of their policies, profiles and agenda. No one asks for an action plan, as long as the speeches are emotional enough and the slogans cater to ‘roti, kapra, makaan’ -- which the Bhuttos continue to exploit. Most Pakistanis do not even know the definition of democracy, let alone the meaning of democratic rights. There is no concept of making the politician accountable, or question the candidates they voted for within their community. 

 

It’s a wonder how Imran Khan’s aggressive insistence that he can ‘change’ Pakistan makes two things apparent, one of which could be true. (a) That he is desperate to come to power – his critics say this ‘greed’ could indeed be backed by the establishment. (b) His vital interest to change Pakistan; this has made him enthusiastic to the point of idealism. This has also got him massive support from north to south Pakistan

Imran Khan coming to power clearly means defeat of the largest and most popular political parties/forces in Pakistan. His drastic rise has threatened influential leaderships, making PPP and PML-N nervous. Awami National Party (ANP) and MQM are pondering over their next alliance strategies, while Pervez Musharraf expressed his willingness to join PTI. Imran declined the speculation. “Musharaf has no ground in politics, let alone any chance of working with PTI,” he says.

However, as I write this, why has the military not yet intervened in the current government when it has been so corrupt and inefficient? Despite the shadow boxing? A democratic government in Pakistan has never survived this long without potential, if not practical, military intervention between the civilian and military leadership.

The recent coup hullabaloo is hardly of real importance. The army has already lost the last bit of its cognitive ability; they would surely know that the time, context and environment is not conducive for any more coups in Pakistan. People are sneezing it out, and Imran seems to be catching the cold.

In his book Imran Khan persists that the perception of Pakistan must be improved. He says: ‘How Islam is perceived here is different from how it is perceived in the West. Islam has been miss-utilised as an ideology.” And that, he thinks, should be changed. This makes the liberals in Pakistan think he is a radical and pro-Taliban. But then, Imran says, “Liberals in Pakistan are intellectually challenged.”

Conversation with Imran Khan, surrounded by a table full of current affair titles, biographies, history books. 

You talk about nation building. How do you plan to do that, before settling in this chaos?

You can only build a nation if you have the mandate of building and if people are behind you. You can only do nation building if you have institutions in a country. Rule of law. People have a stake in reforms. You carry the people with you. Inspire them. Give the people a clear goal as to where you are going to take them. They must believe that your goals are going to help them improve their lives. 

What are the goals?
To make Pakistan a Welfare State. Use taxes for the people, not against them. The State is responsible and must provide the basic needs of the people. All policies must be made for the bottom 50 percent of the population. The basis of democracy is Ihtehsaab -- accountability. There must be no taxation without representation. The people of Pakistan should be able to ask their democratically elected leader, ‘Tell me, where are you spending the tax money. I will then vote for you’.  

But such policies are always made, never implemented; what…

(Interrupts): Look! I am against neo-liberal economics where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This trickle-down effect is a myth, it never works. I believe that policies must have compassion. They must look after the common man. At the moment in Pakistan, the poor subsidise the rich. Therefore, fix the taxation system. Anyone who has an income above a certain amount, must be taxed. There should be no sacred cows, as it is in Pakistan right now. The agenda is to raise taxes and inspire people to give taxes, by creating a tax culture and spending taxes on the people. If someone joins PTI, he has to go through a process of revealing his assets with our committee. If the committee finds anyone guilty on this account, he is discharged. Any corrupt politician will never be given space in this party.

What about income distribution, the parliamentarians who get expensive cars…
(Interrupts again) We will cut out all the extravagance in Pakistan. Including colonial symbols such as PM houses, CM houses and so on. These buildings should be utilised for the public. They will be made public spaces, institutions, academic spaces for the youth. No expensive cars.

 

How would you cut down extravagance, when traditionally our politicians are in the habit of profligacy? You have recently taken many such politicians on board.
All PM houses, governor houses, are symbols of extravagance. They must be used for public good. VIP cars, the entire VIP culture has to go. If the ruling elite collects taxes, it has to show that they are going in the right places, that they are worried of what the poor are going through and where their tax money is spent. We will make sure that their tax money does not fund anyone else’s extravagance, but it is spent to benefit the people. If you can break that barrier… at the moment we are the lowest tax GDP ratio at 8.3 percent. We can easily take it to 20 percent by inspiring people and then creating an equitable taxation system. 

What about loans? How would we pay them back?
Pakistan is a rich country. It is not a poor country. We don’t even need loans. Pakistan not only has rich mineral wealth, we have great talent and good labour. Including huge assets of oversees Pakistanis. Indeed, the GDP of 6 million Pakistanis is equal to 180 million Pakistanis. This is where we can pull in money for Pakistan. Get investments. This is where oversees Indians and Chinese were instrumental in building India and China. They were the ones who first started investing. It’s important to create good governance, an enabling environment, to attract oversees Pakistanis in human capital as well as investment. Once that environment is created, this country will rise very quickly. Because, Pakistan is basically a rich, rich country! (Big smile)

Did your work with cancer patients at Shaukat Khwanum Hospital (SKH--which Imran Khan built), embark you to serve the people of Pakistan, enter politics?
Social work does not bring the change politics does. This country lacks no talent, people here are patriotic and vigorous. I learnt this when I needed funds for SKH and got massive moral and financial support from people, patients, women and elderly. The only problem is that we need a proper system and someone trustworthy to run that system. 

