It’s been a long journey for Imran Khan. He founded his political party, PTI (Pakistan Movement for Justice), in 1996, and for many years made no real progress. Many mocked him. The Guardian journalist Declan Walsh dismissed him as ‘a miserable politician’, whose ideas and affiliations had ‘swerved and skidded like a rickshaw in a rainshower’.
PTI did make a limited amount of progress in the 2013 general elections, when it emerged as the second largest party by national vote and with 30 parliamentary seats. Furthermore, Khan’s party secured control of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province). But none of this was enough to challenge for national power.
The outlook has changed dramatically over the past three months. The world needs to take seriously the prospect that Pakistan’s sporting idol and former Test cricket captain may be its next prime minister.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), mired in complacency and corruption, is no longer a significant national force. Meanwhile, PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz), the ruling party, is facing a series of corruption charges after the Pakistan Supreme Court forced the resignation of its leader, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in the wake of investigations that followed the publication of the Panama Papers.
With only months to go until the general election, the house of Sharif is rudderless and broken. Following the fall of Nawaz, it cannot even agree on a candidate to lead the party into the election. And it is accused of stashing huge sums of money abroad.
Imran Khan has one further advantage. The 65-year-old has repeatedly presented himself as the virtuous outsider promising to clean up the endemic corruption of Pakistan’s politics. The enforced resignation of Nawaz Sharif is therefore seen as a profound vindication of Khan himself.
So when I drove up the hill to Khan’s elegant house overlooking Islamabad, I wasn’t going to visit a mere commentator on Pakistani politics.