A ONE-ON-ONE SESSION WITH PM IMRAN KHAN
Fully Energized & Recharged, an Angry But Determined Khan Looks Menacing, for Media, Opponents
AFTER THREE DAYS of intense, highly focused and demanding diplomatic and political activity in Washington, I did not expect Imran Khan to be so fresh and ready, to re-launch himself with full might and vigour against all those who challenge him.
Luckily I was the last person to sit down with him for close to an hour, before he would drive away in his US security protocol to the Dulles International Airport.
We have been meeting face to face in the past and he knew these interactions are always a free- for-all and an open discussion. So he called me up in the master bedroom of the Pakistan Ambassador as his group of ministers, officials and diplomats waited and chatted downstairs in the main lobby and lounge.
Sitting at the dining table, yes a dining table in the bedroom, without preliminaries we took off, but not before he waved at the room and said: “Look this is even better than a 7-star hotel. I will always want to stay here whenever I visit DC.” “Yes Mr PM, we have been here many times when we had Maleeha Lodhi, Hussain Haqqani and Sherry Rehman as ambassadors. This is a great property,” I said. Even Hussain Haqqani, he asked, with a questioning expression. Yes.
Immediately the subject jumped to the media. “What should I do with this media, they are relentless though I try to accommodate all. But a few are obnoxious.”
I knew what he was talking about. “Mr PM you have to handle this subject very carefully as anything that looks rough or tough will be immediately converted into a Freedom of the Press issue.”
“Yes that’s true but when there is accountability of every one, why should the media stay as a sacred cow.”
He was right and I thought only he could do it as no illegitimate or a democratic, but corrupt, government could ever find the courage to go after these media barons.
I told him I had started writing about media accountability as far back as the 90s and one of my articles in Dawn, published on Dec 28, 1990, was selected and reproduced by the legend, late Zamir Niazi in his 2nd book “The Press Under Siege” in January 1992. (I will put out a scanned copy on Twitter shortly for ready reference).
Then we went into a long discussion of what was being done and what would be counter-productive. But the PM was assertive that the media has to face accountability and the areas he may likely focus would be the issues the politicians and others are facing, like “assets beyond means”, taxation, paid or unpaid wages and stay orders by the courts.
I, being an insider for long years, gave him examples of how some media houses had expanded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, from one building on the block to groups of blocks on extremely expensive commercial streets, just like what Asif Ali Zardari had done around his Clifton, Karachi Bilawal House, using his clout and power, legally and illegally, to push away home owners and buying their property cheaply.
There were scores of stories of how corrupt governments had offered prime properties in Islamabad and other big cities to media owners, big or small, just to appease them and bribe them to protect their interests.
Khan listened with a glow in his eyes and grit in his body language. Many names came up but they better not be named. The take-away on this subject was that it was now time that this sacred cow be brought for a check up to the slaughter house and be treated: the healthy ones be allowed to moo and the sick ones let alone to coo.
The issue that was likely to come up was who should carry out this accountability. Pemra is one tool but it needs to be reinforced with credibility and professional strength. Media’s own bodies are too weak and fragile but could be given strength. A mix of carrot and stick would definitely be needed. Responsibility will have to be shown and those who refuse will have to face the music.
For me all this was music as I had been clamouring for years that someone must take this bull by the horn and now a rejuvenated matador de toros, Mr Khan looked like that maestro.
A knock at the door briefly interrupted us when officials asked the PM to come down for dinner as his cabinet ministers and diplomats (Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Ali Haider Zaidi, Razzak Dawood, Hafeez Shaikh, ambassadors Asad Khan and Ali J Siddiqui and many more) were waiting and just about 20 minutes were left for the PM to depart for the airport. Mr Khan was not interested in any break. He waved them off saying I will only take a cup of yoghurt lying on the table and started taking sips.
Discussion moved on to his US trip and he was almost ecstatic. He had achieved in three days what others could not do in weeks. He was right as in his packed schedule he addressed a terrific public meeting, spoke at a think tank, talked to dozens of congress people, had 3 hours at the White House, Oval Office and inside, with Melania, and every where the performance was outstanding. It is rare for a US President to have a full press conference at the Oval Office when he meets a foreign head of state. A couple of questions from either side are allowed and the event is wrapped up. But Mr Trump was in a generous mood.
