On a cool evening in March, Imran Khan, followed by his dogs, walked around the extensive lawns of his estate, sniffling with an incipient cold. “My ex-wife, Jemima, designed the house – it is really paradise for me,” Khan said of the villa, which sprawls on a ridge overlooking Himalayan foothills and Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. “My greatest regret is that she is not here to enjoy it,” he added, unexpectedly poignantly. We walked through the living room and then sat in his dimly lighted bedroom, the voices of servants echoing in the empty house, the mournful azans drifting up from multiple mosques in the city below.
Khan, once Pakistan’s greatest sportsman and now its most popular politician since Benazir Bhutto, exuded an Olympian solitude that evening; it had been a long day, he explained, of meetings with his party’s senior leaders. The previous two months, he said, had been the most difficult in his life. His party was expanding amazingly fast and attracting “electables” – experienced men from the governing and main opposition parties. But the young people who constituted his base wanted change; they did not want to see old political faces. “I was being pulled apart in different directions,” Khan said. “I thought I was going mad.”
Khan’s granitic handsomeness, which first glamorized international cricket and has sustained the British media’s long fascination with his public and private lives, is now, as he nears 60, a bit craggy. There are lines and dark patches around his eyes. The stylishly barbered hair, thinning at the top, is flecked with gray, and his unmodulated baritone, ubiquitous across Pakistan’s TV channels, can sound irritably didactic.
“The public contact is never easy for me,” he said. “I am basically a private person.”
The moment of melancholy confession passed. Leaning forward in the dark, his hands chopping the air for emphasis, Khan unleashed a flood of strong, often angrily righteous, opinions about secularism, Islam, women’s rights and Salman Rushdie.
That month he had canceled his participation at a conference in New Delhi where Rushdie was expected, citing the offense caused by “The Satanic Verses” to Muslims worldwide. Rushdie, in turn, suggested Khan was a “dictator in waiting,” comparing his looks with those of Libya’s former dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“What is he talking about? What is he talking about?” Khan started, “I always hated his writing. He always sees the ugly side of things. He is – what is the word Jews use? – a ‘self-hating’ Muslim.
“Why can’t the West understand? When I first went to England, I was shocked to see the depiction of Christianity in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian.’ This is their way. But for us Muslims, the holy Koran and the prophet, peace be upon him, are sacred. Why can’t the West accept that we have different ways of looking at our religions?
“Anyway,” Khan said in a calmer voice, “I am called an Islamic fundamentalist by Rushdie. My critics in Pakistan say I am a Zionist agent. I must be doing something right.”
Those adept at playing Pakistan’s never-ending game of political musical chairs have begun to take note of Khan. His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice, or P.T.I., as it is called), has never won more than a single seat in Pakistan’s 342-member National Assembly. But a recent Pew opinion poll reveals Khan to be the country’s most popular politician by a large margin, and his growing appeal has drawn together two rivals from the establishment parties – the suavely patrician figure of Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister from 2008 to 2011, and Javed Hashmi, an older street-fighting politician from Punjab, Pakistan’s politically dominant province – who are now, in Khan’s hastily improvised hierarchy, vice chairman and president of the P.T.I. respectively.
Khan’s campaign strategy is simple: he has promised to uproot corruption within 90 days, end the country’s involvement in America’s war on terror and institute an Islamic welfare state. His quest for a moral Pakistani state and a righteous politics is clearly informed by his own private journey. Famous in the 1980s as a glamorous cricketer, he is at pains to affirm his Islamic identity in his new autobiography, “Pakistan: A Personal History.” A rising politician’s careful self-presentation, the book fails to mention his friendship with Mick Jagger, his frequenting of London’s nightclubs in the 1980s and other instances of presumably un-Islamic deportment, like the series of attractive women with whom he was linked by racy British tabloids. It does devote one chapter to Jemima Goldsmith, the daughter of a wealthy British businessman, Jimmy Goldsmith, whom he married in 1995 – he was 43, she was 21 – but this serves largely as a backdrop for his early, self-sacrificing immersion in politics.
