The Indefatigable Khan

By: Amir Zia
Published: July 1, 2017
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Imran Khan’s face has flashed across our television screens for more than four decades. First in black-and-white as he debuted for Pakistan’s national cricket team, then in vivid colour as his smiling face became the symbol for Pakistan’s historic 1992 World Cup victory. And in recent years, he has been seen live on television screens, roaring atop a container or a massive stage at his anti-government rallies and protests.

It’s not surprising then, that Imran Khan is perhaps the only front-line politician in Pakistan, who can walk in for a television interview dressed in a tracksuit – without all the pomp and panoply of conventional Pakistani politicians. You won’t see any security guards, old family retainers or political aides running around him outside the political arena.

And there is no reason to wonder why, because despite the pressing demands of political life and his busy schedule, Imran Khan has not abandoned the spirit and some of the rituals which he adopted as a sportsman.

If long walks, jogging and physical training remain very much part and parcel of his daily routine, so is the way he connects with people whom he meets – in an open, straightforward and direct manner.

Sport remains the great equaliser, which often transcends class barriers. On the sporting field, elitism and airs can’t work.

Yet, Imran Khan has retained the charm and charisma, which placed him apart from his contemporaries even during his sporting days. Years of toil and hard labour in politics only appear to have honed his communication skills and connection with the ordinary citizen from whom he could have afforded to stay aloof during his cricketing career.

As the Bol News television crew is busy arranging and rearranging furniture in the small room at the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa House, in the picturesque hill station of Nathiagali, to create a faux studio – where Imran Khan’s interview has been planned – he is suddenly seen taking the driving seat of a four wheel-drive vehicle along with a few friends and companions, some half his age, and leaves the building.

Imran Khan is focused and ready to get down to the business at hand – the interview

There are no gunmen and security guards chasing him in escort vehicles. This style, too, remains unconventional in Pakistani politics, especially by a politician, who is the main opposition leader and seen by many Pakistanis as the prime minister-in-waiting.

We are told that Imran Khan has gone out to a nearby track for a walk or a  jog, but will be back in time for the promised interview. He returns in an hour, as we were informed, and after refreshing himself, in another 10-15 minutes joins us at the makeshift set.

There is no conventional small talk and no exchange of long-winded customary pleasantries. Imran Khan is focused and ready to get down to the business at hand – the interview. As the microphones are being connected and last minute checking of the equipment is underway by the technical staff, I ask him whether or not jogging becomes more difficult while one is fasting – as he was that day.  “No, Allah has given human beings a lot of capacity to adapt and expand themselves. Fasting makes you strong.”

Before the start of the formal interview, I inform him that the focus of questions won’t be political. At least in this sitting, I won’t be discussing the Panama Scandal, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s services or disservices to the nation or the developments on the Joint Investigation Team front. In a slightly more than 70-minute long interview for Bol News. I stay away from Imran Khan’s politics, the achievements and failures and its controversies and apparent contradictions.

My focus is to probe what makes Imran Khan a giant in the worlds of sports, philanthropy, education and politics – a question which usually remains buried in the heat and noise of his day-to-day politics.

Whether you agree or disagree with Imran Khan, the politician, this high-flying man has inspired and continues to inspire countless young people, and the young at heart, in whichever field he entered.

So what motivates Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan? Narratives and Bol News explore Imran Khan’s dreams and ambitions, his recipe for success, his tenacious nature and his ability not just to dream big dreams but also make them a reality.

The question that is foremost in the minds of young people is what was the spark, the thought and the passion that transformed Imran Khan into the ‘Imran Khan’ that we know today? You made your mark in whichever field you stepped into? What’s the secret to your success?

IK: The first lesson for a man, who wants to achieve something, is that there are no shortcuts in life. When I was a child, all those boys who wanted to play Test Cricket, fantasised about being included in the team by mere chance, and dreamed of becoming instant stars.

But this is not what normally happens. You make goals in life and then you pursue them. Only those succeed, who do not give up. They stumble, but then they rise again and assess why they fell. They analyse their shortcomings.

People do take potshots at such individuals – I have been ridiculed my whole life – but a person, who is his own best critic succeeds eventually. This has been my life, without any shortcuts. I dreamed big and pursued my dreams without fear and with no intention of giving up.

The history of cricket is replete with greats, but the kind of love and popularity you gained remains unprecedented. You had a charisma that set you apart from other cricketers. What’s the recipe of your uniqueness?

IK: Not only did I play cricket with Pakistani cricketers, but also with the international stars. A true champion doesn’t baulk at anything and doesn’t cave in when faced with difficulties. Cricketers more talented than myself would surrender at critical stages; they would become jittery in the face of pressure.

