WHETHER as a fast bowler or a politician, Imran Khan does not go in for self-doubt.
“This will be the biggest crowd ever,” he said, as dozens of party workers laid out chairs and banners yesterday for his first campaign rally since elections were called. “This could change Pakistani politics forever.”
It is a big claim for the leader of a party that does not even have a single seat in Pakistan’s national assembly. Yet unwavering self-confidence has served him well down the years. It helped him overcome the nickname “Imran Can’t” when it was bestowed on a young cricketer starting out in England and kept his political party afloat through a string of painful defeats.
More than 100,000 people showed up for yesterday’s rally in the heart of Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab. The province will be the main battleground in determining which party wins enough seats in the national assembly to form the country’s next government.
Pakistan goes to the polls on 11 May to select a new government and new prime minister.
In the past 18 months, Khan has emerged from the political wilderness to become a contender. Another huge rally at the end of 2011 brought more than 100,000 people on to the streets of Lahore and sent shock waves through a complacent political elite.
Since then a string of polls has named him the man most Pakistanis would like to the lead the country. Although his Movement for Justice party currently lags behind in third place, he could still emerge as kingmaker come coalition negotiations which are all but certain to follow the elections.
Khan, who at 60 still runs daily and retains the chiselled good looks that made him a pin-up, will not entertain the prospect of doing a deal with the other parties. He is still counting on a political tsunami to sweep him into power.
“I’m confident because people are sick of the old faces. Everyone wants change. They’ve seen these people over and over again for the past 25 years,” he told Scotland on Sunday. “Things have never been so bad.”
Pakistan’s dynastic politics has seen power swapped between two families – the Bhuttos and the Sharifs – for much of the country’s history. Nawaz Sharif is frontrunner to become prime minister for the third time, while this election will see Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Benazir’s son, emerge as a campaigning force, even though at 24 he is still too young to stand himself.
Khan offers a different type of politics. His anti-corruption rhetoric has excited a new breed of young, educated, urban voters keen to ditch a status quo that has failed to help ordinary people. Yet for 17 years his party has made barely a dent, winning only one seat – his own, which he gave up in protest at what he said was a corrupt political system.
So what has sustained him through his uphill political struggle? The answer, laid out in countless interviews and developed in his recent memoir Pakistan: A Personal History, are his country’s twin religions: Cricket and Islam.
He is fond of telling the story of the 1992 Cricket World Cup. He had returned from retirement to captain an underperforming team. They were written off time and time again but managed to stumble into the final against England.
Khan played a match-winning innings and took the final wicket. But it was his inspirational dressing room team talk, in which he exhorted his players to “fight like cornered tigers” that is credited with bringing Pakistan their only World Cup success.
The same spirit runs through his political party. They may be outsiders but many are proud to wear “cornered tiger” T-shirts.
If that famous self-belief – some dismiss it as arrogance – drives his campaign, then it his religious belief that informs his political direction, providing a framework for a welfare state and his condemnation of corruption. He is reluctant to tackle Pakistan’s barbaric blasphemy laws and has argued in favour of talks with the Taleban, bringing accusations that he is a religious extremist.
At the same time, he has described how his interest in Islam, fostered by a spiritual guru, has given him a purpose in life after cricket and helped him deal with the knocks along the way. “And indeed the greatest blessing faith gave me was that it liberated me from my fears: fear of failure fear of death, fear of losing my livelihood, fear of being humiliated by others,” he wrote in his memoir.
Politics has taken its toll on his personal life. His wife, Jemima Goldsmith, left the country with the couple’s two children after a second bruising election defeat in 2002. She had moved to Pakistan, converted to Islam and helped design their hilltop villa, with its wide verandah and stunning views across Islamabad.
But she could not have expected to have been sucked into Pakistan’s febrile political world, amid accusations that she was part of a Zionist plot against the country. The couple remain close and his marriage is a subject that Khan avoids discussing in public.
In his memoir, he writes movingly of how his single-minded pursuit of power undermined his marriage. He writes how she “used to ask me how long I would keep pursuing politics without succeeding, at what point I would decide it was futile,” but adds: “I couldn’t answer, simply because a dream has no time frame.”
For many Khan remains something of an unknown factor. His supporters are young and have never voted before, while pundits predict anything from five seats to a game-changing 50.
Khan has no such uncertainty. “I see people deciding that they want change,” he said. “The things I have talked about for 17 years, the time has come for those ideas.”