His political enemies in Pakistan, he writes, used Jemima Khan’s partly Jewish ancestry to depict him as a Lothario with dubious Zionist affiliations – attacks that, Khan claims, made Pakistan a taxing place for Jemima and eventually led to their divorce. The marriage ended in 2004. Khan’s two sons now live with their mother in London, but he and his wife have remained friends. In an article in The Independent, Jemima revealed that Khan stays with her mother, Lady Annabel Goldsmith, when in London, and noted that Khan told her not to worry about how their marriage is depicted in the book: “You come across as you always wanted to – Joan of Arc.”
References to Allah’s grace cropped up early on in Khan’s public utterances, but they multiplied as he struggled to break into Pakistani politics. He now casts himself as the archetypal confused sinner who has discovered the restorative certainties of religion and is outraged over the decadence of his own class. “In today’s Lahore and Karachi,” he writes, “rich women go to glitzy parties in Western clothes chauffeured by men with entirely different customs and values.” His avowals of Islam, his identification with the suffering masses and his attacks on his affluent, English-speaking peers have long been mocked in the living rooms of Lahore and Karachi as the hypocritical ravings of “Im the Dim” and “Taliban Khan” – the two favored monikers for him. (His villa is commonly cited as evidence of his own unalloyed elitism.) Nevertheless, Khan’s autobiography creates a cogent picture out of his – and Pakistan’s – clashing identities. There is the proud young man of Pashtun blood born into Pakistan’s Anglicized feudal and bureaucratic elite – an elite that disdained their poor, Urdu-speaking compatriots. There is the student and cricketer in 1970s Britain, when racism was endemic and even Pakistanis considered themselves inferior to their former white masters. Then we meet the brilliant cricket captain who inspired a world-beating team; the D.I.Y. philanthropist who pursued his dream of building a world-class cancer hospital in Pakistan; the jaded middle-aged sybarite who found a wise Sufi mentor; the political neophyte who awakened to social and economic injustice; and finally the experienced politician, who after 15 years of having his faith tested by electoral failure is now convinced of his destiny as Pakistan’s savior.
The day before our evening walk on his estate, I sat in the living room of Khan’s Moorish-style villa, where Pakistan’s future was being plotted by young men in designer shalwar kameezes and sunglasses, huddled mock-conspiratorially in small groups, and older politicians sprawled on sofas on the long veranda. The country’s broiling summer was approaching, and violent street protests over power failures had erupted in many Pakistani cities, adding to the general unease fed by a floundering economy, gang warfare in Karachi, sectarian killings of Shiites, the C.I.A.’s drone attacks in the northwestern tribal areas and the drip-drip of revelations about a defiantly venal ruling class.
Khan was running nearly three hours late for a rally in the northwestern town of Mianwali – one of his mass-contact campaigns that had in recent months galvanized his tiny party. But no one at the villa seemed at all worried by the delay. After all, Khan is offering nothing less than revolution of the kind that has swept the Arab world, a “tsunami,” in his own ill-chosen metaphor.
After many attempts, he has succeeded in provoking a popular response now, perhaps because Pakistan’s institutions are suffering their deepest crisis of legitimacy. Contempt-of-court charges were filed this year against two prime ministers. And the debased ancien régime Khan rails against is gaudily personified by Pakistan’s leaders past and present: Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator from 1999 to 2008, who now lives in exile in London and Dubai; the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, who after the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, conveniently unearthed her last will declaring him her political heir, then appointed his teenage son, Bilawal, chairman of his party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (P.P.P.); and Nawaz Sharif, who, exalted to prime-minister in 1990 by Pakistan’s all-powerful military establishment and then banished by it into long exile in 1999, has re-emerged as the leader of the country’s main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N).
Outside on the veranda, the P.T.I. chieftains, Qureshi and Hashmi, were confabulating with Hamid Mir, an influential TV anchor – he interviewed Osama bin Laden both before and after 9/11 – with a checkered political history. Once known for his links to Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex, Mir has lately reinvented himself as a critic of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (I.S.I.) – the country’s dreaded intelligence agency, accused by the United States of supporting anti-American militants in Afghanistan. Army rule ostensibly ended with the enforced departure of Musharraf in 2008, but the men in uniform, according to Mir, were still manipulating things behind the scenes.
