Former President Donald Trump isn’t the ex-world leader who finds himself in legal trouble. In Pakistan, ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing a litany of charges, including sedition and terrorism.
It’s not just the legal challenges that the two men have in common. The similarities between Khan and Trump, at least at the surface level, are so uncanny, it’s almost as if their lives are moving in parallel.
Both men are celebrities turned politicians. They’ve had active romantic lives. Each has been married three times.
Trump and Khan paint themselves as outsiders. They rail against the political establishment and the press, despite being media phenomenons. And they have a penchant for belittling their opponents with derisive nicknames.
Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” and “Sleepy Joe” may be among his most memorable jibes. Khan’s best-known may be “Diesel” — used against a rival accused of getting kickbacks as petroleum minister — and “bhagora” (absconder), for a self-exiled politician convicted of corruption.
The similarities between Trump and Khan don’t stop there. In 2014, Khan led a sit-in based on unproven claims of election fraud that echoed the events of January 6th. And today, both men have one eye on their legal challenges and another on the next elections, looking for a second shot at leading their respective countries.
As Trump dukes it out with other potential 2024 Republican nominees, Khan pushes for fresh elections, confident in his party’s ability to return to power after being ousted last year in a vote of no confidence.
It’s usually here where comparisons of the two leaders end. And that reflects the failure of today’s media coverage, in which world politics is framed through thin analogies based on an American lens.
Since 2016, American and other Western media outlets have been in search of the Trumps of other lands. It makes for good headlines, but flattens the world. In some cases, where there are real linkages in finances, ideas, and networks, the analogy is instructive.
But in the case of Trump and Khan, the comparisons between the two aren’t particularly illuminating. What’s more important is where their stories diverge — because it demonstrates how fundamentally different the political stakes are in Pakistan and the United States, and for the two protagonists.
The most glaring difference between Trump and Khan is this: while Trump claims he’s being targeted by a fictitious deep state here in America, Khan is actually the target of his own country’s very real Deep State.
Khan’s rise to power and downfall were both facilitated by Pakistan’s Deep State. Last year, as Khan’s relations with the powerful army eroded, it helped push forward a successful vote of no confidence against him. And since then, it’s thrown the kitchen sink at him, aiming to prevent his return to power.
The Pakistani intelligence services have tried to foment defections within Khan’s ranks. They command “private” news channels to attack him. Khan’s aides have been kidnapped, tortured, and sexually blackmailed. Audio recordings of a sexual nature purportedly of Khan and a woman have been leaked.
The events of the past year have demonstrated that the Pakistani Deep State has a vast inventory of sexual audio and imagery of prominent people in the country. It also has the capacity to kill.
In October, a journalist close to Khan was killed in Kenya after fleeing Pakistan. In November, Khan was the target of a failed assassination bid.
Today, the investigation into the attempted murder of Khan is not only going nowhere, but a police officer who registered the initial complaint for the case suddenly died of a heart attack. The man’s death could simply be due to natural causes, but others involved in high-profile cases also just happened to die of heart attacks in the past year.
Today, the threats to Khan’s life remain real. Yet he continues to take on Pakistan’s plunderous, murderous rulers. Trump, in contrast, lives in security in a country that enjoys the rule of law.
There are also profound differences between the politics of both men.
While Khan, like Trump, is a relentless pugilist when it comes to his opponents, he keeps his attacks relegated to the political elite — not common people who suffer under their rulers’ corruption and misgovernance. Trump has called Mexicans “rapists” and incited anti-Muslim bigotry. Khan stands above his country’s ethnic and religious divides. In fact, Khan is Pakistan’s most popular politician and leads the only party in the country with national reach.
While branded as a nationalist, Khan is a strident critic of military operations in his country that disproportionately affect ethnic minorities. When it comes to dividing people, Trump has more in common with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has succeeded in unifying the Hindu majority by fostering hatred and resentment of minorities.
Trump promises to “take our country” back from immigrants and “globalists” and Modi speaks of eradicating the vestiges of centuries of “servitude” under Muslims. Just as Trump’s hateful rhetoric has inspired violence, under Modi’s rule, Hindu nationalist militias have escalated attacks on ordinary Muslims and Christians. (Ironically, both Barack Obama and Joe Biden have described the extremist Modi as “a friend.”)
Khan and Trump share a masculine politics. But the ex-cricketer doesn’t fit into a right-wing mold. His policies are focused on human development, creating a “welfare state,” protecting the environment, and upholding the rule of law. At a recent rally in the city of Lahore held after midnight, the ex-prime minister spoke of his plans to expand healthcare access. Khan, however, has contradicted his own pledges by enabling the real estate mafia. Journalists were also targeted during his tenure as prime minister.
While it’s unclear how Khan’s career as a politician will end, his legacy will include his monumental humanitarian work. Khan used his star power as a cricketer to build Pakistan’s first cancer hospital network. Named after his mother who succumbed to the disease, the Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital treats 75 percent of its patients for free — a big deal anywhere, but especially in a poor country like Pakistan where the healthcare system is in shambles.
In contrast, Trump’s philanthropic work has been so meager that he’s been described as possibly “the least charitable billionaire in the United States.”
To understand Pakistan and where it is headed, the public life of the 70-year-old Khan deserves scrutiny and understanding. Khan, it is clear, is no saint. But he’s also not Pakistan’s Trump.