Dr Moeed Pirzada

Imran Khan - surrounded by busts of Roy Jenkins, Edward Heath and William Ewart Gladstone and acutely reminded by his hosts that Benazir Bhutto had been a president of the union in 1976 – presented his vision for a new democratic Pakistan to a cheering enthusiastic assembly of Pakistani students and professionals. With Jemima and his sons – Suleman and Qasim – watching, he argued that many challenges facing Pakistan can be resolved by sincerity of purpose, but by a genuine leadership.

Imran was a keynote speaker invited by Oxford University Pakistan Society (OUPS) for its Pakistan Future Leaders Conference, (PFLC), 2013. OUPS, founded in early 1950s, is one of the most established institutions of Pakistani students and professionals in Britain. Society keeps on organising academic and cultural events to provide a platform to think, reflect and offer ideas debate for a progressive Pakistan. Leaders Conference has been an initiative by the OUPS for the past three years, and is gaining more strength by the annum. Every year, there is a new media partner and this time around, OUPS invited Waqt News to cover its events and to organise a debate on Sunday, at Oxford Debating Chambers, with leader of PPP and constitutional expert, Aitzaz Ahsan.

Oxford Debating Chambers is a new addition to the Oxford Union buildings in 1910. The original buildings were designed in 1879, by Alfred Waterhouse, known for his strong imprints on Victorian Gothic revival architecture and his work on Natural History Museum. It was in the original Union Building, where before his address at the debating chamber, Imran Khan, flanked by Rinchan Mirza and Adnan Rafiq, current and past presidents of the OUPS, affirmed his support to the Pakistan Knowledge Initiative, a campaign launched by Pakistani students, professionals and expat businesses to raise funds and establish reservoirs of education and skills for Pakistani institutions like NUML.

On Saturday tiny white snowflakes drizzling from the skies, kept on adding to the near freezing scales in the university town of Oxford. Most people who wore thermals, to protect themselves from the biting cold were intrigued and somewhat amused at Imran Khan, aged 60, wearing an open shirt with his usual blue blazer. Many wondered: Is this a statement or an act of confidence and self-belief? He was introduced to the podium by Maria Rioumine, the current president of the Oxford Union, who reminded him that Benazir Bhutto had been a president of the Oxford Debating Society and later towards the end of the session presented Imran with an old historic photo of the Oxford Union, mentioning that this is how debating chambers appeared in the days of Benazir Bhutto. Was that repeated mention of Bhutto intentional or was reminiscent of the simple fact that Benazir looms large in the western minds as an icon of Pakistan?

In his key note address, Imran focused on qualities of leadership and to his old, often-repeated mantras of tsunamis, he added a new twist: that he actually saw a ‘vision’ flashing in front of his eyes, of PTI victory in the forthcoming elections.

Taking cues from this rather bold assertion, a student later questioned him: has he selected his ‘sherwani’ for his inauguration ceremony as prime minister? This was the infamous slippery path on which prominent journalist, Sohail Warraich, took down Ahmed Mukhtar, after the 2008 elections. And a naive Mukhtar fell in the seductive trap selecting the colours of his suits for the inauguration day that never happened because the kingmaker’s sword landed on the shoulders of Yousaf Raza Gillani. Imran was wise. He smiled and said: “next question”. Questions came like rain drops; why he has become silent on Altaf Hussain? How come old and tried faces like Mehmood Kasuri have become part of his bandwagon of change? Should students return to Pakistan to serve or become part of the global economy? What is his position on blasphemy laws and how to protect minorities? And why to have, these divisive, intra-party elections in PTI before the general elections?

Regarding Altaf Hussain, Imran said that he was forced to take his position against Altaf in 2007 because some PTI workers died in Karachi and MQM was responsible; but he does not believe in opening too many fronts; his main focus is on Nawaz and Zardari who control the real levers of power and prevent all change. He argued that Blasphemy laws were created by British to prevent conflicts between different religious groups and like all laws in Pakistan are being misused. He thought that students at Oxford are a privileged group; they ought to return to Pakistan to help develop the country that needs them. Why intra-party elections? He asserted that this is precisely what is needed to make a difference in Pakistani politics, by 23rd March thousands of elected PTI office holders will assemble at Minar-e-Pakistan with 20% of them women. According to him, these genuinely elected leaders will bring a new spirit and belief that will contrast with the old fashioned ‘nominees’ of Nawaz and Zardari. He then quipped – to a roaring applause - that his politics is not that of “Family Private Limited” of Nawaz and Zardari who have launched Maryam and Bilawal; his sons – Suleman and Qasim – will not inherit his mantle at PTI, and that is the difference.

Did students and professionals at Oxford really believed him?; Imran Khan left Oxford for a fund raiser in London, but discussions kept on happening amongst the students and professionals; most were impressed by his ideas and his sincerity but were less sure of the promised tsunamis. Their minds, like most pundits in Pakistan, were focused on the complex maize of constituency politics in Pakistan. They are now waiting for Aitzaz Ahsan to take the centre stage; mood is to grill the PPP leader and constitutional expert on his dive back from being the leader of lawyers’ movement and ‘change’ to the lawyer of president Zardari and defender of the status quo. Waqt News plans to record a debate between Aitzaz and the students, and if prevailing mood in Oxford – and students from Cambridge, Leeds and SOAS and many other British institutions that have assembled here - is any indication, his interaction with the students might be tougher than what he may remember from his last presentations here.

–(Moeed Pirzada is covering the Pakistan Future Leaders Conference, 2013 at Oxford University for Waqt News and The Nation)