"Zadari is not pushed about governing Pakistan, he's about making money and protecting his already vast and plundered wealth. That's all"
I paused, considered this and looked around me. I was sitting in Imran Khan's family home in London. I took in the opulence that surrounded me, cynically remembering the stereotype of Pakistani politicians; corrupt leaders out to exploit the nations riches. But Imran Khan, despite his own personal success and wealth, seems to be different. Left leaning, whilst also being relatively conservative, he is most notably an advocate for equality in a desperately unequal nation.
Imran Khan is running for Prime Minister with his party Tehreek-e-Insaf in the next Pakistani elections. His critics argue he is not in a position to speak for impoverished Pakistanis, considering his own upper class and Western educated background. However, his new book 'Pakistan: A personal history' allows us to see that this experience provided Khan with an insight into the disparity between rich and poor in Pakistan. It is a country where wealth remains in the hands of a few that Khan describes as the 'Western elite' and power remains within the 'Ruling elite'. His book sheds light on those imprisoned, killed or harassed by the Pakistani government and America post 9/11, many of whom come from the poorest of backgrounds.
As well as taking a stand on the elitism that exists within the country, Khan's outspoken opposition to Pakistan's involvement in the War on Terror has not won him any favours. Some have gone as far as to call him a Taliban sympathiser. Is there any truth in this? He explains he simply advocates dialogue with the Taliban, laughing in a way that suggests he answers this question regularly. Khan points out:
"The US and Afghanistan should be branded with that (pro Taliban), because they are willing to talk to the Taliban, but in fact the Taliban aren't talking to them"
After meeting Imran Khan, it is difficult to imagine anything Islamically extreme, or even pro Taliban in any of his sentiments. In fact Khan talks passionately about the late Pakistani poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal referring to him as the nations "ideological father" and reminding me that "Iqbal was beyond sectarianism". Iqbal's poetry was heavily influenced by Sufism, best known for its more peaceful and spiritual interpretation of Islam. So the idea of Khan wanting to establish a more autocratically Islamic nation seems a little far fetched. Sufism does not traditionally sit well with 'Islamists'.
So what is it about Khan that stirs up such negative labels? Unlike the vast numbers of Pakistani politicians, Khan is extremely vocal in his stance against the War on Terror. In a nation where on average, one drone is launched every four days, a growing anti American sentiment exists. Khan explains that since the Pakistani government became involved with the War on Terror, it is increasingly viewed as complicit in the war. Whilst the US states that it is essential to root out radicals within Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, it has become increasingly volatile in Pakistan, with suicide bombings occurring on a regular basis. Khan believes that Pakistan is beyond the brink of a Civil war:
"Civil war? There's already a civil war in Pakistan. There are 140,000 troops in the tribal areas. Who are they fighting? They are fighting their own people that's called civil war"
"The backlash against the Pakistani army is considered to be a jihad...Remember the Pakistani army is considered to be a mercenary army of the Americans. Everyone knows the Pakistani army went in on Americas behest"
Khan's views on the War on Terror aside, I was keen to find out how he would put an end to the Jihad against Pakistan he had just described:
"What we will do is start talking to people from the tribal areas. Now remember there are a million armed men in the tribal areas, if you win them over to your side by talking to them and you are no longer perceived to be fighting the US war, in my opinion you will win them over with dialogue"
I look at him skeptically. While dialogue is important, can talking really be enough to rid Pakistan of terrorism?
"Yes yes, dialogue, truth and reconciliation means compensating them too" he explains passionately. Insistently, Khan tells me that the current system of military action without dialogue and the involvement of communities in the peace process, is not working. With great vigour he explains:
"We will help them repair the damage that has been done to that area. Then we will win them over to our side, and there will no longer be a jihad. When there is no longer jihad we will be able to isolate the real terrorists which in one case would be Al-Qaeda or, what are called the Punjabi Taliban, which were the old Jihadi groups and we will also try and reconcile with them, not use violence and try and win them over. And, in the end if they don't, with people who can't be reconciled, at least we would have isolated them"
But it is not just his stance on the War on Terror that unnerves his political counterparts. He is equally critical of the Pakistani government, openly asserting the incompetence of the current government, who instead of focusing on the needs of their people, are more concerned on how they can cash in on it all.