You make goals in life and then you pursue them. Only those succeed, who do not give up

Sports is all about competition. You are competing every single day and the bigger the challenge, the more you should enjoy it. You don’t find this trait in every player. I would never play a match if the other team had no big players competing, as not being challenged erodes my motivation. The moment you realise that you’ve achieved a certain goal and become content, that’s the point you start diminishing.

What was your criterion of team selection and the things which you never compromised on?

IK: I would select a team only on merit. I never compromised on the key players of the team. In fact, I am the only Pakistani captain, who resigned from the captaincy twice. And this was only because of one player. The first time I resigned was when selectors included Shoaib Mohammad in the team against my will. I thought he was unfit for the match. A few years later, I wanted the same Shoaib Mohammad to be inducted in the squad, but the selectors were reluctant to include him. Hence my resignation.

You competed against some of the biggest names in cricket. Who were the players who impressed you the most, despite being arch-rivals? And in politics, have you found a rival who you really respect?

IK: I had many rivals in cricket whom I respected. You have to respect your rival because he is trying to do the best for his country as you are doing the best for your country.

The player I admired the most from the Indian cricket team was Sunil Gavaskar. When he batted, his mind worked like a computer. Had he been playing today, he would have broken all records – in fact, he broke all records even then. I also greatly admired the Australian captain Ian Chappell because of his aggression and fighting spirit. Then there were others like Viv Richards and Malcolm Marshall.

In politics, I am impressed by British politician Jeremy Corbyn because he has a belief system. And he is sincere and honest. Nelson Mandela is another political legend, whom I even went to meet at his invitation. In Pakistan, I appreciated Qazi Hussain Ahmed. But the problem in Pakistan is that I have differences with politicians not because of their ideologies but because they have none; simply put, they are criminals.

A true champion doesn’t baulk at anything and doesn’t cave in when faced with difficulties

You mean to say they have no principles?

IK: They are sheer criminals. They claim they are in politics for the people, but they are in it to make money; thereby harming the country. The biggest problem with them is that they steal money from here and then send their ill-gotten wealth abroad. They lie to the people; these are venal politicians and the major reason behind Pakistan’s poverty.

I’ll come back to cricket. We will discuss politics in detail with you later. You have held forth on the 1992 World Cup but let us revisit it. How did a team that was on the brink suddenly turn the tables and win?

IK:  You cannot win the World Cup by fluke. We had a history; in that our ‘80s team would fight. That was the only team that played three Test series against the West Indies under my captaincy. And that was the only team that did not lose to the West Indies in all three series.

Not only that, we beat India in India along with their umpires. We won the Nehru Cup in India. In the World Cup, I was convinced that if we won one match, we would be on a roll – and that’s exactly what happened.

As a sportsman, what guiding principles would you suggest for today’s youth?

IK: Truthfulness is the most important trait in one’s character. Even in sports, a person with character is respected. For instance, I respect Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar and Ian Chappell a lot, because these were honest people with strong characters. (Today,) the taint of match-fixing has defamed our team, our players and the country big time. The other key trait is bravery. A cowardly man can never face any big challenges.

In your book Pakistan: A Personal History, you said that when you decided to embark on setting up a hospital where 75 to 80 percent of cancer patients would be provided free treatment, you were discouraged by many. A majority of the people you met would say it’s an impossible undertaking?

IK: If you seek to do something out of the ordinary, you meet a lot of people who advise you to avoid doing it, terming it impossible. Maybe I would have heeded those people had it not been for my vast cricketing experience, which taught me to welcome challenges.

I invited the top 20 doctors of Lahore and they came as I was at the peak of my cricketing career at that time. I asked them how to proceed as we wanted to make a cancer hospital where patients would be treated absolutely free. And 19 of them said that it can’t be done. Only one said it’s possible, but it can’t be for the poor because cancer treatment is very expensive.

And when you were raising money for the Shaukat Khanum Hospital, people started shying away from meeting you because you repeatedly went to the same people for donations. Then you involved schoolchildren in the project. That was perhaps your first experience of mingling with the people, many of whom considered you an arrogant cricketer. Tell us something about that?

IK: People from two segments of society helped me a lot; schoolchildren and overseas Pakistanis. (But) I was not arrogant. I see arrogance as the worst possible quality in any human being. However, I was an introvert and shy. Initially, I was not very comfortable dealing with children. Since I was a cricketer, children would mill around me all the time, which I found a tad awkward.

I became comfortable with children after I had my own. Children tend to see everything in black and white and they can easily differentiate between good and evil. I began the marketing campaign for the cancer hospital with schoolchildren which evolved into a revolution. We had left virtually no school untapped from Khyber to Karachi.

