Imran Khan has been accused of bowing to religious extremists in Pakistan. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi
Imran Khan could well return to power in Pakistan, and the US must be prepared to deal with him. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

Akbar S Babar is a founding member of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf who devoted many years to making Imran Khan and PTI political brands. This correspondent had the opportunity to talk to Babar in detail, and below are a few experts from the interview.

Imad Zafar: Many believe that you lodged the foreign-funding case against your party in desperation.

Akbar S Babar: When the party was peaking our differences also started peaking. The public gathering of PTI held on October 30, 2011, was massive, where people from every segment of life participated. If I had any political motive I would have stood with Imran Khan and would have got anything I wanted.

I still have the SMS message of Khan with me which he sent to me when our differences started and he wrote, “Akbar, you were the No 2 at the party.” I could have got whatever I wanted at that time, had I compromised on integrity and the party’s basic ideology of corruption-free society. So it’s not true that I have any personal enmity or was looking for designations.

I am still a member of the party, and the Election Commission of Pakistan and the courts have validated my membership.

I always had differences of opinion with Khan. For instance when General Pervez Musharraf imposed martial law and wanted legitimacy through a public referendum in 2002, Khan voted in his favor, while I was of the view that this was only a farce and Musharraf after getting legitimacy would not fulfill any of his promises. Time proved that I was right.

I helped PTI and Khan turn into brands. The words you heard from Khan’s mouth from the late ’90s till 2011 were mine [and those of] Hafeez Ullah Niazi and other committed members of the PTI. I told him once in a meeting at a restaurant in Islamabad that he is not fit for politics because of his attitude so he should have a council of three to four people and act on their advice. In fact, Khan himself told me that he is not detail-oriented and for almost 10 years he did what I and a few others told him.

So it was never about personal grudges or any other political incentive. We created a party and delivered a message that attracted the youth and educated segment of society. It was and it still is about preserving the genuine ideology of PTI for which I have spent decades of my life.

IZ: Imran Khan always says that he was offered the post of prime minister by General Musharraf but he refused as he told Musharraf that he could not sit with corrupt politicians.

ASB: No, it is not true. Imran was under the impression that he would be made prime minister by General Musharraf. Khan met with a few bigwigs of the establishment where he was told that a national alliance of political parties like Pakistan Muslim Quaid-e-Azam, Millat Party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek and other small parties would be given a majority in the National Assembly and someone experienced from one of these parties would be nominated as a prime minister.

He was promised a few seats in the National Assembly for the PTI. After the meeting, a story appeared in a newspaper in England that Khan was offered [the post] of prime minister by Musharraf, and Khan never denied that. In fact, he cashed in on the story by saying repeatedly that he was offered the premiership by Musharraf but he refused by saying that he cannot sit with PML-Q as he thinks of them as the icons of corruption.

Whereas not only [has Musharraf denied] giving any offer to Khan but also Khan is sitting with the same PML-Q whom he criticized for corruption. So it is not true, had Khan been given an offer to become prime minister he would have accepted without giving it a thought.

IZ: The rise of PTI in politics especially famous for the public gathering in Lahore in 2011, but many allege that the establishment was behind that rise. What is your take on this?

ASB: No, it’s not true, there was hard work and the effort of a decade behind the popularity of PTI. If you recall, the public gathering in Lahore, it happened for the first time that even those who never voted before and were not interested in politics came to attend that public gathering.

I told Khan, look, we have a tidal wave in our favor, we can win the province of KP [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] in the 2013 elections and from our performance, we can impress the entire country, and if we perform well after winning in KP nobody can stop us from sweeping the elections from the entire country next time.

I and a few other old members of PTI had the plan to launch Khan as the chief minister of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa so he could learn about governance, and after creating an exemplary model of governance we could win the other provinces.

IZ: So you were the person who branded Khan as a rebellious person but Khan took a U-turn. What exactly went wrong?

ASB: See, I told you Khan never had and still has no interest in going into details. A man who is not detailed-oriented is bound to fail in politics, especially when he is not surrounded by a competent team. The senior members like me and Hafeez Ullah Niazi advised him on all matters.

To his credit, he listened to us during all that time. For instance, after the 2002 elections the establishment needed every single vote in the National Assembly to make Zafarullah Khan Jamali the prime minister as the majority was very thick, whereas Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman was the candidate of the opposition for the premiership in the NA.

I advised him to vote for Fazal, and he eventually voted for Fazal. After that not only [did Fazal pay] a personal visit to his residence thanking him for his vote but also KP province was impressed and the tags on Khan of being an agent of Zionists and not familiar with religion and disliking religious figures were removed.

