It is election season in Pakistan. Expect massive rallies, dust, shouted slogans in stadiums, dirty tricks, a modicum of violence and industrial quantities of sweet tea consumed by candidates and voters alike.
The frontrunner in the poll is Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician. Now 65, Khan has been on the stump for two decades. This is a long time in politics. I stood close enough at one of his first major rallies in his hometown of Lahore in 1998 to read his speech over his shoulder. The first line on the first page read: “Believe in Pakistan.” I was sceptical of his prospects and my report was headlined No Khan Do.
Now the top job in one of the world’s most troubled, resilient and strategically important nations could soon be his. The story of how this happened contains a lesson for us all. Khan has attracted much attention in western media over the years, much of it for the wrong reasons. His sporting prowess, playboy reputation and marriage to and divorce from socialite heiress Jemima Goldsmith fuelled tabloid fascination. His midlife turn to religion, conservative values and political ambitions attracted more serious analysis. But what I, like most others, long missed was that Khan was ahead of his time, not behind it.
It is now a truism to say that we live in a world where the liberal, progressive and secular have ceded ground to the populist, nativist and nationalist. In Europe, the shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as well as the success of Marine Le Pen in France, Victor Orbán in Hungary, Beppe Grillo in Italy and many others have made this amply clear. In many cases too, Poland, for example, the secular has retreated before the religious.
It is also a truism to say that these events came as a tremendous surprise to many of us. Much of the subsequent handwringing has centred on the failure of metropolitan elites, particularly politicians, pollsters and media professionals, to understand what is thought and felt across vast tracts of their own countries. If we had understood or known Middle England or Middle America better, we would have seen this coming.
Yet there has been much less interest in our collective failure to look beyond our backyards and out into the wider world, where, if we had been paying attention, the rise of populism, nationalism and all the other bogeymen that now haunt our liberal dreams has been evident for many years. Khan is a fine example. Throughout his political career, his rhetoric has remained remarkably consistent. In an early pre-9/11 interview, he praised the Taliban for bringing order to neighbouring Afghanistan. When I interviewed him before the last elections in Pakistan, he spoke of the “foreign invasion” of his country. Khan has never hidden his contempt for the “liberal elite”. He recognised early that the most westernised elements in Pakistan are also often the most privileged, writing in a 2010 book that “in today’s Lahore… rich women go to glitzy parties in western clothes chauffeured by men with entirely different customs and values”. After the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, he spoke of “a national depression at the loss of national dignity and self-esteem as well as sovereignty”. Sound familiar?