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Thursday, May 16, 2024

Imran Khan: The man who loves the poor

Throughout his 22 years political journey, leading to the Prime Minister’s office Imran Khan has had to face many struggles. From battling the country's oligarchy to inheriting an economy in a complete mess to how he wants Pakistan to transform no matter how long it takes.

Imran Khan is an outlier. At every stage of his life, he has never done the ordinary.  Whether when he was playing cricket, leading the team, building his first cancer hospital, or launching the Namal knowledge city, it was beyond what was expected. It is no surprise then that when he stepped into politics and started his movement for justice, it would lead him to the Prime Minister’s office.

Nothing has come easy to him. His cricket career was unspectacular at its start. Dropped after his debut, he was out for 30 months. His first comeback was not much better. He had to go back to the nets, work really hard, remodel his bowling action, and come back a second time. This second coming led him right to the top as the game’s greatest all-rounders and one of the most successful and effective captains.

Here too, he fixed his sights on winning the world cup, and in his own words, “in the twilight of my career, I have won the world cup.” He didn’t just lead the Pakistan cricket team; he was also the key element in changing the game forever.

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It was never enough for him to just beat the best teams in the world on their own ground; he wanted to do it in a manner that there were no questions about how those victories were achieved. As an influential captain, he demanded neutral umpires and got them. The game was truly transformed.

When he initiated the project to build a cancer hospital in memory of his mother, whom he saw suffer and die from the emperor of all maladies, he was advised to keep his ambitions in check and keep it to a small hospice facility.

That is not what Imran Khan had in mind.  He wanted to build a  large capacity research facility where the poor would be treated for free. Not only has he built that hospital in Lahore starting with his fundraiser in November 1989, but he has also built a hospital in Peshawar and Karachi.

Treatment of the poor is free, and SKMT has become a symbol of what is possible in an environment where few strive for excellence, and even fewer are able to stay the course.

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The journey after cricket

Raising funds to build the first large-scale cancer hospital was not easy. Billions were required to build the first hospital, and the first surprise was that the rich were simply not interested in financing a facility locally because they never believed a top-quality hospital could be built and run in Pakistan, and they could easily afford treatment at the best hospitals in the world. Imran Khan turned to the poor. He went amongst them.

He touched a chord with them, and they responded.  Touring 22 cities in the wake of the world cup victory Khan collected funds to lay the foundations of SKMT Lahore, and there was no stopping him once he had fired up the imagination of millions of Pakistan’s poorest communities.

They brought him whatever they could afford. Soiled currency notes in 10s and 20s, hardly ever in 100s. Women came forth with their jewelry, and Imran Khan was overwhelmed with this love. He upped his game, became more confident in his endeavor, and reached out to overseas Pakistanis for funds. They, too, responded.

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Is it any surprise then that when he started Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, it was the poor, the educated middle class, and overseas Pakistani who became the bulk of his vote bank? An Imran Khan Jalsa is recognizable for its diversity.

Imran Khan love for poor

It is a mix of socio-economic groups. You will find the poorest citizens standing or sitting right next to some of the richest, it is most balanced in gender, and he brings out both the youngest and the oldest who believe in what he promises them.

They have seen him succeed in whatever he has attempted and have faith that he will lead Pakistan in the direction they all desire. A polity where the law is equally applicable to the rich and the poor. Where the state delivers on its social contract.

What then is Imran Khan’s political vision? In simplest of terms, it is justice for all. His single-minded focus is on breaking the stranglehold of plutocrats who have compromised all institutions of governance,  accountability,  and justice;  they have usurped the rights of the poorest citizens of Pakistan.

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Pakistan cannot really be considered a democracy in its current shape. Even though elections have now been held over the last 19 years and power has been transferred from one government to the next, oligarchs control the whole process. Change is neither visible nor is it evident in the lives of the bulk of the electorate.

Imran  Khan is the singular leader who is not part of the political fold.  He has built his party from almost nothing.  He was laughed at when he started his political career,  scorned when he launched SKMT, and was treated with derision when his party did not fare well in the first 10 years.

Throughout his  22  years of political journey,  leading to the  Prime  Minister’s office, Imran Khan had more detractors than supporters. In 1997 he didn’t win any seat. In 2002 he won a single seat. In 2008 PTI did not contest as he believed the two largest parties PML-N and PPP, were serious in not going into elections with Pervaiz Musharraf as President.

He was wrong.  Both parties contested the polls, and with PPP in power, Imran Khan had to sit on the sidelines waiting for the next elections. His political education was completed with a stint in jail during the movement to oust the Dogar courts and restore Iftikhar Chaudhry, not having realized Chaudhry too was part of the oligarchy.

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The ramping snowball

Everything changed politically for  Imran  Khan and  PTI  with the historic gathering at  Minar-e-Pakistan in  October 2011. Many theories are spun about how this inflection point. In Pakistan’s political journey emerged.

The country used to seeing large crowds only with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and to some extent, Benazir, Imran’s jalsa of 2011, was a big surprise. The spontaneous outpouring of support from a hitherto unknown phenomenon of a mixed gathering of people from different income groups, urban and rural, young and old, men and women, grandparents and their teenage progeny it was unprecedented.

Its very concept was alien to cadres of mass media used to seeing bused in crowds at political rallies.  This was a challenge to the status quo, and it responded with a narrative that harked back to the 90s and their own political engineering.

They credited the success of the jalsa and  Khan’s emergence to a  General. It had taken Khan 15 years to get here. News talk shows, talking heads all struggled to explain what had really happened.

