'In politics, there comes a time when an idea can't be stopped' - A Telegraph exclusive: Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan talks about his new innings in Islamabad

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  • Published 24.04.04
What cricket has taught
‘The most invaluable lesson — never to give up. I’ve learnt from defeats, learnt from setbacks’

Even a dozen years after quitting cricket, weeks into becoming a World Cup-winning captain, Imran Khan remains his country’s most popular sportsman — arguably the most popular Pakistani as well. More recently, he has been making headlines in a different avatar: As a Member of the National Assembly (MNA) from Mianwali, some two-and-half hours from the capital. Imran, of course, is chairman of the Tehrik-e-Insaaf, a party founded exactly eight years ago. He is also chairman of the Board which runs his dream-come-true venture — the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital in Lahore (“till now, my biggest achievement”). Characteristically candid, Imran spoke to The Telegraph for over an hour in lovely Islamabad last week.

The following are excerpts

Q You’ve been an MNA for a year-and-half. How exciting is this innings?

A It’s different… For the first time, I’ve been able to interact with political forces across Pakistan… An uncle (Amanullah Khan Niazi) was a very senior Muslim League politician, but otherwise I’m from a non-political family... Today, though, I’ve learnt from this exposure… I may not agree with most, but I definitely understand politicians better and am better equipped to interact with them.

Have you been an active participant in the debates?

Look, being a member of the joint Opposition, I stayed away for a long time as we regard General (Pervez) Musharraf as an usurper… After all, he made himself the President literally through the force of arms… (After a pause) We still don’t regard him our President as he went on to get himself elected through a vote of confidence… That’s unheard of.

But, you’ve again started attending the National Assembly…

After a compromise, yes… With important issues — such as nuclear proliferation and the army’s operation in the tribal areas — taking centrestage, we decided to make ourselves heard… On the orders of the US and for a paltry sum of money, we’ve killed our own men… It’s been an excuse for fighting terrorism… Suddenly, innocents have become terrorists because the US has said so…

Surely, Al-Qaeda men or their sympathisers have crossed over. How can you dispute that?

This is part of the disinformation campaign… What’s the point of fighting a war against terrorism when, all the time, you’re creating new terrorists? There’s no known target… Look at Iraq… It was invaded on the pretext of fighting terrorism and, a year on, that country is actually hit by terrorism… It has become a never-ending war and, given the post-September 11 developments, terrorism is growing by the day. I strongly believe Pakistan shouldn’t have allowed itself to be blindly frog-marched into this war. Now, we have suicide bombings, targeting of foreigners… Musharraf has himself escaped two assassination attempts…

How would you have tackled the Taliban?

I would have gone to war only after exhausting all avenues outside of it… War has to be the last resort, not the first option… In fact, the Taliban could have been toppled peacefully and a fresh administration put in place without such upheaval… The resistance in Afghanistan, the Al-Qaeda… It has all got mixed up and, frankly, one doesn’t know what’s going on.

If you were in George Bush’s boots, how different would have been your reaction to September 11?

Yes, I would have stepped up security and gone after whoever I thought engineered those strikes. At the same time, I would have analysed why people blew themselves up… Would have looked at the root cause… Where I’m concerned, there’s just one reason — the Palestinian-Israeli dispute… It appears the entire US policy for the Middle East is made in Israel. If I may add, (Ariel) Sharon came to power on the plank that he would destroy the Palestinian struggle. Today, the Israelis are more insecure than ever before… Bush has initiated a moronic struggle versus terrorism… It’s not going to get anywhere. Moreover, by his actions, he has made the Muslims feel it’s a war against Islam. Bush comes through as a cowboy, with absolutely no idea of the history of mankind.

As an MNA, what’s your agenda?

Principally, three-fold: Justice — calling for a proper, independent judicial system; addressing education on an emergency footing — it’s because the state-run schools system has collapsed that the future of Pakistan is bleak; poverty alleviation — employment has to be generated and an environment created to attract investment…

You must be happy with the steps recently taken by Islamabad and New Delhi…

(Smiles) Thank God for maturity in the dealings between our two countries… Till not too long ago, the statements which emanated from both capitals suggested banana republics were having a go at each other! That brinksmanship showed immaturity… Then, because both Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons, an explosive face-off was being encouraged… Now, that has changed… I’m all for the settlement of differences across the table — a long-term solution, however, is dependant on addressing the human rights of the people of Kashmir. For me, it’s not a territorial issue.