Snatches of the conversation between Mir and the P.T.I. chiefs drifted through to the living room. Mir was saying that Khan’s party must dispel the growing impression that it was an I.S.I. front. Mir failed to mention that it was he who tweeted recently that the head of the I.S.I. at the time, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, was responsible for the text messages many politicians received asking them to support Khan.
Suddenly, the many separate conversations in the living room and veranda ceased, Qureshi and Hashmi stood to attention and even Mir, who hosted Khan often on his TV show “Capital Talk,” looked a bit star-struck, as the P.T.I. leader finally bounded in, all coiled energy and purpose.
Khan had returned late from a rally in Sialkot the previous night, but his gym-toned frame, encased in a dark gray shalwar kameez, radiated the supreme assurance of an athlete configured for routine success. In 2009, I ran into him on a flight from Lahore to London and was impressed by his unflagging drive. Widely regarded then as a miserable failure in politics, he seemed eager to claim proximity to powerful men and large events. During a visit to the United States the previous year, he met with Senator Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and told him how the long opposition to the American war in Afghanistan stoked extremism in Pakistan. He said he expected Barack Obama to understand that the Pashtun tribes, fighting foreign occupiers of their land, would never be vanquished. He understood their mind-set: after all, he himself belonged to a Pashtun tribe.
Khan’s intense nationalism, aroused on cricket fields in the late ’70s when darker-skinned cricketers from the former British Empire finally began to beat white teams regularly, was whetted in the 1990s by the anti-West rhetoric of Asian leaders like Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, and then by the post-9/11 perception that the United States had bribed and bullied Pakistan into its misconceived war on terror and was now controlling the country’s internal affairs. “The Musharraf years were so shameful,” he told me. “The Westoxified Pakistanis have been selling their souls and killing their own people for a few million dollars. And then the Americans come in with shady deals to bring Benazir Bhutto back and let crooked people like Zardari go scot-free. I was so disgusted, and if I hadn’t been in politics I would have left Pakistan.”
Moving now through the crowd of his supporters gathered at his estate, Khan struggled to adopt the politician’s pose of humility. After quick salaam aleikums, he sprang across the villa’s courtyard to his gleaming black S.U.V., Mir, Hashmi and Qureshi struggling to keep pace with him. Within minutes, the convoy led by Khan’s Land Cruiser was hurtling down the hill on narrow, potholed roads, past walled mansions and small dark shops, to the highway to Rawalpindi and the tribal borderlands of Mianwali.
I sat with Anila Khawaja, Khan’s British-born international media “coordinator.” A vivacious woman in her early 40s, Khawaja was one of the many expatriate Pakistanis either bankrolling or volunteering for Khan’s political campaign. They, along with the tony youth of Lahore and Karachi, hold up one end of Khan’s diverse fan base that also includes lower-middle-class youth from small Punjabi towns and the tribal regions of the northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. “Imran speaks our language,” Khawaja told me in her British-accented English.
But it was becoming clear that few other people in his party did. I had heard about her constant struggles with the P.T.I.’s frustratingly inefficient, all-male organization, and the heartburn generated among Khan’s stalwart supporters by the rapid promotion of such opportunistic late-joiners as Hashmi and Qureshi. Khawaja had wanted me to travel with Khan to the rally in Sialkot but was overruled by her male seniors. They wanted Khan to themselves at all times, crowding into his car, jostling to be photographed next to him at his rallies.
I had heard similar complaints from other members of the party: that the P.T.I. was a one-man show, with a superstar chairman self-absorbedly pied-pipering a gaggle of squabbling egos and craven flatterers. For the moment, however, any anxieties about lack of internal democracy were balanced by the routinely renewed spectacle of mass support for the P.T.I. In between tweeting from Khan’s account (“Such beautiful scenery!”), Khawaja pointed excitedly to the crowds of young men on motorcycles that awaited us at the approaches to small towns along our route; waving the green-and-red flag of the P.T.I., they raced Khan’s car at dangerous speeds, trying to catch his eye.