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They ignored the fact that the crowd that turned up that day had no resemblance to any political gathering before that. In some ways,  the political pundits saw in this gathering the threat of change. Politics in Pakistan would never be the same again.

Imran Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaf had arrived, and people were ready to listen. If there were any questions about this first jalsa, the one in  March  2013,  just two months before general elections,  put them to rest.

An even bigger gathering came to listen to Khan condemn the status quo politics of the two largest parties and their loot and plunder. From having won only one seat just eleven years before, PTI went into the 2013 General Election with a full field of candidates and won 35 seats in the National Assembly in a very controversial election and managed to win major seats in KP Assembly and formed its first coalition government with the Jamat-e-Islami as a partner.

Here was now an opportunity to deliver what Khan had been promising.  While he put up the most vigorous opposition in the center,  his appointed team went to work in KP. The focus remained on the delivery of the social contract:  basic services for all citizens without discrimination. Health and education were targeted, and the results soon became visible.

Alongside that were police reforms. All three areas impacted the lives of ordinary people, and they responded by returning the PTI to power with a clear majority. No incumbent has ever been voted back into power in KP!

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The 2014 ‘dharna’

In the center, Imran Khan took up the cudgels, and his party identified four constituencies where they suspected rigging had taken place. First, they explored all legal recourse to initiate an investigation to no avail.

After 14 months of exhausting all legal remedies and being thwarted by the system of extractive political structures in place, PTI took to agitation. Here too, the style and tenor were different. No street agitation. No ‘gherao jalao.’

Khan led a large number of his followers to Islamabad, and they sat in at D-Chowk within spitting distance of parliament demanding the resignation of Nawaz Sharif and fresh polls. It was only Imran Khan’s stamina and single-minded purpose that this ‘dharna’ lasted 126 days and only dispersed after the tragic incident of APS Peshawar.

A lot changed after those momentous 126 days.  Even though the dharna did not result in the ouster of the government,  it seriously exposed the two-party system of PML-N and PPP as they closed ranks in the face of PTI’s threat. 2015 was an anti-climax, and political engineers started to write Khan and PTI off.

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Divine intervention was to change all that. In April 2016, the Panama papers story broke internationally, and like a wounded tiger Imran Khan pounced. This time Nawaz Sharif had nowhere to hide.  Pressed by Khan he made his famous speech in parliament claiming he had all evidence of his questioned wealth.

Imran Khan love for poor

He had not contended with Khan’s purpose and belief. In spite of the Supreme Court initially rebuffing the call for an investigation and justice,  PTI  agitated again,  and this time the matter was taken up by the court. The rest, as they say, is history. Two of the senior-most judges declared Nawaz Sharif unfit to hold office while three of their colleagues ordered a further inquiry.

The JIT was formed under court orders, and the smoking gun was Nawaz’s undeclared employment in UAE. He had also failed to provide credible evidence of his wealth. Removing him from office, the court-ordered references to be filed by NAB, and subsequently, both Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam were convicted.

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Coming to power

In the 2018 general elections, PTI, for the first time, fielded ‘electables’ who had flocked to Khan’s banner sensing change, and PTI emerged as the major party, with a clear majority in KP. During his journey to the PM’s office, Khan had promised much. It was now time to deliver. A shock was in store.

The PML-N government had left the economy in a complete mess.  The coffers were empty. Debts were piled high, and with rapidly diminishing foreign reserves, there was a crisis from day one of Khan taking office. There did not seem any choice except to go to the IMF for the 22nd bailout package in Pakistan’s history.

Many economists hold Imran Khan and Asad Umar guilty of procrastination, and perhaps they are right.  The delay exacerbated the economic slump, and when the IMF package was finally negotiated, it came with harsh conditions.  The rupee fell against the dollar as it was allowed to free float. The price of oil and other imports went up.

Electricity became more expensive because our energy mix is reliant on thermal power generation and,  worse still,  due to the contracts in place with  IPPs.  Compounding all this is the state of institutions that PTI and Khan inherited. Nearly 70 years of extractive politics have left all state institutions in shambles.

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There were no quick fixes, and that has been the harshest criticism of Khan and his promises of change. There was no honeymoon period for Khan. From almost day one, the media went after him. They, too, are part of the oligarchy built over 70 years.

Khan is their worst nightmare. He will no longer fund the media barons and is totally committed to taking on powerful cartels and mafias. His handling of the COIVID-19 crises that emerged within 18 months of his taking office has been lauded around the world except for media in Pakistan.

He stated on day one that he would not lock down the country as his people could not afford it. Poverty has deepened as a result of COVID, but every decision Khan has taken in the last 14 months is to protect the poorest of his country’s citizens.

Targeted cash subsidies to 16 million households, shelters, citizens’ kitchens, subsidies, and incentives to the construction industry are not only protecting the marginalized sections of society they are also leading to macro-economic stability.

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After five decades, large-scale hydel projects have been initiated. Khan’s stated position is that he is not concerned about the next election. He wants Pakistan to transform no matter how long it takes. For all his shortcomings, sections of the media have been like baying hounds predicting his ouster within the first 100 days of his government, and they still continue to send him home every week.

Liberal sections of the press have rallied behind JUI-F and its leader, who only knows how to extract and not give back. Does Khan really care for all the doomsday scenarios? Not by a long chance. He is only focused on one thing: Justice for the poor.

Polymath, entrepreneur, media pro, and tech evangelist Faisal Sherjan has been part of Imran Khan’s journey since the 1st fundraiser for SKMT in November 1989.