STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Earlier this week, on this program, an analyst compared Egypt to Pakistan. Pakistanis have a democracy in form, but in reality, the military holds great power. And some Pakistanis are asking about the military's role in the rise of a political star. Imran Khan is a former cricket star who once led Pakistan to a World Cup championship. He's been trying for years to break through politically, and now the 58 year old sportsman-turned-politician leads a party and draws huge crowds as he denounces the ruling elites and U.S. policy.
NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Imran Khan rose to prominence 20 years ago, as the rakish star of the country's national passion, cricket. He's now trying to reshape Pakistan's political game, outmaneuvering old-time political pros with his Tareek e Insaf, or Justice Party.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CHEERING CROWD)
MCCARTHY: Khan is outpacing rivals in the size and enthusiasm of his rallies, and Pakistan Gallup says he's the only politician in the country who's actually gaining ground. Khan tells this crowd of more than 100,000 in Lahore, in late October, that they have triggered a political tsunami.
IMRAN KHAN: (Foreign language spoken)
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD RESPONSE)
MCCARTHY: And anyone who dares to stand in its way will be drowned, he thunders, making oblique reference to President Asif Ali Zardari and his chief rival, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif whose party, a day earlier, turned out a fraction of the supporters that Khan amassed in his assembly.
Khan denounces politicians who don't declare their assets and evade taxes. He is merciless with Pakistan's entire political class, bludgeoning it with the issue of corruption.
KHAN: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: Because of corruption there is unemployment, because of corruption there is inflation, because of corruption, Khan says, we are in a state of slavery with the United States. Khan says that the CIA drone missile attacks deployed against militants in Pakistan's tribal areas are actually recruiting extremists. In an interview at his hilltop home in Islamabad, jammed with the cars of politicians beating a path to his door, I asked whether the United States has the right to defend itself against militants who are attacking NATO troops from Pakistani soil.
KHAN: This is not self-defense, this is actually creating more enemies. It is bound to cause collateral damage. It causes massive hatred against the U.S. Hatred is what leads to more and more people joining the militants. So it's completely counterproductive. If the U.S. wanted, really, to protect itself, this is not the way to do it.
MCCARTHY: Khan says the way to do it is to back a credible leadership, which is not perceived to be what he calls a stooge.
KHAN: I repeat the word. The moment you are a stooge, you lose this ability, you lose the credibility to actually mobilize your people to isolate the terrorists.
MCCARTHY: Imran Khan, educated in England and culturally at home in the West, insists that he is not anti-American. He says, if elected...
KHAN: We will be your friends, but not your slaves.
MCCARTHY: Khan projects himself as an agent of change. But some observers fear he may be campaigning with the covert blessing and support of the biggest establishment group there is, Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI. Critics suspect the ISI was quietly promoting Khan ahead of the October rally that is being called a game changer for his campaign. Khan calls the claim of ISI involvement nonsense.
KHAN: You saw passion. A passion, even if ISI wants to help you, it cannot inject passion in the people. How do you inject passion? For five hours people waving flags, undying, I mean, Pakistan has changed.
MCCARTHY: Mushahid Hussain Syed, a veteran politician and friend of Khan's, suspects the military and intelligence have a soft spot for the ex-cricket captain who still bears the physique of a world-class athlete.
MUSHAHID HUSSAIN SYED: They like him. When he comes on the television screen, he looks good, speaks for Pakistan and makes the right noises, the right messages for Pakistan. So maybe there is compatibility and a comfort level.
MCCARTHY: The old political guard is anything but comfortable with Imran Khan's potential to upset the status quo. But critics say some of Khan's political statements sound more like wispy idealism than cold-eyed realism, such as his call for negotiations with Pakistan's militants to avert a further slide into extremism, an approach that many here say betrays a dangerous naiveté. But Mushahid Hussain says Imran Khan has inspired a public, primed to throw out the old and grasp the new.
SYED: His message has resonated with a large chunk of Pakistanis who are tired of politics as usual. In that way, I find Imran very refreshing. It's a plus for Pakistan. It shows that our society, our younger crowd, there's a lot of vigor in them and they have faith in the future of Pakistan.
MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.
INSKEEP: And you hear Julie's coverage of one of the world's most important and troubled nations right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.