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Catriona Luke

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Imran Khan's Deal Done?

Posted: 29/09/11 01:00

The military is thought to have backed Imran Khan to be the next president of Pakistan but while he is popular in Britain, he is less so in Pakistan

You cannot rule without doing a deal with the army, a prominent PPP politician told Christina Lamb, then FT correspondent in Islamabad, in 1990 and very little has changed in Pakistan. Imran Khan after 15 years out in the cold after the founding of his Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party in 1996 is considered to be the military's first choice. That he did not have any political clout in those years is because, as the army reminded him, his party was disorganised, chaotic and lacking unity, a description they have always applied to any opposition, civil or political, that they don't like, or which is inconvenient to them. Khan was his sole party member with a seat in the National Assembly, 2002-2007. On paper it is the unlikely equivalent of Caroline Lucas of the Green party becoming prime minister at the next election.

Internationally Khan is thought of as a man of drive and perseverance and neither of these qualities are in question. The same year that he launched his political party, he drove through the funding and building of the country's NHS equivalent of a cancer hospital, the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre which provides free care to all regardless of whether they can pay. He was prominent in the aid and charity work that followed the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods. He has rightly made corruption in the state (but no mention of the army) the main focus of the party. He voices many Pakistanis' anger about the role of the US of exacerbating violence and extremism in the country after 9/11 - voices from Sherard Cowper-Cowles to Rory Stewart have said consistently that the American presence in Afghanistan and the FATA tribal regions has made a bad situation worse. But the 'deal done' with the army should come with cautions.

In Pakistan and in response to the uncritical acclaim that has greeted his media appearances in Britain people complain that he is not standing for the House of Commons. The BBC news story that UK aid should be cut brought this response from twitter in Pakistan: 'Imran Khan calls for Britain to cut aid to Pakistan bec it fuels corruption. Killing poor to end poverty?' 'Cut aid 2 kill corruption, not the poor. I'm not a huge PTI fan but sometimes his criticisms are just for the sake of criticizing'. 'Imran Khan calls for Britain to cut aid to Pakistan. In other news: cricket player plays football, scores own goals'. Criticising other political parties for corruption, when if they achieve power end up equally hamstrung by the military's control, is old hat in Pakistan. To a British audience it looks fresh and novel.

At a personal level Khan is well known for the stray bees in his bonnet which distract from larger concerns. In an interview with the Guardian last week, Stuart Jeffries points out that abolishing private education in Pakistan is part of his party agenda, although Khan was educated at its leading private school, Aitchison College. Say what you will but Pakistan's independent day and boarding schools and universities have produced more civil minded, energetic, non-political citizens of Pakistan than any other institution; Khan himself in 2008 spoke to the New Statesman about creating an Oxbridge style university (like his hospital, open to all) in his former constituency of Mianwali. The difficulty is that there is sometimes clear blue water between Khan and his party, and education is one of the areas.

Secondly the reform that the country needs is to have the army not only fighting extremism, which they do, but to turn their bloated funding and manpower to restoring the country's civic infrastructures: engineering projects in Sindh to prevent flooding, a proper national electricity grid, schools, hospitals, roads and harnessing solar power. Not so much an army back to barracks, but doing something to help its citizens.

Thirdly, state building is about keeping what is good and sound and building up from that position. It's about slow careful change, not fast revolutions.

Reservations about Imran Khan are that he gets sidetracked by his personal annoyances and they become a point of principle; he is thought capable of going off on tangents. His party has more hardline agendas than he does. Despite his aristocratic Urdu, he is little more than a clumsy Pashtu speaker. Despite a following of young educated people in the universities (an irony, perhaps) he has failed to capture his country's imagination. Crowds of five thousand turn up for his rallies, but this is small fry. Given the likelihood of being squeezed between the army and his own party, Pakistan's English language media are sceptical of his ability to be a statesman, to protect the country's rich culture - that provides Pakistan's social glue across class and income - and to be a committed civil libertarian and humanitarian.

On the plus side, if he can say one thing and do another - campaign in bad poetry, govern in good prose - he may just be able to help initiate change in the country. The fact remains that his political nous would be far better tested and the results better for the country if it was initially in coalition.