x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Imran Kahn: the Lion of Lahore

Imran Khan, the charismatic cricketer who led Pakistan to victory in the 1992 World Cup, plans to take the helm of his troubled nation next time it goes to the polls.

UAE - Dubai - Nov 11 - 2010: Imran Khan pose for aportrait at Celebration of Entrepreneurship conference at Madinat Jumeriah conference centre. ( Jaime Puebla - The National Newspaper )
UAE - Dubai - Nov 11 - 2010: Imran Khan pose for aportrait at Celebration of Entrepreneurship conference at Madinat Jumeriah conference centre. ( Jaime Puebla - The National Newspaper )

The Lion of Lahore was in roaring form. If the word charismatic did not already exist they would have to invent it for Imran Khan. As he strides athletically into a room there's a ripple of excitement from men and women alike.

He's 59 now but still has that indefinable aura of the leader that took the Pakistan cricket team to World Cup victory in 1992 and who firmly believes he can take the helm of his nation next time it goes to the polls. A little more lined perhaps, but still the strikingly handsome figure that left a trail of broken hearts behind him as he cut a swathe through jet-set society in the 1980s.

Now the leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, he is poised to challenge what he sees as the most corrupt government his country has ever had. And hearing him speak at the Celebration of Entrepreneurs conference in Dubai on Tuesday it was clear he has lost none of his power to sway an audience.

It was standing room only for his talk about how he raised more than $22 million (Dh81 million) to build the state-of-the-art Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital in Lahore in memory of his late mother.

Afterwards, he reflected quietly on the tragic circumstances that led to him becoming his country's most successful fundraiser. The untimely death of his mother from colon cancer is clearly still painful for him, but knowing that the lives of millions of poor Pakistanis have been prolonged by way of the cancer treatments now available is some comfort.

"Colon cancer, like breast cancer, is quite treatable but it has to be caught early. For one year my mother was complaining that there were no laboratories and the hospitals weren't there. She was seeking advice but they kept saying it was everything but cancer. At her age they should have checked for colon cancer.

"We found out it had spread, so I took her to England for treatment but unfortunately it was too late so she died a very painful death. We brought her back but it had spread to her liver," he said, pausing to compose himself as his eyes involuntarily fill with tears.

The "sheer hell" that he and his family went through during the agonising years of his mother's illness made him wonder about how ordinary people coped with the disease. If a family like his, with all their advantages, suffered the way they did how much worse must it be for the poor?

Waiting at a hospital to see a specialist who might be able to help his mother, Khan was moved by the despair on the face of an elderly man unable to afford the medicine he needed.

"I saw this old man come in with a piece of paper asking the assistant if he had bought all the medicine. He was told that he still needed something else, so he turned round and I looked at his face and there was just total dejection and hopelessness as he said, 'How much does that cost' and just went out. I went after him and asked his friend who told me the man's brother had lung cancer so all day he labours and in the evening he goes and tends to his brother."

Khan discovered he had an innate ability to raise money, which he used again to build a university, Namal College, in the beautiful countryside of Mianwali, and again when devastation hit Pakistan this summer in the form of the worst floods ever experienced.

He travelled the world on his fundraising mission for the hospital. "Wherever there were Pakistanis living I would be there with my begging bowl and people responded."

Last year, he had reason to be thankful for his own efforts when he had his own scare after scar tissue from his appendix operation became twisted and gangrenous.

"When it is twisted, the blood supply is cut off so you can actually die in 48 hours. It's a freak thing that happens but fortunately I was very near the hospital and got there in time and had major surgery. I have to say I thanked God for the hospital because I would not have trusted any other hospital."

About 100 people visit the cancer hospital every day seeking treatment and the facility can handle only a small percentage of that. "The hospital is completely chocker-block so we have to send people away. Cancer is a very specialised and expensive treatment but once we admit a patient everything is free. We even put up the relatives free so a poor man has nothing to worry about once he comes in.

