By Chris Allbritton
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Former cricketer Imran Khan reckons he could end militancy and corruption in 90 days if elected prime minister in a show of confidence which has helped make him Pakistan's most popular politician.
He drew at least 100,000 people to the streets of Karachi on Sunday in a massive rally that increases pressure on the government and cements his standing as the new political force.
After 15 years as an aside to Pakistan politics, he is riding a wave of dissatisfaction with the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, who co-chairs the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and is facing challenges from the military, the Supreme Court and political opponents after a year of cascading crises.
Now Khan, 59, and a lot of other people believe he could be the next prime minister.
"We need a government that changes the system and ends corruption, so we need the PTI to come to power," Khan told the crowd, referring to his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf, or Movement for Justice.
"The first thing we need to do is end corruption. I promise we will end big corruption in 90 days."
Police estimated Sunday's crowd at between 100,000 and 150,000. The PTI put it at more than 500,000 but even at the lower estimate, it is among the largest political rallies held in Karachi in recent years.
A graduate from Oxford and very much a man-about-town in London in the late 1970s, he became one of the world's most admired cricketers. He was captain of Pakistan's team of talented but wayward stars and, with many whispers of autocracy, led them to win cricket's World Cup for the only time in 1992.
He is a conservative Muslim but was married to a British heiress of Jewish descent and then divorced, joined politics and for years been somewhat of a joke in Pakistan's unruly democracy.
But he remains untested. In the last 15 years, his party has only briefly held one seat in parliament -- his. He has had tumultuous relationships with the established political parties as well as the military, the real decision maker in the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people.
PIE IN THE SKY?
He does not openly criticize the military but in a book on Pakistani politics published in September, he walks the line, saying: "Only a credible government can save and strengthen the Pakistan army by making sure it stays within its constitutional role. We have no other choice: in order to survive, we have to make Pakistan a genuine democracy."
Khan also has a touchy relationship with the United States, Pakistan's ally in the war on militancy and its biggest aid donor. He says that if he's elected prime minister, he would end Pakistan's cooperation in the fight against militants based in its Pashtun tribal areas, end the American drone campaign and refuse all U.S. aid, which totals some $20 billion since 2001.
Tension has risen between the civilian leaders and generals over a memo that accused the army of plotting a coup after the U.S. raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May.
It may be all pie in the sky, but Khan is nothing if not charismatic. Still athletic and craggily handsome, he can rarely sit still for long. He fidgets and twists, almost as if he were about to leap to his feet as if back on the cricket pitch.
"For a lot of people who don't have hope in their political system, in a democratic system, he's the one person they seem to have hope in," a senior Western diplomat said recently, who requested anonymity to speak about internal Pakistani politics.
"I think he's an important phenomenon because he articulates the very real frustration of the country at a time when they need articulation."
And articulate he does. In a recent interview, Khan quickly lists Pakistan's serious economic problems: electricity shortages, crumbling railways, a crisis in education, unemployment and the endemic corruption.
"We've hit rock bottom," he said. "It doesn't get worse than this, where to qualify for any position of important public office, you have to have committed a crime."
For Khan, the current government headed by the widower of Khan's old Oxford classmate, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated four years ago after returning from self-imposed exile, is the most corrupt government Pakistan has ever seen.
Transparency International, which listed Pakistan as the 143rd most corrupt country in its 2010 corruption index, might agree.
As such, Khan believes in a fresh start for Pakistan, a country that, like his home above Islamabad, is a jungle ready to be cleared out and made anew. He believes Pakistan should wipe out the past and rebuild from a clean slate.
He is calling not only for a new government, but a new political order, one based on what he says are the real ideals of Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who worked to forge a homeland for South Asia's Muslims before the bloody partition of British-ruled India in 1947, that created India and Pakistan.
Instead of fighting the Taliban militants, Khan said, Pakistan should enter into dialogue with them. He says if he were in power, he could end militancy, also in 90 days.
A senior Taliban commander and spokesman contacted by Reuters laughed off this idea and said they would continue the fight. "He is, in fact, living in a fool's paradise," the commander said.
Khan often veers between shrewd political calculations -- "as a political party, you can't rule out alliances" -- and what seems to be naive idealism.
Apart from the 90-day programs, his plan to raise revenue is to "inspire" people to pay their taxes through his personal example, boosting the country's pitiful tax-to-gross domestic product ratio of about 10 percent, one of the lowest in the world.
Some of the parties he has associated himself with in the past are notably lacking in democratic and liberal bona fides, such as the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami, which has cheered the murder of blasphemers and campaigned against laws that would grant women and religious minorities equal status to Muslims.
But how might Khan do in the election? Many analysts think he could split the right-leaning, nationalist vote now dominated by the former premier Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League and keep Zardari's PPP in power.
"He seems to have inspired more people to join the political process," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "But to date, his political organization has seemed weak and not well managed."
Khan believes his time has come.
"I have this very clear vision, as I say in the book," he said in November. "This has been a 15-year struggle which no one has conducted in Pakistan before. And now I feel I'm closer to my destiny."
But all that's really clear now is that Khan reflects the yearnings of a deeply disillusioned and frustrated country that has seen 64 years of military and civilian governments repeatedly fail it, all in the service of a national ideology -- a home for South Asia's Muslims and a shining beacon of Islamic democracy -- looking for a nation.
(Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)