Driving to Khan’s rally in Sialkot from Lahore the previous day, I saw car and motorcycle convoys that extended for miles, freezing traffic whenever they stopped. The forests of posters and banners in passing bazaars all featured Khan, photoshopped with Pakistan’s revered founding fathers, the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal and the politician Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and dressed in a variety of clothing, from solemn high-collar jackets to Western bluejeans and leather jackets. Drowning out the faded signs and symbols of Pakistan’s other political parties, they pointed to Khan’s extravagant spending in anticipation of the general elections, scheduled for next year.
Big money had clearly arranged for the buntings. But it had not paid for, not entirely at any rate, the crowds in Sialkot; and the P.T.I. had failed to anticipate their size and intensity. I squeezed into the stadium where the rally was held by the narrowest of gates, tearing my shirt in the mini-stampede and curtailing the arc of a policeman’s offhandedly swung baton. Most of the young rallygoers, dressed in counterfeit brand-name jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, had traveled to Sialkot on their own, unlike some of their upper-middle-class peers in Lahore and Karachi, who were bused into Khan’s massive rallies in October and December. They sat patiently through the long and often boring warm-up speeches, waiting for Khan’s turn at the microphone, and then did not fail to cheer their hero’s own lackluster invocations of the country’s founding fathers, Iqbal and Jinnah.
Talking to the young fans, I discovered an almost-mystical reverence for Khan. Many of them were cricket enthusiasts who recalled Khan’s exploits with awe, especially his captaincy of the team that won Pakistan the Cricket World Cup in 1992 – the country’s greatest sporting success. They also knew of his philanthropic work – the cancer hospital in Lahore and a university near Mianwali. Pressed on policy specifics, they went blank, claiming that an honest leader like Khan was all that was needed to turn Pakistan around, and it could be done in 90 days.
For many in this new generation of Pakistanis – more than 60 percent of the population is below age 25 – there is little choice between the untried and evidently incorruptible Khan and such repeatedly discredited leaders as Zardari and Sharif. His long and uncompromising opposition to American presence in the region not only pleases assorted Islamic radicals; it also echoes a deep Pakistani anger about the C.I.A.’s drone attacks, whose frequency has increased under the Obama administration. Expatriate and local businessmen, tormented by the stagnating economy (while neighboring India has boomed), line up to donate money for his massive rallies (though Khan himself does not believe, he told me, in “neoliberal capitalism”). Many rich Pakistanis, like Walid Iqbal, the Harvard-educated, Porsche-driving grandson of Pakistan’s spiritual founder, whose embrace of the P.T.I. in November had, he told me, made “national news,” see Khan as someone they themselves would like to be: devoutly Muslim, proudly nationalist, sophisticated, successful. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s private media, which include several raucously partisan news channels, help obscure Khan’s obvious handicaps – the P.T.I.’s lack of a political base in large provinces like Sindh, a P.P.P. stronghold – with extensive coverage of his made-for-television rallies. And it is not inconceivable that the army and the I.S.I. – or elements within – have spotted a likely winner and potential partner. Najam Sethi, the editor of a prominent English-language weekly, The Friday Times, which for years ran a satirical column titled “Im the Dim,” told me that various known sympathizers of the I.S.I. had asked him to support Khan.
Like all populist politicians, Khan appears to offer something to everyone. Yet the great differences between his constituencies – socially liberal, upper-middle-class Pakistanis and the deeply conservative residents of Pakistan’s tribal areas – seem irreconcilable. The only women I could see during the Sialkot rally were on the remote stage, wives of local politicians and businessmen, the sun glinting off their big sunglasses. At the rally in Mianwali, huge clouds of dust kicked up by tens of thousands of men bleached the reds and greens of the flags and banners, and the speeches alternated with earsplitting eruptions of P.T.I.’s theme music, Dil Nek Ho Neeyat Saaf To Ho Insaf Kahay Imran Khan (“A good heart and pure intentions will deliver justice, says Imran Khan”). Reports later emerged of many women at the rally, but I could only see one, on the overcrowded stage. She was a P.T.I. activist, another recent convert, belonging to one of the feudal and clan networks that still largely determine who will vote for whom in Pakistan’s elections. There were many such local impresarios of bloc voting: the uncle of one politician I spoke to defeated Khan in his very first election in 1997; he had now brought, he claimed, a 25-kilometer-long convoy of supporters from his tribe to the rally. These traditional middlemen of Pakistani politics were all keen to catch the eye of the TV anchor Hamid Mir, who sat in the front row, seemingly untroubled when the speakers pointed to his presence as an endorsement of the P.T.I.