You talk about Condoleezza Rice, how they (the US) wanted one puppet to go and another to come back. You talk against – National Reconciliation Order (NRO). How do you justify that when you have so many fishy politicians joining your own party?
Firstly, they are in a minority. Remember, you are talking about 850 candidates. These people you are talking about, how many are they? May be a bit, maybe 10? 15? We are not such a weak party that 10 to 15 people can hijack the whole ideology of this 15 year old party which has gone through a baptism of fire to get here -- no party has struggled like this for 15 years, and stayed in opposition and come back. Anyone who joins us, joins us on our terms. 

Would you dismiss them on the basis of your principals? What sort of accountability do you have in mind?

It’s not a question of me dismissing anyone; it’s a question of having strong institutions and free institutions. The way western societies also function… when you create an environment which does not allow anyone to do something corrupt. Your judiciary has to be independent, there should be a strong National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and your prosecution has to be strong. In the current government, we have seen, if the judiciary tries to hold the government accountable, they have ways of stalling the judiciary; by having their own prosecution, their own NAB, their own investigation agencies. So, what you need are strong institutions in Pakistan. A strong prosecution system, an independent NAB. 

What do you think can be done about the NRO?
There can be no democracy that works like this, at least, no successful democracy. The current government which was formed on the basis of such un-democratic, un-constitutional and immoral grounds called the NRO cannot even be considered as a democracy. It is, in fact, a non-democracy where leaders are given seats, loot money from the poorest of the poor and plunder the nation, stealing billions in the name of public expenditure. NRO is the symbol of democratic corruption and should be boycotted by all means. We need to get rid of these looters and bring new people. I invite the youth to come forward and join this new movement of PTI. The movement of renewal.

Do we even need a third party in Pakistan?
In an entrenched two party system, you create a third party. It hasn’t happened anywhere. In England it hasn’t happened, in US it hasn’t happened. The reason why it happened in Pakistan is that the core of people in Tehreek-e-Insaf were always very committed to what they believed in and they did not de-politicise. People who have excelled in different fields came into politics, because PTI gave them that genuine platform. That’s the big advantage we have, as opposed to professional politicians in Pakistan who make compromises on their politics. These are not career politicians. PTI has politicians who are ideologically motivated, who have a vision for Pakistan, who want to see a Pakistan which is prosperous. Therefore, they will not allow the party to compromise on its ideology.

What will you do if people do not want to be with you? Politics among the people, at the grassroots level, is not very popular.
Every person and every citizen who cares about their country is political. Either they are involved in mainstream politics or they show participation through their vote and voice. Those who say politics is a dirty game, do it to de-politicise the nation. 

Will you allow people to make you accountable? Will you give the people that kind of freedom?
Democracy does not exist if the people are not given the liberty. In a democracy, there must be no taxation without representation. The people should be able to ask questions from the government, they should also make it accountable. So, yes, I will allow people to ask me questions, because for me, accountability is the basis of democracy. I will invite anyone to come and ask whatever they want to.

What about PML-N. Will you form an alliance with them?
Forming an alliance with PML-N is out of question. We can ally with anyone but never with PML-N. (PML-N is Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif group.)

How will you ensure civilian supremacy when the military constantly sidesteps democratic governments in Pakistan?
The lack of justice and rule of law has fueled and facilitated this issue. If the State is operating fine without military intervention, why would the military intervene? 

What are your difficulties in creating such an environment?
To create the environment, you have to do it in 90 days. If you cannot do it in 90 days, you cannot do it at all. 

You are saying you will create this highly accommodating infrastructure in this highly chaotic environment in 90 days?

It is basically a question of who has the political will to take on the vested interests. That’s it. Full stop. It’s not what we have to do, it is who is going to do it.

Do you have any concrete steps in mind?
Yes, we will declare four ‘emergencies’: 1. The education system will revive and we will follow a singular syllabus throughout Pakistan. Something India has been doing. 2. Rule of law, something I have always emphasized on. This was the founding principal of PTI. 3. Revenue collection will be made authentic and viable. We will work on the idea of e-governance. 4. And, we will control corruption by establishing a conflict of interest law. This is my priority.

Then we will de-centralize the system, with individual focus on FATA, Gilgit Baltistan, Azad Kashmir and Balochistan. We will ensure that grievances are taken care of. And the demands are met. That’s what we call change.

You say you would like good relations with India, but you also stated in your Minto Park speech that you want their 70,000 troops out of Kashmir. What’s your idea of friendship?
People have to get justice. We cannot recognise anything that defies justice. Of course, we would like good relations with India. The only problem is Kashmir. I don’t believe that you can put Kashmir on the back-burner. That does not mean we can’t simultaneously be good neighbours. There is such immense similarity between these two countries. There is so much love between the two nations. We believe in good relations, we will promote trade and exchange with India at all levels. We will welcome the Indian people to come and see Pakistan, travel, live, do business and make Pakistani friends. 

The writer is an independent journalist, activist and academic based in Pakistan
Email: kiran.nazish@gmail.com 


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2012