COVER STORY: I’ll be Your Mirror: What Pakistan Sees in Imran Khan | Caravan
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SEX, OR AT LEAST THE IDEA of it, is never far from Imran Khan. It reveals itself in the casual remark of an urbane 20-something friend, a well-educated and usually sensible woman who turned to me and said that she would “do Imran”. “You know,” she further explained, “as a feather in my cap.” It sometimes hangs in the air, almost visible, and as thick as the cloying perfume of the “aunties”—well-heeled middle-aged housewives clutching their fading youth as desperately as they do the last yard of cloth at designer lawn sales—who thrash and push and shove, banging lesser folk with their bulky handbags so they can rub shoulders with Imran, if only for a furtive moment.
Heterosexual boys also desire Imran in their own way. They queue up impatiently, jostling each other among coils of barbed wire, shouting their passions to Imran’s security team from behind the protest stage where the Great Khan is seated—wanting to be let inside, to see him up close, to be near him.
It seems safe to say that Khan is the only major politician in Pakistan presently capable of exuding this kind of appeal: this was how one sociologist summed up to me why Imran’s party, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI), or Movement for Justice, might pose a serious threat to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) in the latter’s traditional stronghold of Punjab. “I mean, he’s Imran Khan—he’s notganju,” she said, using the word for “bald” to refer to the rotund and balding Sharif. A report in theChristian Science Monitor echoed the point: “With his good looks and seeming willingness to speak plainly,” wrote Issam Ahmed, “Khan is to Pakistan what Sarah Palin is to the US.” For his part, Khan would probably prefer to be Pakistan’s second Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—the fiery populist founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
For a long time after he entered politics, there was little reason to believe Khan posed a threat to anything other than his own status as a national hero. But that’s no longer the case: after uneven turnouts at PTI demonstrations for the better part of this year, the party defied predictions by rallying roughly 200,000 supporters in a roaring gathering in Punjab’s capital city, Lahore, on 30 October 2011. It’s too soon to tell whether that turnout will translate into votes in the elections scheduled for 2013, but it may well mark the moment that PTI went from being ridiculous to respectable in the mainstream.
The turnout in Lahore was a dismaying signal for Khan’s many critics, some of whom churlishly declared that the massive demonstration held by Benazir Bhutto in Lahore after her return from exile in 1986 had been many times larger. It’s a plausible argument, but it overlooks one significant fact: nearly 70 percent of Pakistanis are now below age 30. They aren’t likely to remember Benazir’s homecoming rally—and even if they did, it’s hardly self-evident that their passions would be stirred by the recollection.
For a politician so marginal that his party has only managed to win one seat so far—his own from Mianwali—Imran summons scathing, fierce, passionate criticism from his detractors, the most passionate of whom tend to be urban liberals. He has been called “dangerous” and “naïve”, and described as a man whose supporters “feed his delusion of being the messiah that Pakistanis await”. The influential Friday Times editor-in-chief Najam Sethi, during an appearance on Pakistan’s largest private Urdu channel, Geo TV, put it this way: “Some people learn too much and go crazy; others learn nothing at all and go crazy. Imran is half in each camp, and that makes him half-baked.” For some time now, The Friday Times has even published a parody column written in Khan’s voice, which is credited to “Im the Dim”.
Public figures who are revered by their followers and hated by their ideological opponents are invariably called “polarising”. But this lazy appellation fails to capture the puzzle of Imran Khan, or the question of what he represents in Pakistan today—of what makes the very idea of the man so powerful for so many people and in so many conflicting ways across a wide spectrum of desire.
The night before I met Khan at his hilltop farmhouse just outside Islamabad, I had dinner with Shane Brady, a jocular Irish aid worker who was wrapping up five years in Pakistan. When I told him that I was going to interview Imran the next day, Brady exclaimed that one of our mutual friends was “going to be so jealous”. The friend in question had once heard a rumour that Khan enjoyed the occasional puff of marijuana; ever since, he had been determined to find some way to meet Khan so they could smoke a joint together. Everyone dreamt of Imran in his own way.
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