KARACHI, Pakistan — Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister in waiting, hates being a loser. He has said, “As a sportsman I know winning & losing are part of the game,” but that was after coming out of retirement to win the Cricket World Cup in 1992. And losing doesn’t seem to be part of his idea of the political game.
Yet for a very long time Khan was a loser — that other kind of loser, the one you still hear in President Trump’s Twitter voice. For much of two decades, while pledging to bring about a revolution and saying things like “when I become prime minister,” he prowled the margins of Pakistani politics. A darling of English tabloids, his rallies back home weren’t attracting much of a crowd.
But over the last five years, after Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (P.T.I.), lost the 2013 election to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N, Khan has become the main contender to power. Weeks before the general election on July 25, even Khan’s opponents were calling him ladla, the favorite. Sharif, who was removed from his post as prime minister last year over corruption charges, has just been sentenced to prison. Other candidates have been hounded by the police or the courts or are being killed by the Taliban or the Islamic State.
People who used to laugh at Khan’s ambition have been falling over one another to get on the P.T.I. ticket — or, failing that, to take selfies with him. There’s even an app that generates those.
Khan is fond of using sporting metaphors to convey his message. When his opponents are called out on something, he says that an “umpire’s finger” has been raised — and when one of them joins his party, TV headlines scream, “another wicket falls.” Most of Khan’s young followers have only seen him play cricket on YouTube, but they seem inspired by his vision of a new Pakistan, a Pakistan free of corruption, a Pakistan that is respected on the world stage. Just like he was as a star athlete.
When Khan started out in politics, it was like he was throwing a party for a young Pakistan. About 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, so he has brought music to political rallies. Today, even conservative party leaders who once wouldn’t be seen near a guitar are hiring DJs to play music during their speeches.
Khan has also brought into the fold the very politicians who for years called him a loser. He has surrounded himself with land grabbers, feudal lords and rent seekers. He justifies surrounding himself with “electables” — people with dedicated vote banks — because they “know the science of winning elections.” Many of the candidates on P.T.I.’s lineup for the election are professional politicians who have been party-hopping for generations.
Khan has finally become a traditional politician — and in the process he might be taking the country’s youth back in time.
In one of his first protest rallies during what had been a very hot summer, some of his supporters clashed with police. One of them was caught on camera saying, if the police beats us up how will the revolution happen? He went on to add, famously, “we are wasting away in this heat.”
The complaint about being hot was silly but important for coming from a new kind of voice: from someone who absolutely didn’t expect to be beaten up by the police. But Khan’s young warriors do cheer when the police beat up other protesters or the army abducts its detractors and makes them disappear. Khan’s critics call them “youthias” — a riff on chutiya, slang for a jerk.
Social media accounts with Khan’s picture and his party’s flag are full of staggering misogyny. (His followers seem to take after him.) Many of them claim to be super patriots. Some say that Malala Yousafzai’s shooting in 2012 was staged and that India is sponsoring terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
Khan’s new Pakistan was going to be a bit like Sweden and a bit like Singapore — or, really, like old Medina: According to him, all welfare state models are borrowed from early Islamic empires. He supports the blasphemy law and has defended the justice system adopted by the Taliban from Pashtun tribes.
Khan’s opponents often chide him for his marriages and affairs, his character flaws, his spiritual confusion. But these things have rarely done harm to a male politician in the past. And Khan seems to think that he has enough electables behind him. That the Taliban listen to him even though they are reported to have threatened him. That he can knock down a corrupt system with the help of the politicians who built it.
Now, he just needs to keep the army on board.
Democracy was restored in 2008 after nearly a decade of Gen. Pervez Musharraf in power. But the decade since has shown that this model isn’t working. Missing persons’ cases are increasing. The media are censored at levels not seen even under dictatorship. And the Pakistani army would like to run the country the way it used to: It’s fine for elected politicians to cut ribbons at inaugurations but not for them to decide foreign policy or internal security.
But can Khan take on the military establishment, which still sits at the top of the food chain and is still fighting an eternal war against India and its own people, too? His opponents describe his supporters as “boot polishia,” those who lick the army’s boots. If Khan comes to power, like all prime ministers before him, he will try to wriggle out from under those boots. And that’s not likely to end well.
Khan seems to have walked out of a self-help book or a sports ad, but after an epic journey, he is finally knocking at the gates of power, ready to “Just do it” — whatever “it” is. Khan has politicized a whole generation, only to deliver it into servitude to Pakistan’s old establishment.
Mohammed Hanif (@mohammedhanif) is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” and “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,” and the librettist for the opera “Bhutto.” He is a contributing opinion writer. He was also this year's Ibn Rushd Lecture speaker, to see his talk click here.
This article was originally published in The New York Times.