America has been providing aid to Pakistan since the nation's birth. In 2010 alone, military assistance to Pakistan totalled $2.5bn - including $1.2bn in coalition support funds. Khan argues that a vast amount of this aid "disappears into the bank accounts of the political leadership and their cronies"
Khan delves into this further:
"Aid in Pakistan's history; all that it has done is propped up corrupt governments and has allowed crooks to run our country"
He goes on to tell me that aid from the US, Europe and the World Bank has not been given on an unconditional basis, referring to them as bribes to "keep fighting America's war for them". This has meant that the country has never been given a chance to develop in its own right:
"It is aid that has actually been an impediment in Pakistan moving forward, because aid helps the ruling elite, the corrupt ruling elite to maintain the status-quo. We don't need aid in Pakistan, instead we need reforms in Pakistan. The sooner we start reforms, the quicker we will stand on our own feet"
I ask him to explain what this means. If Pakistan is so dependent on foreign aid then surely it will collapse entirely if all aid is refused? Khan disagrees and explains that there is a problem with the tax system in Pakistan, if it was managed correctly no aid would be needed at all. He asserts:
"The rich don't pay taxes, only the poor pay taxes through indirect taxes"
Khan is referring to the fact that Pakistan has one of the lowest tax collection rates in the world. The current Tax- GDP ratio stands at 9%, whilst only 2.5 million are registered to pay tax. This amounts to only 2% of the population. The rest of the tax revenues are gained via sales tax, which Khan explains is the same rate for everyone, regardless of background. Effectively the poor are subsidising the rich. Khan refers to Zadari's tax returns, asserting that during the period between 2009/10 Zadari paid no tax at all.
Instead, Khan advocates an independent Pakistan, and believes correcting the way in which the tax system operates could greatly aid development.
"It is (Pakistan) the country that gives the highest per capita to charity...I am convinced in that sort of country you will be able to raise the tax GDP ratio to 20%. And even if you raised it to India's level of 18%, you become viable"
Khan looks out of the window and talks of Pakistan's natural resources:
"Pakistan has a really prosperous future because we have the biggest coal reserves, we can actually export energy because of the large quantity of coal we have. We have copper reserves, gold, iron, we have gas and we have a very fertile land in a century of food insecurity. With such a young vibrant population and if you just get the governance right I think the country is poised to take off"
I contemplate his answer. Much of the national resources he speaks of are located in Balochistan. It is an extremely volatile region, where an ongoing conflict between pro independence militants and the Pakistani army has been happening for years. The people of Balochistan have demanded rights over natural resources located in their region. Their calls have been largely been ignored. What would the development of these industries mean for ordinary Balochistanis?
"Balochistan has been treated very unjustly. We have treated it like a colony, just as we did with East Pakistan. The revenue from resources in Balochistan should primarily be spent on the people of Balochistan"
Imran Khan's vision, Pakistan's future:
So what does Khan think the future holds for Pakistan? With the wave of protests spreading throughout the Arab world, coupled with a rapidly growing youth population, I wonder if Pakistan will have its own Arab spring. Indeed there is a growing public disdain towards Pakistan's involvement with the US, as well as with the Pakistani government. Protests have been held throughout the nation and Imran Khan's party Tehreek-e-Insaf, have been organising their own. Despite this Khan does not think there will be an all out revolution:
"I believe we will have a soft revolution through the ballet box"
"In Pakistan we are far more advanced than them, we have free media, we have an independent supreme court and a politically aware public...in fact when we have free and fair elections, Pakistan will move towards having a genuine democracy"
Khan is referring to the dictatorial rule in Arab countries in which the Arab spring has taken place. In Pakistan however, the political system embraces a more democratic structure, which sees elections take place every 4-5 years, meaning there is an element of hope in the next election. But are elections really free and fair? And what if a soft revolution never happens?
"If that doesn't happen God knows what will happen then, but there will be a lot of bloodshed... you will have something that will make the Arab spring look like child's play. You're going to see a massive explosion in Pakistan of public unrest"
Before Khan leaves to fly back to Pakistan, he tells me. "Remember, we are doing this for the youth." It's a fair point to consider, 70% of Pakistan's population are under 30. Khan understands that the future of Pakistan lies with its young people, campaigning heavily at universities and encouraging young people to participate. Social networking sites suggest there is a growing rise in Khan's popularity amongst the youth. His party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, has managed to gather vast swathes of protesters, demonstrating against the Pakistani state. Imran Khan's vision of a transparent government, where corruption and fraudulent politicians cannot prosper, gives me great hope.
Khan reminds me that an element of colonial rule still hangs over the terror stricken nation. I ask him if change could really happen in Pakistan, if there was anyway back from the violence that had engulfed the country. Khan explains that with the correct governance, Pakistan has a bright and prosperous future. Although Khan doubts the possibility of an Arab Spring in Pakistan, he believes the large youth population do have a chance to shape their future through democratic means. If Khan's popularity amongst the youth of Pakistan continues, then perhaps the change he so passionately advocates may be achievable.
Follow Nabeela Zahir on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nabeelazahir