Khawaja, covering her head with a thin shawl she said she had packed especially for conservative Mianwali, kept working Khan’s twitter feed: “Such enthusiasm esp from youth! P.T.I.’s wave rides high!” Khan himself seemed aloof from the cheering crowds and the party members keen to be near him as he sat, in reading glasses, marking up his speech. Given the setting, a region adjacent to the tribal areas where the C.I.A.’s drones are perennially hovering, I expected more rhetorical onslaughts against the United States and loud avowals of Islamic piety. (Next month, Khan plans to lead a massive protest march through Waziristan, accompanied by women from the antiwar American group Code Pink, as well as armed members of Pashtun tribes.) Khan, who claims that Obama is “worse than Bush,” has been known to pray in public during his rallies, and one of his party’s many vice presidents had in recent days shared a platform with Hafiz Saeed, founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist organization implicated in the attacks on Mumbai in 2008. While Pakistan’s death toll during its participation in the war on terror – 40,000 – was deplored, the harshest words were directed at Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif. Their corruption scandals were brought up and then, unfairly, the brothers’ recourse to hair transplants, which had plainly improved the looks of many of the politicians hovering around Khan.
The sun, flame-red and huge behind the dust, had nearly set before Khan took the lectern. Abruptly, many began leaving. More surprising, the crowd onstage suddenly thinned. Hamid Mir, followed by a group of autograph seekers and politicians hoping to be on his show, made a particularly grand exit. Khan’s groupies, having registered their proximity to their idol, were now trying to avoid the massive traffic pileups resulting from the wholly unsupervised exit of tens of thousands of rallygoers. “It always happens,” Khawaja told me later. “People want to get close to him, and then they leave him all alone on the stage.”
Khan’s disparate constituencies can make for some strange bedfellows. Senior members of his party have shared a platform with Difa-e-Pakistan (Pakistan Defense Council), a coalition of extremist groups that includes anti-Shiite militants as well as promoters of jihad against India and America. Khan looked exasperated when I brought up allegations about his party’s links to the I.S.I. and Islamic extremists. “It is these Westoxified Pakistanis who call me ‘Taliban Khan,’ ” he said, using his favorite description for Anglicized Pakistanis of his own class. “But how can they compare me with these uneducated boys of the Taliban or connect me to mullahs? If you read my book, you will find that the Islam I relate to is Sufi Islam. Our policy is to talk to all political players. These so-called extremists in Pakistan should be brought into the mainstream; if you marginalize them, you radicalize them.” (After the Americans began negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan, he told me with some satisfaction that they should have done so a long time ago.)
There was another small explosion of anger when I asked him about his stance on women’s rights. Khan refused in 2006 to support reforms to the so-called Hudood Ordinance, which exposes rape victims to charges of adultery unless they can produce four males who witnessed their violation. Khan claims he voted against the reform bill as a protest against Musharraf and would repeal the Hudood law altogether if elected. Many liberal-minded Pakistanis still worried about his positions, I told Khan.
“Morons!” he exclaimed. “First you have to guarantee basic social and economic rights before you get to gender rights! What is the point of these NGO workers showing up in conservative tribal areas wearing bluejeans?!”
He then turned to his party’s prospects. The conspiracies against him were mounting, he said. In Lahore, he had received extensive live coverage; the Sialkot and Mianwali rallies were shown only briefly on the private television channels. Both Zardari and Sharif were putting pressure on the media. “They are getting scared,” Khan said. “They can see that the tsunami is coming.”
Fortunately, he did not need to rely so much on the compromised TV channels. “The social media is changing Pakistan,” Khan said. Most Pakistanis had a mobile phone. They were signing up for Twitter and Facebook in the millions. Direct access to voters meant that the P.T.I. could ignore the old constituency politics of appeasing the middlemen. “I always knew,” Khan said, “that a mass movement would take the P.T.I. to power, not wheeling and dealing with power brokers.”
