Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed a crowd of some 30,000 Pakistani-Americans in Washington, DC, on Sunday, promising that under his administration a “new Pakistan” is “being created in front of your eyes.”
Khan arrived in the United States with several of his top ministers on a trip that included a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday. His Sunday speech at the Capitol One Arena was applauded by Gulf News as “a proud moment for Pakistanis around the world” and a “rock star’s welcome” for the visiting prime minister, who was formerly an international cricket star.
“You’re looking at the largest gathering of Pakistani-Americans in history,” one attendee told Gulf News.
Khan’s speech extolled the virtues of his “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan) campaign platform, which combines promises to combat corruption, streamline government, and reward merit with Pakistani nationalism and Islamic religious themes.
“23 years ago, I came into politics. I said one thing and on that same note, I’ll end my address. I said that I have never bowed my head in front of anyone to date except for Allah. I will, inshallah, never let my nation bow its head in front of anyone,” he said at the conclusion of his speech. “Inshallah” means “as Allah wills.”
Khan was eager to stress the differences between his platform and previous Pakistani administrations, which tended to have short, disappointing lifespans and abrupt conclusions. The modern state of Pakistan has had 18 prime ministers over the past seven decades, and none of them has ever completed their last elected or appointed term in office.
At one point, Khan cracked a little joke about his predecessors by saying the traditional government answer to citizens who ask tough questions has been “Kyun nikala.” This was former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s campaign slogan in 2017 after he was removed from office during the Panama Papers corruption scandal, roughly translating to “Why was I kicked out?”
Sharif meant to imply he was ousted through skulduggery in a soft coup, while Khan used the phrase mockingly to suggest many Pakistan officials have been clueless, corrupt, and unresponsive to the people.
“Today, what you see happening in Pakistan is what Naya Pakistan was about: these people had never been asked for answers before,” he said.
Khan expressed admiration for America’s system of meritocracy, faulting previous Pakistani governments for imposing a “type of monarchy” through political dynasties that prevented the best and most honest people from rising to the top of public service, along with socialist policies that caused the economy to become stagnant.
“A society that doesn’t have merit doesn’t go forward,” he said. “Democracy is successful when the leadership is answerable.”
Khan insisted his anti-corruption crusade is not a political vendetta and stressed that the high-profile cases currently making their way through Pakistani courtrooms predate his administration. He said his goal was to restore the more honest and efficient government bureaucracy that was the envy of the region in his youth.
Khan promised to recover funds that were misspent or stolen by the previous administration, going so far as to pledge he would remove the air conditioners and televisions from the prison cells of Sharif and other corruption prisoners to help repay the public debt. Sharif was sentenced to seven years in prison for corruption in late 2018.
“It is very easy to be released from jail,” he said. “Return the money and we will release you from jail.”
The prime minister said his PTI party is “the first party where no relative or friend of Imran Khan is in any post.” He said his party is interested in developing new leaders, not serving the interests of powerful families.
“Our country will rise before you. You will see we will fix the system and let the lower segment come up,” he said.
Khan promised his Pakistani-American audience that he would “not let you be embarrassed in front of Donald Trump.” The two leaders met on Monday after months of jousting on social media over Trump’s accusations that Pakistan has not done enough to combat terrorism, although the American president expressed satisfaction last week after Pakistan arrested Hafiz Saeed, the accused mastermind of the horrific 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai.
Trump said before the meeting that he was particularly eager to secure Khan’s assistance in Afghanistan.
“I have plans on Afghanistan. If I wanted to win, it would be wiped off the face of the earth. I don’t want to do that,” Trump said on Monday, suggesting Khan could use Pakistan’s leverage to arrange a better outcome.
“There is no military solution in Afghanistan. If you go all-out military, millions and millions of people will die,” Khan agreed after meeting with Trump.
Trump made a reciprocal offer to help mediate Pakistan’s dispute with India over the Kashmir region, a role he said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked him to assume.
“If I can help in the Kashmir issue, I will help. If I could mediate in the Kashmir issue, I would love to help,” Trump told Khan during their meeting, adding that he would “love to go to Pakistan if invited.”
“Yes, it would be in the benefit of billions of people if you do so to solve the long dispute between the two countries,” Khan replied.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs immediately pumped the brakes on this apparent diplomatic breakthrough, insisting that Prime Minister Modi has not asked Trump to mediate on Kashmir and that only bilateral talks with Pakistan are acceptable, assuming Pakistan promises “an end to cross-border terrorism.”
The White House statement on Trump’s meeting with Khan did not mention Kashmir or India but instead applauded Pakistan for taking “initial steps” to “improve regional security and counterterrorism” and stressed the “strong economic relationship” between Pakistan and the United States.
“President Trump wants to build stronger economic and trade ties with Pakistan, which would benefit both of our countries, as we make progress on core United States security concerns,” the White House said.