Raising the money to keep the hospital going is a formidable task in itself and it will treble when two new hospitals are built in Karachi and Peshawar. Khan believes that people donate because they trust him. It was the same when he appealed for money to help flood victims.

"When the government launched its appeal, no one backed it. When I launched my appeal, I got two billion rupees in about three weeks. Everyone ran around trying to do something and there was a lot of duplication going on and a lot of areas no one could get to," he said.

Khan himself loaded up a lorry with tents, blankets and food and led a convoy to the worst-hit areas, but he believes the extent of the devastation to the 22 million displaced people will become even more apparent over the next months

"There is rising crime because these are impoverished people who have lost everything. Your animals are gone and you have nothing."

He believes the solution to Pakistan's problems must come from the people themselves because of widespread lack of trust in the government. "I always thought that eventually it's the people of Pakistan who will have to do something rather than relying on the world. Pakistan has such bad press and we have the most incompetent and corrupt government in our history so it's not surprising that people don't trust it."

He says the majority of people are sickened by politicians who seek government positions for the power and financial opportunities they wield, and the country is ripe for change.

"Let me just make a prediction here. Nothing can stop my party from coming into power. The next elections, it won't just win the elections, it will sweep the elections. There are two types of politics, one is power politics and one is the politics of revolution where you attack the status quo. That's a much longer route. Power politics are simple. I always had that door open to me to come into power - way back 20 years ago General Zia offered me a ministership. But to change the status quo means revolution. You are fighting the powerful mafias and it was always going to be a difficult route. It has taken me 14 years but I reckon that my party's poised. It has the core team now that will enforce this change."

The fact that so many prominent politicians, including the late Benazir Bhutto, have been assassinated does not deter him. His faith is strong and as he says, "You've got to go sometime".

"You might as well go for something you believe in."

"My party insisted on me having a guard but it's not going to do anything. Benazir had a lot of guards. I have no fears, I don't fear failure, I don't fear loss of livelihood and I certainly don't fear death. We think we are in control of our life, we are not really. I have a strong faith and when your time comes it's in the hand of God and I have complete faith in God. What is the risk? If I succeed I might change my country, might make it into a just, humane society," he said.

Not being involved is not an option, although it would be an easier life, he concedes and he is prepared to take the criticism meted out to him by sometimes unfriendly political commentators.

He tells the story about how he was bowled for a duck on one of his first outings in front of his home city of Lahore. The walk back to the pavilion was not pleasant.

"I went out as the Lion of Lahore with everyone shouting nice things about me. Two minutes later, I was walking in and the language used about me was unrepeatable. It taught me not to worry about public opinion because it changes, it's fickle. One minute I was a hero and the next I was Imran Can't."

He sees the construction and successful running of the hospital as a step towards laying the foundations of a new style of corruption-free government. "If you look at most hospitals in Pakistan they are rife with corruption. I challenge everyone to see our hospital. It's the best run, the cleanest and there is no corruption in our hospital. That's why it is supported by the people of Pakistan. Every year people give more money because they know it's not corrupt. A country is made up of a series of institutions like our hospital."

Khan, who is divorced from his wife Jemima, now lives alone on a farm outside Islamabad, which his two sons Sulaiman, 14 and Kasim, 11, currently at boarding school in the UK, visit during the holidays. He believes he has finally shaken off his old playboy image, something that he always thought was misplaced.

"Well I'm so old now that it automatically shakes off when you get that old. Playboy means someone who has no passion in his life, someone whose life is all about women. I was never like that. All my life I was passionate about sport, whatever I've done I was passionate about. I cannot imagine an existence without a passion."

His passion now is his country and becoming its next leader. He hopes there will be elections in about six months time and says his party is ready for them. "My priority would be rule of law, creating a meritocracy and having economic justice by having a policy where the rich subsidise the poor rather than the poor subsidising the rich as happens now. And getting out of this war on terror.

"People don't vote for you because you're a cricket star. They vote for you because they think that by voting for you it will change their lives for the better. I think the most important thing that matters to people is credibility. They want someone they can trust because all the others have been discredited."