The Kashmir comment by Trump was the icing on the cake as no one expected such a remarkable breaking news that would blow the Indian narrative away and reinforce the Pakistan point of view at such a summit. Pakistani diplomats had been laboring for years for anyone to listen to their mantra and no one did but this music came from the President of the US.
Imran Khan had all the reasons to be euphoric and this additional dose of adrenalin was showing in his approach to all the matters, domestic and international.
He was confident that he would bring around the Taliban and other parties to the table for the Afghan peace dialogue, the comments on trade between Pakistan and US meant difficult times would soon be over and ties between the military leaderships of the two countries would get back to the days when they were buddies. Thus some dollars would also flow, and soon.
Having almost surmounted these State issues, his attention was now focused on what he will do with the shouting and crying opposition leaders who had been caught with their hands and heads in the cookie jar.
“I will not let them go,” he repeated many times. “They have made a mockery of the law and the system and it is time the screw is tightened,” he would moan and murmur, as if all the hurdles had been blown away and now he could take on these characters who he repeatedly said had destroyed the country that could have been a jewel.
When I brought up some perceptions about accountability not being across-the-board, PM Khan had mood swings as if he was fighting inside with what he wanted to do and what he was not being allowed to do, by courts, institutions and others.
The NAB he thinks is almost independent, too independent, he mentioned at one time, but he did not want to check this as he wanted institutions to stand on their own feet and deliver justice in a transparent, credible manner, without fear or favour. “That is why we tolerated the Aleem Khan episode,” he mentioned without going into details.
When I said the accountability of Asif Ali Zardari appeared to be a little softer than the Nawaz family, Imran Khan did not dismiss the observation out rightly but strongly indicated that things will have to move within the system and they will keep on moving. There will be no brakes.
It was quite understandable that given the numbers in the parliament and the grim economic situation that he has to tackle, he cannot upset the political applecart in a manner that the democratic system spins out of control or faces a gridlock.
But in his one year rule, the decisions and some compromises that he had to make to keep the economy and the country afloat, had taken a toll and he was now a much wiser and a lot more experienced chief executive than the time he had taken over, with happy dreams and overblown expectations.
He is, however, quite satisfied that the extremely difficult situation for the common man, high inflation and almost out of control and negative onslaughts of the Opposition against his new government had not been able to make any permanent dent to his popularity or image. “We have now got our feet on the ground and got a handle on the economy. But we have told the truth all the time and people understand. Now the fruits are about to come,” he strongly believes.
When I mentioned the Reko Diq fiasco he believes it was caused by corruption at the early stages but he also knows that the decision by the international court has opened up a great opportunity for Pakistan to use this huge natural resource.
Since I had originally started writing and highlighting the Reko Diq case before the Supreme Court had taken it up, my sources are still in tact and they agree that a new opportunity has come Pakistan’s way.
In fact when I told Khan that some investors were ready to come to Pakistan for Reko Diq with an unusual offer: That they will buy the first 10 per cent of the gold and copper in advance, and start paying annually hundreds of millions of dollars as soon as the contract is awarded, he was extremely excited, almost flabbergasted, with his eyes wide open.
“Give me the names and contact numbers of these investors and I will invite them to Pakistan right away,” was his instant response. That was a genuine response but he was also informed that Pakistan now needed to go very carefully on these issues, hire internationally known experts who could assess and evaluate the entire case, take the right steps slowly and move with caution. He agreed but this is one area he would like to move as fast as he could.
On other sensitive matters like his relations with the Establishment and changes that are now coming up in the military and other security institutions, Imran Khan was quite open and very confident that these issues were not, at all, bothering him and his ties were as good now as they never were between any political government and the Establishment.
The hints that I got from his very guarded words and observations were that relations were now based on much more stable footing and he was looking forward to a period of continued, exemplary, working relationship at all levels. I cannot use better or more explicit diplomatic words on this subject.
Finally when we were into the final minutes as staffers had started knocking again to request the PM to come down as apparently his entourage and all the ministers and cronies had started cursing me for taking up all his time, Khan shook hands very tightly and then gave me a surprise gift. He went over to his desk, picked up a pen and wrote his new private, personal phone number asking me to remain in contact and meet him again when I return to Pakistan. Sure I will.