“I was conned”

Asif Saleh

Published in the Forum (December 2007) 

Two months ago, when I went to see Imran Khan present his case to an audience in England, my prime interest was in asking what made him support General Pervez Musharraf in the first place? I did not have to wait very long. When the Q & A started, that was the one of the first questions asked.

Khan’s reply to the question was short and apologetic: “I was conned.”

“I thought he was the messiah who had come to save us from the political corruption that ruled our country for years. But pretty soon I realised that was not the case.” “When I was close to Gen Musharraf, the ISI would come to me and show me the detailed file on all the politicians and all their corruption. But soon I saw that the very same information was used not to try them but to extort them so that they would join his political party.”

As General Musharraf emerges as the latest military messiah-turned-dictator to face a possibly inglorious end, perhaps the lessons of Imran Khan are lessons for all those who look towards the military to offer quick fire solutions and meaningful “democracy.”

Here are Imran Khan’s replies to a number of other crucial queries that day:

On the background of his joining politics
Man, by nature, is political. Aristotle said two and a half thousand years ago that if there were injustice in a society, all members of the society would join politics except two kinds — the most materialistic people and the timid ones with vested interests. I was someone who never thought I would join politics, as I could never do any public speaking or was a people person. But once I started building the hospital and collecting money I went to the richest people of Pakistan, I got a lot of encouragement but no money. In the end I ran out of steam. I needed 4 million dollars to open the hospital.

Eventually, desperate, I decided to tour Pakistan from one end to another in an open jeep and collect money that way. I found that people who had nothing, any time they saw the truck coming, they came by and gave me whatever they had in their pockets.

There are moments in life that change your direction. This was one of those moments. Here I saw the real Pakistanis on whose hard work the country was functioning and there sat a tiny elite who hogged all the resources, went to all the good schools but didn’t give anything back to the society or never thought about the poor people.

Practically, the elites did not care. Whoever came to power, whether it is military dictatorship or democratic government, they became close to them and became part of the power structure. The majority would always be deprived from their very basic needs. They would go to Urdu medium schools, and then become unemployed once they got their degrees. The best jobs would go to the elites who went to the best English medium schools.

Similarly if you could afford bottled water, you were fine. But 500,000 children died of waterborne diseases last year alone. Ninety-five percent of the taxation was indirect which meant that the poor were subsidising the rich. Same thing is true with the justice system. You wouldn’t find any rich person in jail.

That’s when I decided that if I wanted to bring about a change in the country, it was not going to be

through social work. It had to be done through politics.

On the motto of justice instead of more basic needs
When I started thinking about what is that one thing that can change Pakistan, I realised it was an independent judiciary that can bring justice and equity to society. If we look at the history of Pakistan, the judiciary has remained subservient to the executive throughout its life. So whenever someone comes to power, they know that the justice system will never be able to touch them. And the system has evolved over a period of time where every criminal wants to come to power regardless of which party is in power not only to make money but to protect corruption. This system meant that we could not have a general democratic system. When you don’t have rule of law, criminals are allowed to contest elections.

In my own constituency, all four members from different parties who ran against me have now joined Musharraf’s party — simply because they cannot afford to be on the wrong side of the power structure. The biggest example is our very own Asif Zardari. He switched between the prime minister’s house and jail as his party went in and out of power.

This is where the problem lies. You cannot have proper democracy in a country where the judiciary does not touch criminals because they are close to the power. Because of that, all criminals then want to be in power and they will use power to plunder the country. Hence we started Tehriq-i-Insaaf the movement for justice.

On the backdrop of the current crisis
When I started the party, a lot of people asked me why I didn’t start a popular campaign on roti-kapra-aur-makan like other politicians. I was soon vindicated on my conviction though. In March this year, something interesting had happened. President Musharraf called in the chief justice and asked him to resign, showing some minor offenses he supposedly had committed. Then a miracle happened in Pakistan. The chief justice refused. He stuck to his position that the charges had to be proved. Now this took the general completely by shock. There was no Plan B. Plan A was that he was in uniform and he orders the judge to resign and he resigns. That’s how things work in Pakistan,

But once the judge refused to resign, a series of events started happening in Pakistan, which in my opinion are the most exciting things to happen in recent history. Three top intelligence agents came to him, he was under house arrest for three days. When he attempted to go to the Supreme Court, everyone saw that a policeman pulled his hair and shoved him in the car.

