It’s Monday, February 18, 2008, and the entire world is anxiously focusing on Pakistan. After nearly a month’s delay due to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, Pakistan’s contentious and, some say, “historic” parliamentary elections were held amidst a sea of violence, unrest, and political instability.
“These elections are completely rigged, yaar. The results were already in last week. I really pray for Pakistan. There’s going to be a lot of trouble tomorrow,” an insider, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me in a dejected, cynical, yet passionate voice straining for hope. Throughout the night and early morning, we’ve been keeping each other company through emails and quick cell calls, as I play phone tag with Imran Khan’s contacts in Pakstan; first, his office underling, then his personal driver, then, finally, with his publicist who tells me to call back every 10 minutes and to “just hope” I get “lucky” to nab an extremely busy Mr Khan, who, as luck would have it, just stepped out twenty minutes ago for a CNN International interview.
One of the most popular and influential Pakistani personalities of the past twenty years, Khan first made his name as Pakistan’s winning Cricket captain and sophisticated socialite. Then, he emerged as a worldly humanitarian and founder of Pakistan’s first Cancer hospital. However, his newest role as the head of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e — Insaaf [Pakistan’s Movement for Justice Political Party] has cast him as one of Musharaff’s most vocal and animated critics, who passionately, and some say naively, advocates for Pakistan’s political reform and progression towards an enlightened democracy. After five hours of phone tag, I was able to nab an exclusive interview with Imran Khan. This conversation took place only a few hours ago.
“Imran Khan? Assalam Alikum, I’m WAJAHAT ALI, a journalist from the United States. I know you’re off to a reception, and they told me I’ve got limited time, so I promise I’ll make it quick. Will you take some questions?
[In Urdu, the language of Pakistan] “Ok, Wajahat. Whom are you writing for?”
[In Urdu] “We can do this in Urdu if you want. I’m a writer from three respected online magazines. A contributor to Counterpunch, a very respected and well read political magazine with a savvy international audience. Also, I’m an Associate Editor with Altmuslim and contributor to Islamica, the most respected Muslim American magazines read by the movers and shakers in politics and —
[Back to English] “Ok, let’s start. Let’s start.”
“Excuse me? I didn’t hear-”
“Ok, you ready?”
“Yeah, let’s go.”
ALI: Ok, first question. The polls in Pakistan for the General Election are now officially closed. Here’s the question on everyone’s minds around the world: First: Will these elections be free and fair? Second: Will the results represent the pulse and wishes of the people?
KHAN: Number one, they are certainly not free and fair. Because the greatest pre-poll rigging ever in our history was done, where the whole State administration was pushing the pro-government, pro-Musharaff candidates. Every party has every day listed the ways the elections have been rigged for the past month. Secondly, it is the lowest ever voter turn out. In fact, I would say that 75% of the people have rejected the electoral process. They did not feel that if your Constitution is suspended, if 60% of your judges have been unconstitutionally sacked, your Chief Justice is under house arrest, then you cannot have free and fair election when the pre-conditions are not there. So, basically, people have rejected the election. If the people have come out to vote, then it is against pro-Musharaff candidates.
ALI: So, you’re completely convinced that it’s rigged against the Pro-Musharaff candidates?
KHAN: You can just do any random sampling. You can see that people who are coming in — the PML-Q [Musharaff’s party] if it wins, no one will accept the results. No one is going to accept the results.
ALI: Ok, so no one is going to accept the results. Here is the natural follow up question. Should we expect much violence and bloodshed following the announcement of the results?
KHAN: I think, as I said, there was a poll conducted and 58% of the people said that they would not accept the result if the PML-Q comes to power. 58%! And they would go out and demonstrate. This is from a poll done recently.
ALI: I need your thoughts on today’s quotation by Musharaff, where he said, “Whatever the result, whatever the result, we will accept it with grace. Whoever is the prime minister, I will work with that person in a reconciliatory mode. We should end the confrontationist politics. Let’s enter into a conciliatory politics.” Do you believe him? Should the world believe him?
KHAN: No one in Pakistan believes him, because everyone knows he has gone back on his word so many times. He has no credibility. In the first election, in 2002, he said, “All I’m interested in is someone becomes Prime Minister, so I can play golf.” And, he did actually anything but that. Again, again, he’s making these statements, but he’s going to rig these elections to the point where he thinks his party can still win. There was a statement out in the paper in an interview he gave where he said he thinks MQM [a Pakistan political party not expected to win] and PML-Q will win the majority seats and will win the elections.