Thank you for correcting me about you not being arrogant as a cricketer. After children, you targeted people from low-income areas for fund-raising and they supported you immensely?

IK: I initially thought that the rich and well-heeled families of Lahore would love to support the project and donate money for the hospital, but I soon realised how wrong I was. Your inner wealth and the money in your bank account have nothing to do with each other. I saw this firsthand during my campaign, during which ordinary people would help us immensely, both in cash and kind, while those with fat bank accounts would be reluctant to step forward.

When you were inaugurating the hospital, you chose not to invite the then prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her spouse Asif Ali Zardari, who had been expecting to be invited to cut the ribbon and were offended. What’s the background?

IK: I was good friends with Benazir as we both went to the same university. When she was prime minister, I went to meet her regarding donations. Since she was busy, a friend of mine and I met Asif Ali Zardari. I told him about the hospital and requested his support in this context. He praised me for at least five minutes for launching this initiative. But then he spent the next 40 minutes or so with my friend asking him to help set up two textile mills in Sindh and give him 20 percent of that. Zardari assured him that there would be no difficulties, no red tape and so forth.

The hospital’s inauguration was a landmark national event as the entire country was mobilised. Before the event, I received a call from a friend of Zardari, who conveyed the message that (Benazir and) he would like to inaugurate the hospital and will make some contributions as well. I chose to disregard it, and the hospital was inaugurated by a 10-year-old cancer patient.

If you seek to do something out of the ordinary, you meet a lot of people who advise you to avoid doing it, terming it impossible

When you entered the social arena and received such an overwhelming response from the people, some politicians began to perceive you as their rival. You were not in politics back then, but were still treated like a rival. Was it their attitude towards you and your hospital that prompted you to enter politics?

IK: There were two things. One was Nawaz Sharif, who always had a problem with me. It was 1988 when General Zia-ul-Haq offered me the ministry first rather than Nawaz Sharif. Zia’s younger son conveyed me the message – I was in England then – to come to Pakistan and become a minister, as the country lacked capable leadership.

But it was the Peoples Party’s government that tried to stop me from reaching out to the media to raise money for the campaign. And just for the record, I, myself, was the top donor of my hospital. I had contributed all the money and plots I had won from the World Cup to the hospital.

You first raised the issue of corruption during Benazir’s era, when you launched a frontal attack against her party and you were not even in politics at that time?

IK: I was not in politics, but I did raise the issue of corruption as a citizen of Pakistan. Money meant for the welfare of the people goes into corruption, rendering our people deprived and destitute. I had even spoken to (Abdul Sattar) Edhi Sahab about forming a pressure group, which would ensure that money is spent on schools and hospitals. After the ‘80s, Pakistan’s human development began dipping, but prior to that we reigned supreme in the subcontinent.

Building an institution is not the only challenge; running it is the main problem. In this context, our government launches huge projects, but are unable to run them. Shaukat Khanum Hospital has not only been constructed, but has been running smoothly for several years. You told me about its building cost – a whopping Rs 770 billion. What’s the operating cost of the hospital?

IK: It was very difficult to run the hospital initially because of its high running cost. I had told everyone – staff, doctors – that the secret behind the hospital’s success will be its quality. It should be a state-of-the-art hospital that meets international standards.

Secondly, it is our mission statement to treat 70 percent of patients free of charge, come what may. We don’t differentiate between the rich and the poor here. Despite facing some really tough times, we have stuck to our mission statement. Unfortunately, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have used the hospital as an easy target to extract revenge from me and attacked it in every election.

I am angry at these people because of their double standards. They talk of serving the people when they come into power, but they do just the opposite. Shaukat Khanum Hospital is serving the people, but they are trying to ruin it through their dirty politics. They should be ashamed that despite being in government for 30 years, they have been unable to change the condition of the government hospitals in Punjab.

In 1997, a few years after the launch of the hospital, the PML-N attacked it for political motives resulting in a decline in donations. That was the most difficult year of my life

What’s the hospital’s operating cost?

IK: Our latest annual budget for the hospital is Rs. 9.0 billion, and we’ll suffer a loss of Rs. 5.0 billion. Imagine a hospital that was built at a cost of Rs 700 million and is now being subsidised by Rs.5.0 billion. The reason is that almost 75 percent of the patients are treated here for free.

What are your future plans in the health sector as an individual and as the chief of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf?

