’ll Be Your Mirror: What Pakistan sees in Imran Khan

IK caravanMadiha Tahir in Caravan the Magazine:

SEX, OR AT LEAST THE IDEA of it, is never far from Imran Khan. It reveals itself in the casual remark of an urbane 20-something friend, a well-educated and usually sensible woman who turned to me and said that she would “do Imran”. “You know,” she further explained, “as a feather in my cap.” It sometimes hangs in the air, almost visible, and as thick as the cloying perfume of the “aunties”—well-heeled middle-aged housewives clutching their fading youth as desperately as they do the last yard of cloth at designer lawn sales—who thrash and push and shove, banging lesser folk with their bulky handbags so they can rub shoulders with Imran, if only for a furtive moment.

Heterosexual boys also desire Imran in their own way. They queue up impatiently, jostling each other among coils of barbed wire, shouting their passions to Imran’s security team from behind the protest stage where the Great Khan is seated—wanting to be let inside, to see him up close, to be near him.

It seems safe to say that Khan is the only major politician in Pakistan presently capable of exuding this kind of appeal: this was how one sociologist summed up to me why Imran’s party, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI), or Movement for Justice, might pose a serious threat to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) in the latter’s traditional stronghold of Punjab. “I mean, he’s Imran Khan—he’s not ganju,” she said, using the word for “bald” to refer to the rotund and balding Sharif. A report in the Christian Science Monitor echoed the point: “With his good looks and seeming willingness to speak plainly,” wrote Issam Ahmed, “Khan is to Pakistan what Sarah Palin is to the US.” For his part, Khan would probably prefer to be Pakistan’s second Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—the fiery populist founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

For a long time after he entered politics, there was little reason to believe Khan posed a threat to anything other than his own status as a national hero. But that’s no longer the case: after uneven turnouts at PTI demonstrations for the better part of this year, the party defied predictions by rallying roughly 200,000 supporters in a roaring gathering in Punjab’s capital city, Lahore, on 30 October 2011. It’s too soon to tell whether that turnout will translate into votes in the elections scheduled for 2013, but it may well mark the moment that PTI went from being ridiculous to respectable in the mainstream.