ALI: Well, according to the polls, that’s ridiculous.
KHAN: Absolutely. What I’m saying is what he says and what he’s trying to do is two different things. We’ve heard all this — he’s made these false promises so many times that no one trusts him anymore.
ALI: The two main opposition parties, now this is a rumor, suggested they unite against Musharraf’s party. This again is Benazir Bhutto’s PPP led by her husband Zardari and Nawaz Sharif’s [Pakistan’s former Prime Minister recently returned from exile]. They said if they could capture two thirds of the seats in parliament and form a coalition, then they would win a two-thirds majority in parliament and take steps to impeach Musharaff. Is a united front going to be successful against Musharaff? Or, like you said, all is rigged and all is lost?
KHAN: Well, if there was a two-thirds majority, if they were free and fair elections, they would get it. But, they are not free and fair elections, I’ll doubt they’ll get the majority. But, there’s always a fear in our minds that People’s Party [Bhutto’s party] might for the fourth time bail out Musharaff by doing a power sharing deal with him. Now, really, this is the next step. Are they going to do a power sharing deal with him?
ALI: That’s the question on my mind and most policy experts and pundits as well. Is Zardari going to do a power sharing deal? Will a power sharing deal be engineered between the United States, Zardari’s PPP, and Musharaff?
KHAN: Well, look, if [Zardari] does so, remember, not only will the People’s Party be destroyed, but anyone who now does a deal with Musharaff will destroy himself. If the U.S. backs Zardari– and people will know that if Zardari does a deal with Musharaff, they will know he’s doing a deal to get off his corruption cases [Zardari is affectionately known as “Mr 10%” in Pakistan due the steep kickbacks he illegally pocketed during his wife’s tenure.] And so, he will destroy his own party. I don’t think even People’s Party will accept him. People’s Party won’t accept that deal.
ALI: Let’s ask a question for the layman. What are the results going to be tomorrow? What are we going to see?
KHAN: Well, I don’t know what the results are. It’s the lowest turn out. But, as we know, Musharaff did a referendum, and there was no one out to give votes, but Musharaff showed, and the election commission showed a 75% turnout! That’s even more than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s turnout! [Benazir Bhutto’s father, who was Pakistan’s popular and controversial Prime Minster, hung by General Zia al Haq following a bloodless coup.] Therefore, no one trusts the results that the elections commissions are going to come up with. That’s why we feel it should’ve been an independent election commission. This election commission — no one has any faith in it.
ALI: “The West” has popularized the image of Benazir Bhutto and her party, The PPP [Pakistan People’s Party], as saviors of democracy in Pakistan. What is the truth behind that image?
KHAN: Well, I’m afraid People’s Party has already bailed out Musharaff three times when he was sinking. They actually went against the democratic movement. We were all wanting the Constitution and the re-instatement of [the illegally sacked] judges, and People’s Party bailed him firstly by not resigning from their assemblies – so they legitimized his Presidential elections. Number two, they did not boycott the elections when Musharaff held this illegal, unconstitutional State of Emergency [in November 2007, Musharaff sacked critical judges, jailed attorneys, NGO’s, and shut down independent media] and he held elections under the Emergency. And number three, when Benazir was assassinated, all parties wanted to boycott the elections and first find out who killed her. And Zardari wanted to go ahead with the elections again to save Musharaff. If they save him, this will be the fourth time they will save Musharaff, so I don’t think the rank and file of People’s Party will accept it. He will damage the People’s Party if he does a deal now.
ALI: You’re an insider to Pakistan’s political scene. I want your opinion on this. What is America’s interest in supporting Musharaff, and not only him, but also in supporting a power sharing deal between him and Zardari’s PPP?
KHAN: Because Musharaff has sold the idea to the Americans — he has sold the myth that he is the only one who can fight the U.S. “war on terror” and he is indispensable. Therefore, the Bush Administration is blindly backing Musharaff, and as a result, you see the situation where Musharaff is completely unpopular in Pakistan. Everyone wants him out. What we’re seeing is that the U.S. administration is backing Musharaff and wanting a civilian façade, which is why they wanted a People’s Party deal with him.
ALI: Here’s what everyone says in America: “If not Musharaff, then it’ll be the Taliban or Al Qaeda taking over Pakistan, so we should choose the lesser of evils.”