He became acceptable to the right-wing and pro-religious vote bank, whereas he already had an appeal in the educated segment. However, he had no clue about politics and never had any sense regarding what should be said and done at the right moment. He disliked being criticized and opposed and encouraged those people who misled him by praising him and bashing his opponents.

IZ: When did the rift start between you and Khan, and why did you go to court instead of solving the matter of foreign funding and undisclosed accounts within the party?

ASB: When we finally got popular in 2010 and 2011 and were able to attract masses towards our party, I told Imran that we can at least win KP in the general elections of 2013 but we don’t have a competent team to run the government. The diehard leaders are good for slogans but they are not capable of running a government, so we should dissolve our KP chapter and make a temporary organizing body there.

When we dissolved the KP chapter, party members like Asad Qaiser, who is the Speaker of the National Assembly these days, Shah Farman, governor of KP, and many others felt insecure and thought that their political careers would be over. So they started conspiring against me.

Then I came to know that the PTI central office in Islamabad was used for property ventures and senior leaders including Arif Alvi were involved in property ventures.

I called Alvi and asked what is going on, is this a political party office or a property brokerage house? Alvi started giving excuses and told me that he did the wrong thing and bought a plot and now I should help him to sell his plot.

The same was the answer from people like Umer Cheema, Asad Qasiser, and many [others]. I raised the issue with Arif Alvi, whereas Khan always told me about the corrupt people that [either] they would be reformed or would be released from the party. It never happened.

Then I came to know about the embezzlement [of] party funds. And finally when I demanded an inquiry commission headed by [now retired] Justice Wajihuddin [Ahmed] to probe the embezzlement in the party accounts and money-laundering through the party international accounts, the rift between Khan and me worsened.

IZ: The foreign funding case has been pending in the courts since 2014. What are the reasons for delays and are you still hopeful of getting a verdict in your favor?

ASB: Look, when I demanded an inquiry of the party accounts, Imran Khan sent his brother-in-law Abdul Ahad to me and he said on Khan’s behalf, let’s do an internal party inquiry. The auditor was never given a free hand to audit the report and this validated my stance on corruption in party funds. The report is part of the judicial record.

I also submitted two accounts of PTI in the US, two in England and one in Australia. These accounts were undisclosed to the ECP [Election Commission of Pakistan]; 23 accounts were discovered by the State Bank of Pakistan on the order of the ECP and 18 of these accounts were not disclosed to the ECP. [On] more than 30 occasions PTI sought to delay the case, challenged my membership, and then also went to court to change the auditor of the investigation committee.

All in all, it has been PTI delaying tactics, and our weak judicial system that needs reforms – both are responsible for the delay in the verdict.

As far as the decisions of the foreign-funding cases are concerned, if I am not given justice by the Election Commission of Pakistan, I will knock on the doors of higher courts. I will not lose hope until I get justice. I am fighting for a cause and [as long as] I am alive I will continue to plead for justice.

IZ: You have spent many years in PTI and made it a popular political party. Can you tell us who brought the culture of hatred politics and bashing the opponents in the ranks of PTI? And what made Khan use abusive language against his opponents and the dissenting section of the press?

ASB: Khan has the habit of getting personal with his critics. I remember he used to ask me to abuse the journalists writing against him. I told him on many occasions, look, we cannot become big in stature by bashing dissenting journalists or political opponents. It is our work that will speak for ourselves and will eventually prove our critics wrong.

Had I been in the party I would never have allowed the [politics of hatred] to grow and would have fired every single individual who was involved in bashing the political opponents and abusing the critics and journalists.

I came to know about a cell operating in the party central office working on profiling dissenting journalists, judges, and political opponents. Lists were prepared of these people and their personal lives were investigated by that cell.

I wrote to Imran, what is going on? How can we investigate personal lives of people? It’s illegal and it can be used for blackmailing. But he never tried to stop that cell. So I guess this culture of hatred and bashing opponents came from the top leadership.

IZ: What is the future of PTI in your view, especially if the establishment ditches it at some point? And what if you win the foreign-funding case, would you be able to steer the party out of the existential crisis?

ASB: Unlike the king parties of the past like PML-Q, the PTI was launched with a mission and vision. We dedicated our lives to spread the message of bringing justice, ending nepotism, and reforming the political parties and country. You tell me honestly if our message was wrong?

No one can differ with our message because it was based on truth and was drafted by many committed and selfless people. Generations have grown up reading and viewing our message, and this message cannot be erased so easily. So my fight will continue to bring back the PTI to its original vision and ideology, and in the process, even if I have to fight for a longer period, I will.  

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.