Still, could he dispense with their help entirely? The newspapers were full of stories of discord between Hashmi and Qureshi and of discontent among older members of the P.T.I. Khan pondered the question and then said: “Today in the party meeting we made a breakthrough. We are going to have a membership drive and then elections through mobile phones. The youth want new faces. They can elect their own from the ground up. There has to be democracy in our own party before we bring it to the country. This is what we decided in the meeting today, and I feel liberated.”
Yet both the media elite that Khan says he can sidestep and the bloggers and tweeters who shape public opinion in the new media have been vocal in their criticism. “He says we are working for Nawaz Sharif,” Sana Bucha, one of Pakistan’s leading anchors, told me. “But how many rallies can we cover? The ratings for shows in which Khan appeared have already fallen; he is overexposed. He is worried of course because he knows that the media is becoming the most powerful entity in Pakistan now.”
Mehmal Sarfraz, a journalist I met in Lahore, said that Khan’s young online supporters had “fascist” tendencies. Many of them viciously trolled her whenever she criticized Khan on her blog and on Twitter. (This is a common experience for Khan’s critics. Two weeks after I spoke to Bucha, Khan appeared on her talk show, apologizing for how some P.T.I. supporters had harassed her online.) They were particularly angry, Sarfraz said, laughing, that Khan’s critic was a hijab-wearing woman. She derided Khan’s view of extremism in Pakistan as the offshoot of the American war on terror. “These jihadists supported by the I.S.I. were in Kashmir well before 9/11. And why does Imran blame Zardari for the drone attacks when everyone knows that the president has no power and the military gave the Americans permission to use the drones? It is because the military and intelligence agencies are backing Imran.”
In the small world of the Pakistani elite, many were equally convinced of Khan’s dubious allegiances. There were stories circulating about how he recently met the C.I.A. and MI6 in London, then about how the tsunami was being reversed. The head of the I.S.I., Khan’s greatest supporter, retired in March; the military had decided to support the PML-N in the next elections; it was why the media were turning away from Khan. It was hard to navigate this murk of Pakistani politics, the frenetic conspiracy-theorizing and free-floating malice.
Some things did, however, seem truer than others. An academic who dislikes Khan said he was too egotistic to be manipulated by the military establishment. Many others voiced an apparent consensus that the long years of Musharraf’s misrule and humiliations like the undetected American operation against Osama bin Laden had damaged the army’s reputation and undermined its authority. It was why politicians like Nawaz Sharif, or journalists like Hamid Mir, felt emboldened enough to stand up to the men in uniform.
The army itself was changing under its chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, a “remarkable man,” according to a senior Western diplomat. Battered by the previous decade of the war on terror, it was, the diplomat claimed, moving out of politics and shifting to a focus on economic growth and a new policy of détente, if not peace, with its old enemy, India. The novelist Mohammed Hanif had another interpretation of the army’s chastened mood. As he told me, with a wry smile, “They have no one left to lie to, no one left to betray.”
The next time I saw Khan, it was April and he had just returned from a trip to Turkey, where he met Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Khan’s tweets, with their characteristic exclamation marks, kept me informed about his progress. “Turkey today has embraced its past & moved forward as a confident nation proud of its history & present achievements. We can learn so much!” He seemed more pumped up than usual, his pre-big-game go-get-’em zeal spilling over into repetitive praise for the Turkish leadership.
“Abdullah Gul and Erdogan – they are such impressive people. I last went to Turkey on my honeymoon. In 15 years, they have totally transformed the country!”
“The most interesting thing,” he added later “is how they have controlled the army which ruled Turkey for such a long time. You can of course do that if you have moral authority invested in you by the people.”
We were driving to yet another rally, this one in Abbottabad (Khawaja had briefly triumphed over her male colleagues and managed to insert me in Khan’s Land Cruiser). Khan sat next to the driver; I was placed between the two rivals, Hashmi and Qureshi. As we drove past the villa’s wrought-iron gates, again late for the rally by nearly three hours, Khan said, “Inshallah, we will make history today.” “Inshallah, Inshallah,” Hashmi and Querishi repeated. It wasn’t clear initially what they were referring to, but eventually it transpired that the hilly town of Abbottabad, which had become famous around the world as Osama bin Laden’s last residence, the place where he settled into discreet domesticity with his multiple wives and was killed by American forces, could now re-enter history for hosting a massive P.T.I. rally.
