Opinion polls in Pakistan consistently show that Imran Khan, the former captain of his country’s cricket team, is by far the most popular politician in Pakistan. Frustratingly for Khan and his supporters, it is not popular support that matters in Pakistan’s political system but patronage and feudal power. But even though most political analysts say Khan’s popularity will be almost impossible to turn into real political power, the charismatic leader of a party that currently has no seats in parliament believes his populist message and appeal to middle-class and young voters will help him and his party overcome entrenched voting blocs. He is convinced that he will win a parliamentary majority—and the position of Prime Minister—in next year’s elections.
TIME’s Middle East bureau chief Aryn Baker, who covers both Pakistan and Afghanistan, interviewed Khan for her magazine story on the sporting hero who believes his greatest glories lie ahead of him. TIME spoke with Baker to get the story behind the story.
(TIME COVER STORY: Imran Khan’s Game Plan)
If Imran Khan is, as you say in the article, a “long shot,” what drew you to profiling him?
He is a long shot but he is also pretty compelling–he has international stature as a cricket star and was married to this drop-dead gorgeous socialite. There is that side of him, and then there is that part of why he is a long shot that is so revealing about the way the Pakistani political system works. It is not based on popularity. He would win by a landslide if it were based on his popularity. He is an unmitigated hero because he brought Pakistan the Cricket World Cup in 1992. Politics in Pakistan does not work that way, however; it is much more of a “what can you get for me” culture, what you can do for individuals in each village. He is also one of those people as a journalist you want to talk to because he is so quotable, he is likely to say something off-kilter.
He seems very willing to engage with international media, but what about with the local media, many of whom have derided or openly mocked him?
When I interviewed him the first time, earlier this year, there were journalists lined up behind me and there were three or four photographers trying to take his photo. He likes attention. Even back in 2007 and 2008 when I saw him he had a kind of open house; anyone could go to his office and speak to him. He likes to have his voice heard, he is very active on Twitter, more so than any other Pakistani politician.
However, a lot of the English-language media see him as a kind of dumb jock. He’s similar to Reagan in that way; Reagan was kind of a dumb jock too but he was an effective politician partly because he seems to have known his weaknesses and surrounded himself with competent people. Khan has good technocrats for dealing with the media, his economic policies, his energy policy and so on. He has street smarts, but you cannot be an intellectual and an idealist at the same time.
(VIDEO: 10 Questions for Imran Khan)
How does his international reputation–for example he made the TIME 100 list this year–play out in Pakistan? Does that work in his favor?
I think Pakistanis like that they are getting attention for something other than terrorism and corrupt politics. He doesn’t appeal to the English-speaking class–they are terrified of him and regard him as somewhat of an apologist for the Taliban. The middle-class voters love him however because of his rhetoric about wanting to take America to an international tribune for drone attacks; they want politicians to stand up to the U.S. He is quite popular in the Urdu media, which is more representative of the middle class.
Given his many statements against U.S. drone strikes and his criticism of U.S. policy in Pakistan, what kind of relationship does he envisage he will have with the United States if he did come to power?
I don’t get the sense that he’s really thought that through. He uses very populist sentiments. I was sitting on a conference call with him and a moderator suggested that he sounded anti-American, to which he responded, no, you can’t be anti-geography. He said he is anti-drone-strikes. But he never takes these arguments further; he never takes it a step beyond to address the complexity of what is involved.
He once said to me that he believes Pakistan needs to stop receiving U.S. aid, that it is a crutch. It stood out to me as a clear illustration of the extent to which he does not think things through. There is no way Pakistan could survive at the moment without American aid, but he just thinks it is getting in the way of figuring out how they will stand up on their own.
Have you been to any of his rallies? What is the atmosphere like?
It’s like a pop concert; people are thrilled and energized to be there. A lot of political parties traditionally bus in supporters; they give them a little lunch box, and it’s all part of the political theater. But at Imran Khan’s rallies people seem to show up on their own, they want to be there. These aren’t the people you usually see at rallies—from the countryside—they are well dressed and have come there to have a good time, to talk to people of the same mind-set. There’s a different kind of energy there.
What struck you most about the supporters of his that you met?
I think there is such a hunger in Pakistan for a hero, for a new face. People believe it will bring in a new political system. They have a hunger for change and believe in the idea that change in itself will fix the country. When I asked his supporters about this, asking what they thought of his undeveloped policies, their response was that it didn’t matter, what’s most important is change.
What do you think his chances are in the elections next year?
He is very charismatic—that is something that should be remarked on. He is the only politician in Pakistan who has the ability to engage with voters on a personal level. There are no other politicians there who are able to do that. But the system is stacked against him. There are two or three parties who have entrenched themselves in power. If he does well he could get enough seats to build some momentum, which could eventually bring enough representatives who are then able to put in the elbow grease to deliver at the village level. Once his party has been in parliament in significant numbers for long enough, maybe in a few years, then he can perhaps do well in the next election.