Now the real heroes who made these incidents into defining moments for Pakistan politics are the independent television media. What has changed in Pakistan and what Gen. Musharraf did not realise is that the independent television channels have changed the country. The level of political awareness is at its peak in Pakistan now. This is where the miscalculation took place. After the chief justice refused to resign, these television channels highlighted every single mistake committed by the government.

The leadership in this movement for justice was provided, sadly not by us politicians, but the lawyers of the country. All the elected bar associations stood by the chief justice. Instead of the movement getting dissipated, it grew and grew. The journey to Lahore by the chief justice, that normally takes 4 hours, took him 28 hours because so many people came to greet him.

On why this is an exciting time
So many lawyers are now firmly behind the chief justice that there are very few judges now who will go against him. They will always be my heroes because the judiciary actually fought for its own independence under the leadership of the chief justice. For once we have now a chief justice who will stand up to authority and dictatorship. The impact of this is going to be in the upcoming election.

Because once the judiciary is independent, that is what is going ensure an independent Election Commission, which we have never had in our history. The Election Commission has always been influenced by the military establishment. Whenever we have an election, we don’t get the results right away — because the results first go the ‘General’s Headquarters,’ where they are vetted and then released. As we are close to having an independent judiciary, which will then lead to an independent Election Commission, we will then have a truly free and fair election.

On the importance of a free election
The elites like to think illiterate people in rural Pakistan are ignorant and always vote for thugs. But if you go to rural Pakistan, you will be amazed to see the political sense people have there. When I was in college, I used to think (reading The Dawn newspaper) that the only problem in Pakistan is with literacy. The uneducated people do not understand who is good for them. But when I actually started campaigning in the election and went to the rural areas, I discovered that even the political awareness among the children in rural areas is often more than adults in urban areas.

Because, you see, their lives depend on politics. So, everyone in the rural area understands the political issues. I firmly believe if they could vote out of their free will, they would have voted for the people who they felt would be good for them. The problem is that they are too scared to vote for the right people because they are often subjected to political victimisation. After the election in my constituency, a lot of people came to me and said we want to vote for you but we know you will not be in power. So how will you protect us?

This is where the problem lies. This is why you need a democratic system and you cannot have a general democratic system without an independent judiciary. You cannot imagine the sort of political victimisation that goes on. They will cut the water supplies of villages. Schoolteachers will suddenly be transferred. So you can’t have a proper democracy in the country unless people are protected from political victimisation and that can only be done by an independent judicial system.

On Musharraf’s future
Gen. Musharraf will struggle for a while and then he inevitably will fall. A structure that is built on brute force cannot survive once that force starts crumbling. Cracks have already started appearing. People in his own party are already looking for the next power bloc, as they know that the ship is sinking. In my opinion, Gen. Musharraf is not going to last this year. What will happen after that is, under our independent chief justice, we will have our second free and fair election.

On post-Musharraf scenarios
Once we have a free and fair election, we should not worry what happens. I have been speaking to British MPs and they all ask me that what will happen if Musharraf goes. Gen. Musharraf has successfully managed to convince the Western governments that if he goes, the country will be swamped by terrorists and “extremists” like me. This is an argument often put forward by tinpot dictators in Muslim countries. Hosni Mubarak has been able to do that for the last 24 years and Musharraf is doing the same.

But in reality we would have a better chance of fighting extremism post-Musharraf than we do right now. Because, if you look at the situation since 2001, extremism has risen up and up. There is more radicalisation in Pakistan than ever before. If the military was the answer, surely extremism should have decreased. The truth is extremism cannot be fought by a general with a gun in his hand. Extremism can best be fought by a comprehensive democratic system where you have freedom of expression, where you have an open society, where you allow the people to marginalise the extremists.

In the last two dictatorships under General Zia and General Musharraf, extremism has exacerbated and the religious parties have taken a big chunk of the pie. But whenever you allow people to vote in a democracy, they always vote for the moderate parties. So the answer to all the fearful Bushes and Blairs of the world is that they are barking up the wrong tree by backing military dictators. The way to deal with extremists is when you allow people to sideline the extremists, and not by holding a gun to their head.

A final word to the audience
In the end, I must ask all of you to participate in politics. The country’s direction can only be changed when young and thoughtful people like you join politics. Because our country has tremendous potential, which can only be realised if there is political activism from the young and educated.

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