KHAN: This is an example of Musharaff propaganda. He’s selling himself to the West that he is a bastion against fundamentalism and Taliban-ization. It is a complete myth. If you look at Pakistan’s electoral history, even the religious parties were not extreme; even they have hardly got any votes. Whenever we’ve had general elections, they’ve always been beaten. Today, Maulana Fazlur Rahman is fighting in the name of MMA [ the right wing, conservative religious party], he’s taking a bashing, he’s going to barely survive according to the opinion polls. So, people in this country are moderate. Actually, who’s fostering extremism have always been military dictatorships. Whenever we’ve had growth in extremism it’s always been under a military dictator. Whenever you’ve had people who have been allowed to vote, the free and fair vote has always marginalized the extremists.
ALI: You know Pakistan’s image in the world. CNN labeled it as “Terror Central” and the Economist called it “The Most Dangerous Nation on Earth.” You have bomb blasts and attacks last week and this week at polling stations, you have kidnappings and disappearances of your diplomats, etc. So how do you convince the world that extremism and violence is not the real face of Pakistan? That Pakistan is indeed moderate under the weight of all this evidence?
KHAN: First of all, the United States backed a dictator [General Zia, Pakistan’s ruler under Martial Law ’77-’88] who took us into the Afghan jihad — never consulting the people of Pakistan. CIA and Pakistan’s ISI trained these people to fight the Soviet occupation in the art of terrorism. Once the Soviets left, Pakistan was lumbered with these people, these guerilla fighters. Then, this other dictator [Musharaff] then takes us to start eliminating these people. We never went in the first Afghan jihad with the backing of the people of Pakistan. We never went into the second, front line state against terror with the backing of the people of Pakistan. Both were military dictators.
Now, thanks to the way Musharaff has participated in the U.S. war on terror, where Pakistan is killing its own people through helicopters, gun ships and bombing villages in the tribal areas — there is a backlash. And that backlash is what’s making Pakistan a dangerous place. The moment we have a genuine, democratic government, and they start talking to people and they start negotiating with people and holding dialogue rather than talking with these bullets and bombs, we will again go back to a normal country.
And I’m sad to say that it is the U.S. backing of a military dictator that has gotten us into this mess. It’s the military dictator that got us in there. If we had a democratic government, we wouldn’t have been in this, because our decisions would’ve been much better than what Musharaff has done. Of course, we should’ve always backed the U.S. in this war against terror. But, not the way, blindly following every dictate and now getting ourselves into this situation where our country’s own existence is in threat. Now Pakistan, a country that had nothing to do with 9-11, we now are fighting for our existence. And unless we change strategy, the future is in danger.
ALI: The natural question then is how can one get autonomy for Pakistani citizens? How do you bring democracy to this country that is currently under the world’s microscope?
KHAN: The only way, the only way forward is to have the judges reinstated. Then, they give independence to the media and the election commission. Free and fair elections. That’s the only way out for Pakistan.
ALI: How do you get out under the thumb of the military? Is it at all possible?
KHAN: If you have an independent powerful judiciary – that is the way you get out of the military’s thumb. They will make the military act according to the Constitution.
ALI: Several critics of Pakistan say all this is an example of Pakistan acting as a failed state, and this proves that Pakistan should have never undergone the 1947 Partition with India. Because, well, look at them: Pakistanis are now killing themselves. Is this an accurate assessment?
KHAN: Absolute nonsense! Pakistan is a very viable state. We’ve had a problem because the military kept interfering in our democratic process. We never went through a trial and error period where we could have evolved, where our democracy could have evolved. Now, I think we have, in a way, a very fortunate situation where it looks as if we are finally going to move towards a democratic system the moment our judges are reinstated. And then, Pakistan has a very bright future.
ALI: Pretend by some magic, you’ve become Pakistan’s Prime Minster, and you’re given control and autonomy. What would be the first immediate steps and actions you would take to change Pakistan’s current course?
KHAN: I would first of all have rule of law and institutionalize the independence of the judiciary. Secondly, I would have an education emergency in Pakistan. Thirdly, I would have an employment emergency. Finally, I would change the economic policies to change it from an elitist system, but change it to make sure that the priority becomes the common man: the bottom 40% of the population. Ok?
ALI: Can I get a last question?
KHAN (voice trailing): Ok, I’ve got to go. Khuda Hafiz [May God Protect You.]
ALI: Khuda Hafiz. [May God Protect You]
WAJAHAT ALI is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org