Obviously, the cricketers have helped the politicians…

The Revival Tour has certainly changed the atmosphere… Looking ahead, if India is to grow into an economic powerhouse, it will need energy from Central Asia via the pipelines running through Pakistan… Our country, on the other hand, is going to gain by spending less on defence. That will allow resources to be shifted for development… Poverty alleviation, education… A lot of areas stand to benefit.

Your party has been in existence for eight years, but you’re the sole MNA. Are you weak at the grassroots?

If you look at the history of Pakistan, hardly any party has come up with an anti-status quo agenda. Despite that, both in 1997 and the last elections (2002), my party had offers from the Establishment as well as the Opposition… Yet, I declined… Breaking with the past and challenging the status quo entails a long struggle. In any case, the Establishment in Pakistan is very powerful.

Thus far, then, what have you gained?

The people’s trust… They know we have an ideology and that we won’t sell ourselves… We have credibility.

Fair enough, but the Tehrik-e-Insaaf is seen as a one-man show…

Please remember we’re different from the well-entrenched parties and, so, currently don’t have many big names… Give us time.

Do you have a hero in politics?

I’ve looked up to the Quaid-e-Azam (Mohammed Ali Jinnah), Mahathir Mohammad and Nelson Mandela… The Quaid for what he achieved, Mahathir and Mandela for changing society in such an appreciable manner… Mandela did it socially, Mahathir economically… Their impact simply can’t be measured.

What’s your equation with Musharraf?

Personally, I got along well and even supported him for two-and-half years… One-to-one, he’s charming and warm… But, then, I realised he is intent on taking the well-trodden path of earlier leaders — basically, taking any- which-way to stay in power. Today, I don’t agree with his policies — be it the war on terrorism bit or internal — and am firmly opposed to him.

You’ve been speaking about “crooks” supported by the Establishment, but why blame Musharraf only?

Because he took over with an agenda which talked of cleaning the system… Because he spoke of removing a sham democracy… Because he has taken on board those very crooks who prospered when Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were in power… (Adds laughing) Instead of a proper democracy, our Prime Minister calls Musharraf “boss!”

Opposing the Establishment must be costing you heavy…

It’s not easy… Indeed, it’s tougher making the party grow quickly… Funding is a problem because people are petrified of the government agencies… Getting funds is a challenge… The state’s resources could be turned on you and…

Honestly, are you in for the long haul?

Yes… I know nobody has beaten the Establishment, but I’m not going to give up… I’m not going to dilute the vision I have. In politics, there comes a time when an idea can’t be stopped… When the people begin to embrace it… (Emotionally) It’s my conviction that the time is already ripe for a change — it’s another matter that it may not come about in the next elections or even the one after that… Eventually, though, the people are going to stand up for their rights.

Has Mianwali changed in the past year-and-half?

Being in the Opposition, my access to funds is limited… However, I’ve initiated plans for a technical college which, in time, will grow into a university and be recognised as a centre of excellence… Hopefully, it’s going to start from mid 2005.

Have you been following Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Prime Ministership?

Clearly, he is seasoned and his maturity comes through in the manner he talks… Every word is weighed, the implications calculated… Eventually, a Prime Minister (or President) is judged by his legacy… If Vajpayee can settle Kashmir, thereby changing the face of the sub-continent, that will be his never-to-be-forgotten legacy… India is seven times the size of Pakistan, the onus therefore is on Vajpayee. If India doesn’t want a change, Pakistan can’t do a thing.

What are your impressions of Lal Krishna Advani?

Off and on, I’ve read hawkish statements attributed to him… People in responsible positions shouldn’t try to cash-in on hatred… I don’t really have an opinion (on Advani).

You interacted with Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra during the Karachi ODI. What did you make of them?

I wouldn’t like to go by first impressions… But, yes, I enjoyed their company… Priyanka was very charming and Rahul keenly interested in the sub-continent’s political situation… At this moment, though, I can’t pass a judgement on their future in politics. Of course, I wish them the very best, specially Rahul who is standing for Parliament.

The last question: What has cricket taught you most?

(Smiles again) The most invaluable lesson — never to give up. I’ve learnt from defeats, learnt from setbacks.