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Hero or Zero?

Pakistan's latest would-be savior.

Pakistan’s democratic institutions—a president, a parliament, a prickly judiciary—generally struggle for recognition and relevance. But not at the moment. The country recently saw three major campaign rallies just days apart. (Elections are slated for 2013, though they could be moved up.) First, Shahbaz Sharif—the chief minister of Punjab and brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif—led his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), in an impassioned rally. Shahbaz called on Pakistanis to revolt against the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, suggesting that his dead body would be strung up from the medieval gates of Lahore.

Two days later, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a Karachi-based party with both secular and violent tendencies, held an event that amounted to a proxy rally for Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The MQM and PPP have of late been the Ike and Tina Turner of Pakistani political alliances, merging and divorcing and rekindling with horrific repercussions.

The reason for both rallies? To try to counteract a third event, which had been heavily advertised here for weeks: a rally organized by Imran Khan, the former cricket star who led Pakistan to a World Cup two decades ago. As many as 100,000 people showed up for that rally, making it perhaps the biggest political event in Lahore since Benazir Bhutto returned from exile in 1986. Khan had been something of a punch line in Pakistani politics for many years, with his attempts to accumulate power largely falling flat. Yet today, in a country exhausted by war and corruption and political infighting, he looks to many Pakistanis like a savior.

“I HAVE BEEN SENSING a growing disillusionment in the face of corruption, a kind of hopelessness,” Pakistan’s former foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, recently told me. That feeling of despair has left an opening for someone, anyone, who is not a traditional politician to compete in the next election. And why not Khan? The former athlete, who remains Pakistan’s biggest celebrity export, has an unconventional life story: He was educated at Lahore’s Aitchison College, then in England (at Oxford, to be precise), conquered cricket, and married Jemima Goldsmith, the British heiress, writer, and editor who, after her divorce from Khan in 2004, went on to date Hugh Grant. Khan’s children reside in the United Kingdom, where Khan has spent considerable time—although he claims to have never consumed alcohol during all of his hard-partying London days.

Khan’s ideological identity is a complicated matter. Pakistan’s upper-middle class turned out in strong numbers for his rally, as did girls in jeans (a rare sight these days in Lahore) and students. “He is viable to the urban intelligentsia, one that is sick of politicians and their politics,” says Pakistani political columnist Shafqat Mahmood.

At the same time, Khan has constantly excused the actions of the Taliban and other extremist groups, for example, claiming that Benazir Bhutto, as a supporter of the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, had only herself to blame for threats on her life. Perhaps because whatever political base he has is in his native north, he has vocally opposed military operations in Swat and North Waziristan, as well as U.S. drone strikes. Indeed, his policy toward the Taliban appears to be based completely on dialogue, as if the group’s brutality is a function of people not listening carefully to its ideas.

On the question of military involvement in politics, Khan’s views are muddled. He first supported, then later opposed, Pervez Musharraf’s power grab. He has said that the military budget should be reduced, but he has also stopped short of a full-on assault. Indeed, the focus of his rally was on the corruption of civilian politicians—a legitimate issue, to be sure, but one that ignores the army’s control of large sectors of the economy.

In the end, though, Khan’s appeal may not have much to do with ideology. Many Pakistanis want the world to see our country through the prism of Khan—the good-looking, world-class athlete turned socialite turned political underdog. He is tall, photogenic, articulate, and displays a measure of dignity in public that is depressingly rare. As a country, we are still riding high on his long-ago World Cup victory, and the cancer hospital he founded remains a symbol that something can go right here. Pakistan, so often portrayed of late as the tacky guest no one really invited to the party, needs an image boost, and Imran Khan provides it.

The problem, of course, is that—from General Ayub Khan to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to General Zia ul Haq to Benazir Bhutto to Musharraf to Zardari—Pakistan has had no shortage of would-be saviors in recent decades, and few of them have done the country much good. The pml-n and the PPP have both held power twice, with little progress to show for it. This is largely because the country itself is so divided on the major issues it faces—its dealings with the United States and India, its support for extremist groups in Afghanistan, and, perhaps most importantly, its own national identity and relationship to Islam. The Pakistani people are going to eventually have to decide what kind of state they want to live in. It’s unclear whether an untested celebrity politician can help them answer this question. But at this point, a lot of Pakistanis seem ready to try anything.

Komail Aijazuddin is a writer and artist in Lahore, Pakistan. This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.