IK: We are already building our second cancer hospital in Peshawar and will build our third cancer hospital in Karachi. Its construction will start this year. This will be bigger than the Peshawar and Lahore hospitals. Even these three hospitals together will not be enough to provide treatment to all the patients as cancer has become so rampant in Pakistan. It is the number one killer in the world. However, most cancers are curable if diagnosed on time.

Has doing social work while being in politics exacerbated your problems or helped you?

IK: The problems have increased in terms of political attacks. In 1997, a few years after the launch of the hospital, the PML-N attacked it for political motives resulting in a decline in donations. That was the most difficult year of my life. I toured the whole world to collect funds for the hospital.

How do they attack the hospital? What’s their modus operandi?

IK: If you accuse a bank of fraud, people will extract all their savings and will never deposit money in it again. Similarly, who will donate to Shaukat Khanum Hospital if the PML-N spreads the false information that we are fighting elections with the donation money? However, the PML-N has failed in its attempts to tarnish the hospital’s reputation.

Why did you take the plunge into the education sector after the health sector? What prompted you to establish a university?

IK: I have always been interested in the education sector. Had I not been in politics, I would have made hospitals, universities and schools of international standards. Politics and Shaukat Khanum are my missions, but my passion is Namal Knowledge City. I want to make it Pakistan’s Oxford University, which produces accomplished leaders for the country.

What’s the vision of the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regarding the public health sector?

IK: When I was young, I had no idea about the condition of Pakistan’s hospitals and the health system. I decided to build the cancer hospital after my mother died of this fatal disease.

Now that we have got an opportunity in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, we have instituted several reforms there, such as introducing health insurance cards. Half of the Pakhtun population now has health insurance. The health card is worth Rs.550,000.

If someone from the lower-income bracket is diagnosed with a serious disease, they can still get expensive medicines because of this card. This is just a beginning. We are revamping the government hospitals and changing their management structure – which is something no government has been able to accomplish in the last forty years. We are facing resistance to our initiatives because some elements, who benefit from the corrupt system, don’t want change. But change is discernible now.

I was not arrogant. I see arrogance as the worst possible quality in any human being. However, I was an introvert and shy

Health has been the most neglected sector historically. Why has such a key sector ranked so low?

IK: Because we have allowed the rulers to go for medical treatment abroad. Our hospitals will improve only when every ruler and their families are required to seek medical treatment in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif and Zardari and their children go abroad even for minor (medical) check-ups. These two political parties have occupied the country for the past 30 years. I have been to Shaukat Khanum for my medical treatment twice; once for a stomach ailment and another time for my neck injury.

Have you opened any new hospitals in KPK?

IK: Let us first improve the condition of  the existing ones, which until a few years ago were in really bad shape. Things are looking up now, but we still have a long way to go.

If you come to power in the federation, what will be the big decisions for the health sector?

IK: If we don’t increase our health and education budgets, Pakistan has no future. Pakistan ranks at the bottom globally in health and education spending. Not educating our youth will have disastrous consequences. And we have to change the structure of the government hospitals, which we have already done in KPK.

How do you see the state of education in a country which does not have one syllabus? What is the PTI’s vision vis-à-vis education? 

IK: We have three systems of education at present; 0.8 million children go to English-medium schools, 2.2 million students go to madrassahs and a whopping 30.2 million go to the Urdu-medium schools. Where in the world do you find a country operating three parallel systems of education?

The English medium system is elitist and alienates your children from society in addition to depoliticising and ‘de-culturalising’ them.

When I left Aitchison College and began playing for Lahore, I encountered players from Urdu-medium backgrounds who would mock the way I spoke. I felt like a stranger in my own country. Furthermore, we need to bring religious seminaries into the mainstream. The PTI intends to synthesise all three education systems.

It must also be noted that the money spent on the education of Pakistani students who go abroad for academic pursuits is more than the country’s education budget. The money that Singapore University spends on its education budget is as much as Pakistan’s entire education budget for the country. What future are we building for our children?

So, if the PTI comes to power, we can say with conviction that there will be one syllabus across the country?   

IK: Yes, but it’s a difficult undertaking. Let me repeat: the core educational syllabus should be the same for both the poor and the privileged.

Would you like to give a message to the youth of the country?

IK: No nation in the world respects a country that doesn’t respect itself. And a nation that does not rise up for its rights becomes a slave. It’s also important for us to know why Pakistan was made. Pakistan is the name of a great dream. We had to be a model for the Muslim world. We had to bring about a system of justice and rule of law. These were some of the great Islamic principles on the basis of which Pakistan came into being. We must strive to make this great dream a reality.

About the Author
Amir Zia
has worked for some of the leading national and internal media organizations in a career spanning more than 25 years and is counted among some of the highly regarded professionals of Pakistan’s media industry