The event also marked a return to the generous media coverage the P.T.I. had enjoyed. Many channels promised to cover the rally live, even though President Zardari was visiting India the same day after a long gap. It explained the buoyant mood in the car, and Khan’s own cheerfulness. The mood was absorbed by the driver, who declined to pay at a tollbooth on the winding road to Abbottabad, gesturing to his V.I.P. passenger. As we moved off, Khan reprimanded the driver, good-humoredly: “Tuu abhii se baadshah ho gayaa hai!” – “You are already behaving like an emperor!”
Khan chortled over the fact that the previous week, President Zardari’s son, Bilawal Bhutto, the 23-year-old chairman of the P.P.P., had apparently made a speech in English to his party members. “The poor guy doesn’t know any Urdu.” Khan took a few swipes at various “Westoxified” Pakistanis sought after by deluded Westerners: the editor Najam Sethi (“State Department’s man”); the journalist Ahmed Rashid (“totally bogus”). He then gossiped with Qureshi and Hashmi about the wealth of various politicians, like the former interior minister, Rehman Malik, a “frontman for Zardari,” who, they said, had a personal fortune of $300 million.
Khan tittered when I told him that many people thought of him as an I.S.I. frontman. “The I.S.I.,” he said, “was unable to muster up an audience for even Pervez Musharraf’s rally when he was in power. They cannot manufacture people’s enthusiasm for change.” As he spoke, three boys at a slow turn in the road ran toward his car, and Khan, gesturing to them, drawled, “You can see the tsunami coming. It cannot be stopped.
“The man who says we are the I.S.I.’s creation,” he added, “is Nawaz Sharif – and he himself was a creation of the I.S.I.!” I felt Hashmi, once Sharif’s close colleague, stiffen by my side.
While Khawaja was busy tweeting on his behalf from another car (“Route to Abbottabad a reminder of the intense beauty of our wonderful country! Green hues of plants, golden wheat, fruit trees – God’s gifts”), Khan continued his jaunty disparagements. “The Americans are making such big mistakes. They should have tried Osama bin Laden like Saddam Hussein was; even the Nazis, who killed millions, received a trial.” He kept returning to Turkey as an instructive lesson for Pakistan. “At least their army actually fought and defeated European armies, and created a nation.” Hashmi made a joke, which I couldn’t really follow, about the Pakistani Army as the “defender of faith.” Both Khan and Qureshi laughed heartily.
As we drew closer to Abbottabad, some text messages on Khan’s Blackberry punctured the cheerful mood. Khan was told that he couldn’t speak before 5 p.m. if he wanted to avoid clashing with Zardari’s photo-op in India. The rally itself, held in a sports stadium, was the usual bedlam, except that this time there was a large gallery filled with women.
I had already read Khan’s speech, peering over his shoulder in the car; it was not much different from what he said in previous rallies. Like many in the audience, I left before 5 p.m., late in Abbottabad’s valley, where darkness sets in early. On the way back to Islamabad, I stopped at a grocery store to buy some water. The owner, watching wrestling on his small television set, was a bit reluctant when I asked him to switch over to Khan’s rally. “Has Imran come?” he asked. “Is he speaking now? People have been waiting since noon.”
I told him the crowd was starting to disperse. “Of course they will,” he retorted. “They have to travel long distances in the hills.” He snorted when I said that the lateness of Khan’s speech was due to the media’s schedule. After some channel-hopping, I caught a brief clip of Khan at the rally repeating his gibe about Bilawal Bhutto’s lack of Urdu. The depleted crowd, it seemed clear, was not going to make history for Imran Khan, or supersede Abbottabad’s reputation as the town where a semiretired terrorist found marital bliss. But he seemed more relaxed than he was in Sialkot and Mianwali. The TV channels had clearly not betrayed him. And for once his groupies, spellbound by the cameramen, had not abandoned Khan onstage.